Ultraportables: Balancing Light Weight and Just Enough Power
The evolution of laptops has always been driven by the push for thinner, lighter, and more power-efficient designs, and whatever the year, these demands coalesce into the perfect expressions of leading-edge laptop design: ultraportables.
What exactly defines this category? In general, ultraportables weigh 3 pounds or less, have screens 14 inches or smaller, use processors more powerful than the Intel Atom, and offer enough battery life to survive most of a workday off-plug. These systems are now faster than ever, are well-suited to travel, and come with a variety of features and display resolutions wide enough to fit anyone’s needs. You may have seen laptops of this breed referred to over the years as ultrabooks or
How Much Should You Spend on an Ultraportable?
Although ultraportable laptops as a class may look sleek, quite a few key differentiators distinguish models from one another. The first to consider is
At the low end are entry-level systems, which generally run $500 or less. For many casual users, this is the only price range worth looking at, but there are some caveats to keep in mind. The processing power, display resolution, and storage capacities are usually lower on inexpensive ultraportables, as they’re built for basic web browsing, word processing, and media viewing purposes, and the construction can be on the flimsy side.
Entry-level ultraportables make solid systems for younger family members to use for homework or watching movies around the
At the top of the
Choose Your Power Wisely: Processors in Ultraportables
For smooth performance and a good user experience, you’ll want to be choosy about your processor. Even in a less-expensive system, the average processor is more capable than ever of handling routine tasks, but if you need speed, select carefully. At the top of the heap are Intel’s Core i5 and Core i7 processors, which can be found in midrange and premium models. Most ultraportables out right now use Intel’s 8th Generation Core CPUs, which are subdivided into the “Kaby Lake-R” or “Whiskey Lake” classes of chips, depending on recency, with the latter newer. (As 2019 draws to a close, expect to see more and more ultraportables move to Intel’s newer 10th Generation Core processors, divided into “Ice Lake” and “Comet Lake” varieties.) The CPU is typically paired with 8GB of memory, though some premium systems boast up to 16GB of RAM. The processors in ultraportables will usually be classified as U-series CPUs, which are designed for lean laptop designs.
A few middle-of-the-pack models will opt for processors in Intel’s power-saving Y series. These chips, from the Core families, are identified by the “Y” in their model number and are capable but ultra-low-powered, intended to bridge the gap between U-series chips and the Intel Atom processors you find in inexpensive Windows tablets and extreme budget laptops. With 8th Generation Core, you’ll find Core i5 and i7 Y-series chips, as well as one that still holds the previous generation’s “Core m3” designation; Intel has been downplaying Core M of late. (In earlier generations, Core m3, m5, and m7 were synonymous with extremely low-power CPUs and the Y series.)
The design of a Y-series CPU allows for processing power that approaches that of Core i5 chips, but with lower power consumption and often no need for cooling fans. This results in slimmer laptop designs, quieter operation (in some designs, no fans mean no fan noise), and longer battery life, often extending past 8 hours. Y-series systems are a good choice if you want the most portable ultraportable. They aren’t usually less expensive, though, and you may find yourself paying more than you would for a machine that’s more powerful, but also slightly thicker and heavier. Many of the faster, higher-end ultraportables will opt for the U-series chips regardless, which also focus on power saving. You’ll have to look at some machines in person to find the right balance of physical design and performance to fit your needs.
Finally, at the low end are Intel’s Pentium and Celeron processors. These budget processors are inexpensive and energy-efficient, but power users may find themselves frustrated by slow performance, and lesser RAM allotments (as low as 4GB) concurrent with extreme-budget designs. You will definitely feel a difference in speed, but you can probably make do if you’re a casual user and not multitasking much.
Pay Attention to Graphics: The GPU Factor
Also important: the graphics processor, also known as the GPU. Almost all ultraportables rely on integrated graphics, such as Intel’s UHD Graphics 620; this is graphics-acceleration silicon that is part of the CPU, not a dedicated chip of its own. This level of horsepower is fine for casual (often web-based) or old games, streaming media, and maybe editing the odd photo, but not for substantial gaming.
