Walt Mossberg

Ultrabooks Bring Speed and Light to Windows

Rejoice, Windows users!

If you envy Apple’s sleek, speedy MacBook Air laptop, and yearn for something like it that comes with the Microsoft Windows operating system, your wish has been granted. It’s a new type of Windows laptop called Ultrabook. A handful already are available, and more are likely to arrive in the new year.

The Ultrabook concept, which is being driven by giant chipmaker Intel, is governed by a set of specs covering everything from thinness to battery life to start-up times. But it is basically an effort to emulate the MacBook Air, which has been a hot product in a challenging market despite selling for double what some bulkier, but capable, Windows laptops fetch. (Apple doesn’t disclose sales of specific Mac models.)

Ironically, the MacBook Air, which came out in 2008 and now starts at $999, uses the same Intel processors Ultrabooks do, and can, if its owner wishes, run Windows capably along with the Mac operating system. But it now will have much more competition.

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The Lenovo IdeaPad U300s, with a sturdy aluminum body, has a superb keyboard and roomy touch pad.

I’ve been testing a couple of the new Ultrabooks, from Lenovo and Toshiba, to get a feel for the category, and I’m a fan. I love the idea of a machine that combines low weight with good speed and battery life, yet doesn’t compromise on keyboard and screen size.

I found some drawbacks to both machines, and to Ultrabooks in general. For instance, like the Apple, they lack internal DVD drives and removable batteries, things that will bother some folks. And, at least for now, the Ultrabooks mostly tend to cluster at around $1,000, which rules them out for shoppers on a tight budget. But, overall, I think the advent of the Ultrabook is a good thing for consumers.

In general, I preferred the Lenovo, but the Toshiba has some advantages as well, and you won’t go wrong with either. In my tests, neither did as well as the Apple in such measures as battery life or start times. But both cost less than the comparable Apple model.

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Toshiba’s Portege Z835 is lighter and has more ports, including an Ethernet port, than the comparable Lenovo IdeaPad or MacBook Air.

The idea behind the Ultrabook is to make a light, thin laptop that has a full-size screen and keyboard—unlike a cramped netbook—yet also gets strong battery life, starts up and resumes quickly, and is powerful enough to handle a wide variety of common consumer tasks. It is meant to be good enough to be your main computer, but it isn’t aimed at those who need extra horsepower for things like hard-core gaming.

To be clear, there have been thin and light Windows laptops for many years, but these machines have typically been so expensive that few people could buy them, and they often had poor battery life and other serious compromises.

I tested the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s and the Toshiba Portege Z830, and also compared them with the latest, comparable MacBook Air. Both have 13-inch screens, are made of metal, weigh under three pounds, and use a solid-state drive—storage chips—instead of a hard disk. This improves speed, reliability and battery life, but limits storage capacity.

The Lenovo starts at $1,095 with a 128 gigabyte drive, 4 GB of memory, and Intel’s mid-range i5 processor. The Toshiba starts at around $900 for a model with the same specs except for the processor, which is a less powerful chip called an i3. However, both Toshiba and Best Buy have recently put this machine on sale, and I found it on Best Buy’s website for $700.

By contrast, the 13-inch MacBook Air with the same amount of solid-state storage and memory, and the i5 processor, costs $1,299.

Beyond their price and processor differences, I found each machine had its strengths and weaknesses.

The Toshiba weighs just 2.47 pounds, versus 2.91 for the Lenovo and 2.96 for the Apple. It also boasts the most ports, including three USB ports versus two for the others and an Ethernet port the others lack. But I found its magnesium body felt more fragile than the other two, which are aluminum and sturdier.

I also disliked the fact that on Toshiba’s keyboard, using the keys for common things like brightness and muting required you to hold down a second function key. And the Toshiba came in last among the three in my tests of battery life, cold start-up time and reboot time. Plus, Toshiba has pre-loaded an annoying Best Buy promotional app that pops up at launch.

The Lenovo feels sturdy and has a keyboard I found superb, and a roomy touch pad. Unlike the other two, it isn’t tapered at the edges, and my test unit sported an orange color, though it also comes in gray. Also, like the Apple, but unlike the Toshiba, Lenovo offers a roomier, 256 GB solid-state drive for extra money.

However, the Lenovo froze once during my tests; the others didn’t. And, unlike the others, it lacks a slot for memory cards.

Both Ultrabooks did fine at all the common tasks I threw at them. But their screen resolution is less than the Mac’s, meaning less material can be seen without scrolling. The Mac also felt sturdier to me than even the Lenovo.

Both Ultrabooks claim battery life of up to eight hours or so. In my battery tests, where I turn off all power-saving features, crank the screen brightness up all the way, leave the Wi-Fi on, and play a continuous loop of music, they fell well short of that. The Toshiba lasted 4 hours and 36 minutes and the Lenovo 4 hours and 50 minutes.

Still, these are respectable numbers in my harsh tests, and suggest to me that in more normal use with power-saving on, you could get six hours or so easily on these machines. However, the MacBook Air did much better, lasting 5 hours and 51 minutes on the same test—suggesting users would likely achieve Apple’s claimed seven hours of battery life in more normal use.

The two Ultrabooks booted up and rebooted much faster than most Windows laptops I’ve tested in the past, reaching a ready-to-use state, with Wi-Fi fully connected, in about 30 seconds when booting from scratch and under a minute on a reboot. They recovered from sleep in under 10 seconds. But the Mac beat them handily on all three measures.

For Windows shoppers who can afford to spend a little more this season, I believe Ultrabooks are a great choice.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at walt.mossberg@wsj.com.


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