Ultimate guide to Windows 8 ultrabooks

Testing of eight Windows 8 ultrabooks reveals that users looking for the slimmest, lightest devices will have to accept tradeoffs

While finding a touchscreen for a desktop computer is nearly impossible, and finding a touchscreen notebook computer takes some searching, touchscreen ultrabooks are readily available. These thin, light and relatively compact computers are intended to be portable and to be used at a moment’s notice. Adding touch seems a natural thing to do.

Nearly every maker of an ultrabook offers a touchscreen, and nearly all of them offer Windows 8 as the default OS. While most Windows users aren’t accustomed to a touchscreen on their computers, the rise of smartphones and tablets has introduced most users to the idea. In fact, by the time I was finished with this review, my non-touchscreen Windows 7 laptop had become frustrating because I kept touching the screen and expecting something to happen.

Intel created and defined the ultrabook market, but we didn’t exclude products simply because they didn’t meet all of Intel’s specs.  If the vendor called their product an ultrabook, we reviewed it. (Watch the slideshow version of this story.)

We tested eight products, all with touchscreens and all running Windows 8 Professional. They are: the astonishingly thin Acer Aspire S7 and Asus Zenbook UX31A, the flip-screen Dell XPS 12, HP’s Envy 400t-12, Lenovo’s business oriented ThinkPad Carbon X1 and the flexible Yoga 13, the Samsung ATIV Tab 7 that transforms into a tablet, and the Sony Vaio T-15.

(Tablet Wars: iPad vs. Surface) 

(Ultrabooks flopped in 2012)

My favorite, because it was the easiest to type on and the easiest to use overall was the Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1. This ultrabook has three different ways to control the pointer, had the best keyboard by far, yet it was still thin and light.

With ultrabooks, there are always compromises forced by their size, so which one is best depends on your specific needs. If you need your ultrabook to convert to a tablet, then you might like the Samsung ATIV Tab 7, or the Yoga or Dell, which fold or flip to become tablets.

Style is also a factor. Acer and Asus win points for being sexy, thin and stylish, so if you want to impress in the conference room, these might be for you. But being thin has a price in terms of usability, so make sure you’re happy with the compromises including keyboards that can be tough for typing.

Setting the Baseline

While there are many touchscreen ultrabooks in the marketplace, I wanted to set some limits. I worked under the assumption that these devices would be used for work, at least part of the time. That meant they had to have Windows 8 Professional installed. These computers also had to be capable of content creation, since there’s not a lot of point in having a keyboard just to watch videos and surf the Web. Microsoft provided copies of Office 2013, either as the Professional release or as Office 365 for this test.

I also felt that a professional level security suite was necessary, and while some of these ultrabooks come with an antivirus package, I requested Norton Internet Security so that they’d all be the same. The reason for this uniformity is because I wanted to see how the ultrabooks and Windows 8 worked together.


1. The only potential usability issue for any of these ultrabooks is a less-than-totally-ergonomic keyboard. With the exception of the Lenovo Carbon X1 Touch, the keyboards on these devices are flat, have little travel, and in general are less than ideal for typing. If you’re planning to use one of these to write your next great novel, you might want to think about the impact on your productivity.

2. I also found that most of these computers go to great lengths to brag about their sound systems. But great sound isn’t available unless you connect the ultrabook to an external sound system of some sort. Despite all of the hype, you’re still stuck with tiny (and tinny) speakers. A good set of headphones will help.

3. All of these ultrabooks, except one, use a solid state disk which provides fast operation, requires minimal space and power, and is nearly immune to shock. However, the solid state drives are expensive, so you’ll likely to find that these drives have less capacity than you’re used to having. You may also find that much of the drive space is taken up by Windows and programs. This is one reason why you’ll want to use cloud storage where possible.

4. These machines had uniformly good screens. A full HD screen with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 is the norm, and they all have LED backlighting. While the size of the screen may vary, the video is excellent.

5. Unfortunately, these high-resolution screens don’t necessarily deliver good visibility to your applications. I found that in most cases Microsoft Office had screens that were hard to read and menu choices that were too small to use in a touch environment. Fortunately, you can change the size of the items on the screen, but when you do, you have less space to view your work because more space is taken up by larger menus and icons. It appears that there’s a reason Microsoft includes a stylus with the Surface Pro tablet. I also found that a capacitive touch stylus, such as the products sold for the Apple iPad, will work well with these ultrabooks.

6. There’s a lot more variability in this part of the market than there is with more traditional laptop and desktop computers. Sizes are vastly different, and each device has a different mix of features. It’s probably a good idea to spend some time with any touchscreen ultrabook you plan to buy to make sure that you and the device are happy together.

7. While each ultrabook was different in some way from the others, the one that stood out as the most useful was the Lenovo X1 Carbon Touch. It has a better keyboard than the others, its TrackPoint pointing device is much more precise than any of the touchpads, and more precise than your finger on the screen. But its flat black exterior isn’t as snazzy as the others and it’ll pick up fingerprints. Again, the choice of an ultrabook is much more personal than it is with other computers. Also keep in mind that the Apple Macbook Air is a strong alternative and deserves a look.

Here are the individual reviews:

Acer Aspire

Acer Aspire

Acer Aspire S7Pros: Extremely thin, very light, strong and flexible.

Cons: Very flat keyboard with no significant key travel, shorter than average battery life.

Price: $1,499 (Amazon)

The first thing you’re likely to think to yourself when you take the Acer Aspire S7 out of its case is that you’re opening a fashion statement. But the ultra-thin computer in glossy white is more than just fashion. That shiny top cover is white glass - Gorilla Glass, in fact. And you keep it in a very chic gray suede portfolio that oozes luxury. And it’s thin, so thin that at 11.9 mm it’s barely thicker than an iPad.