If you want to do more with media and perhaps do some gaming, you’ll need a discrete graphics chip, like the mobile version of the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070. These GPUs require more power and cooling, and as such are generally only seen in bulkier gaming laptops or desktop-replacement notebooks. There
Space Is Everything: Assessing Storage
Speedy hardware is all well and good, but you also need somewhere to keep all your digital stuff. For almost all ultraportables now, this means a solid-state drive (SSD). These compact, flash-based storage devices are weight savers and immune to data loss from shock or bumps because they don’t have any moving parts, which is ideal for systems doing a lot of traveling. Increasingly, SSDs use a form factor called M.2, which is smaller than your traditional 2.5-inch SATA drive—and smaller connectors allow smaller designs, which makes them a perfect fit for an ultraportable. Some (but not all) of these M.2-connected drives use a PCI Express (PCIe) bus connection for faster data transfer, and thus faster overall performance.
A 256GB capacity for SSD storage is very common on midrange and high-end ultraportables. While it would be nice to have a bit more room than that, boosting SSD capacity still tends to be pretty pricey, so the cost can jump up fast if you opt for a larger 512GB or 1TB option if the manufacturer offers it. A 256GB drive will do the job for many users, though, especially since you likely won’t be storing large game installations or media projects on this type of computer.
While SSDs are the most common storage format for ultraportables, you will see two other storage options used on less-expensive systems. A few use an embedded MultiMediaCard (eMMC), a form of solid-state storage sometimes identified as an SSD in product specs but actually flash memory like the kind used on memory cards. As such, it’s slower and a lot smaller in capacity (32GB to 64GB) than a standard SSD. You’ll generally find this type of storage only on the very cheapest laptops.
Finally, some systems still use good, old-fashioned spinning hard drives. These drives are less expensive than SSDs, and they offer substantially more room for your files for the money—you will often see hard drives with capacities of 500GB or more. You won’t get the same speedy performance as you do with an SSD, but there’s something to be said for lots of storage space. Some laptops pair a small SSD with a larger hard drive, but that’s uncommon among ultraportables. And increasingly, given thin designs, most makers of ultraportables are phasing out hard drives altogether in their slimmest designs.
How We Test Laptops
Picking Your Pixels: Ultraportable Displays
Let’s go from what’s inside a typical ultraportable to the most visible aspect of the exterior: the screen.
Ultraportables’ displays come in an increasingly varied array of resolutions, from
Full HD (often referred to as 1080p) screens are what you should expect on the occasional budget system, most midrange models
Ultra HD is currently the resolution of choice for the highest-end ultraportables. As 4K screens have four times the resolution of a full HD display, you can fit a lot onto them. The sheer number of pixels requires more power, however, and 4K-equipped systems usually see a significant drop in battery life compared with similar full HD systems. There’s also the question of content. Although 4K TVs and displays are becoming increasingly common, there still aren’t a lot of places to stream 4K video (this is slowly improving on some streaming services), and gaming in 4K is definitely way more than any ultraportable can support. At present, these displays are best suited to uses like
Some premium laptops now use QHD or QHD+ screens, which are resolutions that fall between HD and 4K. They represent a nice middle ground between expensive, power-draining 4K resolutions and sharp, better-than-HD picture quality, so you should be happy to see QHD or QHD+ on a laptop you’re considering buying.
The other feature to watch for is support for touch input. While touch-capable displays were uncommon just a few years ago, they’re now much more a thing in ultraportables, even in the entry-level and business-laptop categories. Windows 10 includes some baked-in gesture controls and touch-friendly features, which helps promote its use. Touch technology is also useful on a bus or train where you may not have a mouse, making it a good match for ultraportables. Even if you don’t regularly use touch in your day-to-day computing and don’t plan to incorporate it, it may be worth having just so you don’t regret the decision not to get it down the road.
Two Laptops in One: Convertibles and Detachables
More and more ultraportables are being released as what we call “convertible hybrids,” or 2-in-1s. Some 2-in-1s rotate around the hinge, while others have a separate keyboard base that detaches from the screen. In the former case, these mash-up machines let you enjoy both laptop and tablet functionality, thanks to hinges and swiveling joints that let you bend the display back around to use without a keyboard. These systems don’t come
Rotating-hinge convertible devices are laptops first, but they aren’t limited to traditional clamshell designs. Because they feature specialized hinges and touch screens, you can also prop them up like a tent, or turn the keyboard facedown so the screen is better positioned for watching a movie or giving a presentation. While convertibles are a category in their own right, the ability to shape-shift naturally lends itself to making a good travel laptop, so you’ll see that
A Value Option: Lightweight Chromebooks
Depending on what you do with your computer, you might find a Chromebook to be one of the best values in ultraportables. A C
This means that you won’t have access to traditional Windows software, so if that’s central to how you work and play, a C
Ready for Our Recommendations?
