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Wispy designs from Microsoft partners breeze past Apple

Thin and light laptop and hybrid designs from PC makers are passing Apple on key features. Will PC makers forge ahead in 2014?

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read
HP Spectre 13 has a Retina-class touch screen.
HP Spectre 13 has a Retina-class touch screen. Hewlett-Packard

commentary Psst...Microsoft laptop partners are ahead of Apple on critical design metrics like weight.

So, how will that play out in 2014? A snapshot of today's lightest, edgiest designs should give us an idea (I'll put aside a discussion of competing operating systems and pricing for this post).

Weight: Like tablets, generally the thinner and lighter the laptop, the better. That's what the popular MacBook Air is all about and the reason the ultrabook was developed -- Wintel's (Microsoft-Intel's) response to the Air.

Enter the carbon fiber-based Sony Vaio Pro 11 and 13, which CNET reviewers, accordingly, gave (both) 4 stars.

"The carbon-fiber-constructed Pro 13 weighs only 2.34 pounds; it's 2.9 pounds with its power supply, which is as much as the 13-inch MacBook Air weighs on its own," CNET said.

In short, Sony's 13-inch Vaio weighs about as much as Apple's 11.6-inch MacBook Air. The Vaio Pro 11 even less at 1.92 pounds.

Then there's Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon touch screen, which weighs in at a mere 3.3 pounds, easily one of the lightest 14-inch touch-screen Windows laptops out there.

What does the future hold? Rumor has it that Lenovo is working on an even thinner, lighter carbon laptop with a 3,200x1,800 display.

Sony won't be standing still either and Dell is starting to make some noise in this category with the XPS 11.

Behind the scenes, Intel is playing to the thinner, lighter trend with its newest processors. The power-sipping Bay Trail chip now offers low-end laptop performance in sub-0.7-inch-thick designs and the more power-efficient mainstream Broadwell processor is coming next year.

Touch screen: Both of the Sonys above have touch screens, a feature that is (increasingly) conspicuously absent on MacBooks.

But let's focus on Hewlett-Packard's just-released Spectre 13 ultrabook, which CNET also gave 4 stars.

HP's 3.25-pound Spectre 13 can be ordered with a 2,560x1,440 touch screen.

That's pretty close to getting a 13-inch MacBook Air with a Retina display. (In Apple's stable of laptops, only the heavier MacBook Pros come with Retina displays.)

To date, it's been difficult to squeeze very-high-resolution touch displays into thin-and-light laptops that aren't priced in the stratosphere. But HP -- the biggest laptop maker of them all -- is proving that that hurdle has been overcome.

The Spectre 13 also boasts long battery life, Beats Audio, and an extra-wide touch pad.

There are plenty of other examples, like Dell's touch-based XPS 13 and Toshiba's Kirabook.

Hybrid/2-in-1: This is probably the most interesting Windows 8.1 laptop category right now -- and Apple, for now, appears to be steering clear of hybrid designs.

The Surface Pro 2 is the most prominent hybrid -- truly a laptop in tablet clothing. It packs a mainstream Core i5 "Haswell" ultrabook processor and is competitive with the MacBook Air in some benchmarks and beats Windows ultrabooks too in some cases.

Other recent examples include the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2 convertible, the Dell Venue 11 Pro tablet-laptop detachable, and the HP Spectre 13 x2 detachable.

Overall, the Windows 8.1 (8.2) laptop and hybrid space should be fertile ground for newfangled designs in 2014. And don't be surprised if Apple responds with higher-end tablet designs (like the like the rumored 13-inch iPad and/or a redesign of the MacBook Air, also rumored).

Surface Pro 2 is a hybrid tablet that offers a full-blown Windows 8.1 experience.
Surface Pro 2 is a hybrid tablet that offers a full-blown Windows 8.1 experience. Sarah Tew/CNET