There are, as you might imagine, trade-offs for that ultra-thin profile. The keyboard is extremely flat, the keys have so little travel that it slows down your typing, but the trade-offs go beyond that. Acer has eliminated the top row of the keyboard, which on other computers is where the function keys reside. Those keys now share space with the number keys, which means you must press the “Fn” key and the number key at the same time to get to whatever the function key would normally do. In its background information, Acer reveals that the touch screen eliminates the need for function keys, but I’m not sure I buy that, since you may need to use those keys when Windows 8 isn’t running.

But there’s more to the Acer Aspire S7 than just a pretty face. The Gorilla Glass top cover, coupled with the chassis milled from a single block of aluminum, make this ultrabook very strong indeed. When you press on the screen, as you must with a touchscreen ultrabook, it simply stays there. There’s no flexing backward, no movement, nothing. The S7 has what Acer calls dual torque hinges that allow the screen to be folded back so that it’s flat on the table. There’s a key that allows the screen to be rotated 180 degrees so that you can do table-top presentations.

The machine in this review came with an Intel Core i7 processor, and had a 256 GB solid state drive. The machine was quite fast, and the SSD meant that access to data was nearly instantaneous. The 13.3 inch screen that works at full-HD resolution and there’s an HD webcam. The solid construction of the S7 means that Acer could also make it quite light, weighing in at 2.86 pounds.

Typing on a machine that’s this thin and that has keys with so little travel takes a little getting used to. You don’t get the kind of tactile feeling you will with some of the other ultrabooks in this test. However, if content creation isn’t a priority, then this may not matter.

Like many of the other ultrabooks in this test, the S7 includes Dolby sound. And like them, the onboard speakers don’t do it justice. But if you’re wearing earphones so you can watch a movie, it’ll work just fine, and the speedy processor makes video play smoothly.

Acer includes a pair of USB 3.0 ports with this computer, as well as a micro HDMI port. The company includes dongles for Ethernet and for VGA video. One unusual feature is a mouse that matches the S7’s gleaming white case.

The Acer Aspire S7 is very thin, very portable, and it’s the sort of device you’d carry to meetings so you can use that ability to fold flat. The thin case limits the battery capacity, which Acer says is six hours. I found the S7 to be very usable, the touchscreen worked well and was responsive. There’s a nice touchpad that’s also responsive, but it’s not as large as you’ll find on some other ultrabooks.

Asus Zenbook

Asus Zenbook

ASUS Zenbook UX31APros: Very stylish, includes a portfolio, very fast.

Cons: Keyboard is hard to type on.

Price: $1,698 (Amazon)

The first thing I said when I took the ASUS Zenbook UX31A out of its carbon-fiber-esque portfolio was a soft “wow!” This is the most attractive ultrabook in this test and perhaps on the market. The gleaming machined metallic case on this computer lends an authoritative feel to its wafer-thin appearance. In fact, at 18 mm thick at the thickest point in the rear of the Zenbook, it’s not a lot thicker than most tablets. The 3mm thickness at the front is thinner. And at 2.86 pounds, it’s not a lot heavier.

While I’m no arbiter of fashion, this looks to me like one very sleek computer. But what’s better is that it operates nicely too. With a third generation i7 processor and a high-speed solid state disk (SSD), this computer is fast. Even better, it’s easy to use as a touch-screen device. The screen reacts smoothly to the touch.

Tiles on the Windows 8 Start screen react immediately, as do menu options and choices on Microsoft Office. As long as you don’t plan to use this ultrabook for a lot of typing, this is one slick machine.

But suppose you do need to do a lot of typing? Unfortunately, the totally flat keyboard and the square flat keys don’t yield easily to content creation. In the interest of thinness, the keys have little travel, they’re not sculpted, and they’re not rounded at the bottom to help improve typing accuracy, fortunately, the layout of the backlit keyboard is well-done so if you are typing, your fingers will find the right keys. All of this means that you probably won’t be able to type as easily or as quickly as you might on an ultrabook such as the Lenovo Carbon X1. But on the other hand, this ultrabook is very easy to carry, and it will certainly create an impression when you open it in a meeting.

Beyond the flat keyboard, there are few sacrifices. You have to use a dongle to connect to wired Ethernet, but that’s no different from most of the other ultrabooks in this review. And that’s pretty much it. This computer features a pair of USB 3.0 ports, a mini VGA and micro HDMI port. Asus makes a point of letting you know about the sound system developed with the help of Bang and Olufsen, but you’ll need to listen to this great sound on something besides the built-in speakers because they sound just like laptop speakers, which means better than no sound at all, but nothing you’d mistake for a home theater.

The result of all this design effort on the part of Asus is a stylish and top performing device that may be the perfect companion to meetings in the board room. The folio gives you something to hold, the computer is thin, and light. The 13.3-inch IPS (In-plane switching) LCD screen is bright enough that you can read it even in a brightly-lit room. The screen supports 1080p HD images. This is a very slick ultrabook, as long as you don’t need to do a lot of typing.

Dell XPS

Dell XPS

Dell XPS 12 Convertible UltrabookPros: Unique swiveling screen converts into a tablet, DisplayPort allows better video on external monitor.

Cons: Fairly thick for an ultrabook.

Price: $1,199 (Dell)

Dell takes a unique approach for converting its XPS 12 ultrabook into a tablet. The screen rotates around side-mounted pivots so that all you have to do is push the top of the screen and it rotates away from you, allowing you to close the screen, but keeping the screen visible on top. This allows the top of the screen containing the webcam to remain on top, and a Windows button that remains on the bottom of the screen as it’s held.

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