May 08 2012

Ultrabooks vs. Notebooks: Is It Time to Make the Switch?

The lighter, compacter version of notebooks is gaining traction with users and IT departments.

Mobile computing options continue to expand. Notebooks used to be the only choice, and those devices were large and heavy desktop replacements. Netbooks arrived a few years ago and brought portability at the expense of processing. Now ultrabooks aim to bridge the gap between portability and power.

The ultrabook specifications set by Intel stipulate that devices should weigh 3 pounds or less, have no larger than a 13.3-inch screen and measure less than 1 inch thick. This is basically the Windows equivalent of the Apple MacBook Air.

While notebooks became larger and heavier as screen sizes increased (a 17-inch screen is beautiful, but not portable), netbooks continued to shrink, and their tiny keyboards cramped wrists and crammed fingers together. Unfortunately the small size also came with low performance and limited memory, souring even those users with nimble fingers and good eyesight.

Enter the ultrabook, with a moderately sized screen and standard Intel processors. The size issue was addressed by being thin and light, which might make the ultrabook the Goldilocks of notebooks — just right in every way.

How to Figure Out If the Ultrabook Is Right for You

Are ultrabooks right for you? That depends. Does your notebook go everywhere with you, or sit docked on your desk and connected to a keyboard and monitor? If your notebook travels far more than it stays, you’ll love ultrabooks.

Do you crave the cool form factor? Honestly, many Windows users remain green with envy as their Mac friends extol the virtues of fast solid-state drives while they slide their MacBook Airs into skinny cases.

Are you liberated from peripherals and plug-in media of any kind? Ultrabooks generally don’t support optical media such as CDs or DVDs. Almost none support memory cards either, so pulling out a camera SSD card will lead to frustration when there’s no way to read it on your device. If cards and optical disks are part of your routine, then be prepared to spend some money on external readers and disk drives. And understand you may need to lose your only USB port to do so (some ultrabook models have more than one USB port, but not all.)

Ultrabooks are comparable with notebooks in terms of processor rating, but how do their prices compare? These machines are not only lightweight, but also light on price. As more models appear, pricing will continue to fall.

Are you comfortable with average graphics performance? There is no room for discrete graphics, so they’re best for business, not gaming.

Are you a data hoarder? If so, the limited size of the SSD storage on ultrabooks might cause you some grief. Many ultrabook models offer only 128-gigabyte SSDs for storage. The models that provide 256GB and even 320GB tend to be higher-end units.

Do you work in a wireless environment? Many ultrabook models also lack an Ethernet port.

Today, ultrabooks are the hipsters of portable computing: flashier and more modern. But like hipsters, they’ll slowly become mainstream and move to the suburbs. But for now, those who truly carry their computing environment with them at all times will appreciate the wow factor of minimal weight, good performance and speedy SSDs.

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