With ultraportables available now that are thinner, lighter, and more powerful than ever, there’s something in this vibrant class of laptops to suit everyone’s usage habits and travel needs. Below are 10 of the top ultraportables we’ve tested. We refresh the list constantly to include the newest products, but because of
Pros: Thin, light chassis. Excellent build quality. Brilliant 4K display. Includes powerful, efficient Intel 10th Gen “Comet Lake” CPU. Support for Wi-Fi 6. Plentiful I/O ports.
Cons: Slightly uncomfortable keyboard. Occasional fan noise.
Bottom Line: Packing Intel’s latest 10th Generation “Comet Lake” CPUs (now, with up to six cores), the latest rev of Dell’s XPS 13 is one of the most powerful and best designed ultraportables you can buy.
Pros: Excellent design and build quality. Intel 10th Gen “Ice Lake” CPU and graphics. Wi-Fi 6 support. Top-notch screen. Long battery life. Bundled USB adapter. microSD slot.
Cons: Shallow keyboard. No USB Type-A ports. Balky fingerprint reader.
Bottom Line: With sterling build quality, a brilliant display, and an Intel “Ice Lake” CPU with real graphics pep, the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 is tops among convertible laptops.
Pros: Thin, light, and very sturdy. ThinkPad-typical comfortable keyboard. Long battery life, as configured with 1080p screen. Many screen options. Optional Intel vPro. Full-size HDMI output.
Cons: Small touchpad. Requires (not-included) Ethernet adapter.
Bottom Line: With a sturdy, lightweight carbon-fiber exterior, an excellent keyboard, and plenty of security and manageability features, Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 7 is the best laptop you can buy for your business.
Pros: Sleek redesign. Super-thin bezels enable smaller footprint. Good performance (and discrete graphics option). Choice between 1080p and 4K displays. Bigger touchpad, better keyboard. Long battery life. USB-C with Thunderbolt 3.
Cons: No more per-key keyboard backlighting. Models configured with Nvidia graphics can get pricey.
Bottom Line: Razer’s 2019 Blade Stealth ultraportable, a smart refinement of its excellent predecessor, packs a sharp (and sharp-edged) redesign, a new dedicated graphics option, and snappy performance with a strong supporting feature set.
Pros: Thin, light, and stylish. Excellent trackpad. Long battery life. Brilliant display. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Cons: Relatively expensive, even in starting config. Limited connectivity for peripherals in lower-end models. Polarizing keyboard lacks vertical travel.
Bottom Line: The 13-inch MacBook Pro is Apple’s best ultraportable laptop, thanks to stylish looks, an excellent touchpad, and long battery life.
Pros: Low price. Sleek metal styling. Handsome 4K touch screen.
Cons: No HDMI or Thunderbolt 3 port. Not suited for gaming despite discrete graphics.
Bottom Line: If you can live without a Thunderbolt 3 port, you’ll find HP’s Envy 13 a stylish alternative to 13.3-inch ultraportables costing hundreds more.
Pros: Exceptionally lightweight design. Long battery life. Solid performance. Ample storage and ports. Vivid 1080p touch display.
Cons: Conventional looks. Odd numeric keypad layout.
Bottom Line: The LG gram 15 is a super-lightweight laptop that offers excellent battery life and powerful performance in a featherweight package.
Pros: Unbelievably light for its screen size. Sunny 1080p screen. Good battery life.
Cons: No Thunderbolt 3 port or SD card slot. Screen is reflective. Beaucoup bloatware.
Bottom Line: The lightest 15.6-inch laptop the world has ever seen, Acer’s 2.2-pound Swift 5 is a design landmark whose portability outweighs its minor imperfections.
Pros: Low price. Great battery life. Nearly borderless screen. USB-C, USB-A, and HDMI ports. Touchpad can double as a numeric keypad.
Cons: Crowded keyboard. No Thunderbolt 3 port.
Bottom Line: The Asus ZenBook 13 is a classy Core i5 ultraportable that’s priced aggressively. Even a slightly cramped keyboard can’t keep it from an earnest recommendation.
Pros: Thin, sleek, and light. Excellent design and build quality. Large, accurate touchpad. Very long battery life. Fingerprint reader.
Cons: Humdrum performance on benchmark tests. Very short key travel on a polarizing keyboard. Limited port selection. No touch screen.
Bottom Line: The 2019 edition of Apple’s MacBook Air is cheaper and has a slightly richer feature set than its solid predecessor, making it a decent ultraportable for buyers who won’t perform many resource-intensive computing tasks.