MacBook Air vs. Ultrabooks

By Brian Westover

Steve Jobs said that making a $500 laptop was incompatible with Apple’s DNA, and that Apple would never make a netbook—and he was right.

MacBook Air

MacBook Air

Instead, Apple made something better, a truly capable computer with all the portability and quality buyers had yearned for. The MacBook Air nearly drips with Apple’s characteristic philosophy of design.

The first 13-inch MacBook Air jettisoned several common components, removing the optical drive and slashing the number of ports to three: a mini-DVI, a single USB port, and a headphone jack. Subsequent models have added a second USB port and an SD card slot, and the most recent iteration, the Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt) ($1299.99 direct, 4 stars), has upgraded the mini-DVI to the lightning-fast Thunderbolt port.

Marrying a strong, sleek looking unibody chassis with flash memory put the svelte MacBook Air under a lot of people’s arms. Suddenly, there was a laptop—a functional laptop that you could do work on—that you can tuck under your arm and take anywhere. Flash memory and long standby time lets you open and close it without worrying about turning it off, and it snaps back to life the moment you need it. The Apple Macbook Air threw the struggling CULV and fizzling netbook categories on their heads, and initiated a sea change in how we think about the notebook computer.

Clearly, manufacturers have been paying attention. In May of this year Intel announced a new category of ultraportable laptops, the ultrabook. The ultrabook category may have been laid out by Intel, but it was defined by Apple, with nearly every defining point aping the MacBook Air. The new slim laptops would be razor-thin (under 21mm), light (under 3.1 pounds), and long-lasting (with 5+ hours of battery life).

In the last few months, we’ve seen four new laptops enter the ultrabook arena: the Acer Aspire S3 ($899.99 direct, 3.5 stars), Asus Zenbook UX31-RSL8 ($1099 direct, 4 stars), Toshiba Portege Z835-P330 ($799.99 list, 3.5 stars), and Lenovo IdeaPad U300s ($1,495 list, 4 stars). These new contenders have taken on the MacBook Air 13-inch directly, competing over everything from price to processing power, and we’re here to show you how they stack up. More info and photos