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. 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.
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.
The Apple MacBook Air has always been on the pricey side. Despite being more portable than a regular laptop and more capable than a netbook, the MacBook's $1,299 price tag put off a lot of potential customers. In response to this, Intel has set a strong pricing guideline for ultrabooks of $1,000 or less, but only two manufacturers have made it, Acer with the Aspire S3 and Toshiba with the Portege Z835-P330. Our review unit of the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s rang in the highest at $1495.99, but for the price it offers an Intel Core i7 processor.
Most of the ultrabooks have matched the MacBook Air's Core i5 CPU and 128GB solid-state drive (SSD). The Lenovo bumps up the storage capacity to 256GB, but the highest capacity drive belongs to the Acer Aspire S3, which pairs a 320GB spinning hard drive with 20GB of flash memory.
The 5-hour battery life of the MacBook Air was matched by a 5-hour minimum requirement from Intel, but most of the ultrabooks have exceeded this. The leader of the pack is the Toshiba Portege Z835-P330, which beats out the MacBook Air by nearly two hours.
Thanks to low-volt versions of Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 processors, the latest crop of thin-bodied laptops offers full functionality instead of the small, hobbled processors found in netbooks. Generally speaking, the overall performance of ultrabooks is on par with the MacBook Air, but the lowest-priced Toshiba fell behind with its Core i3. The MacBook Air also stays at the head of the class in graphics performance.
But there are aspects to these systems that can't be compared in a spreadsheet. The Apple MacBook Air still offers the most intuitive touchpad of the bunch, and OS X Lion—which our reviewer called "the best consumer-level operating system ever created"—can't be found on any ultrabook. Apple also offers the best construction in the slim-bodied space hands down with its unique aluminum unibody design. Lenovo and Asus have both attempted to bring their own twist to the all-metal chassis; Lenovo crafts the IdeaPad U300s' chassis from a single sheet of metal, while Asus has a sandwiched aluminum design that they call a monoshell.
There are certainly compelling reasons not to dismiss the Apple MacBook Air, but when all things are taken into consideration, the first crop of ultrabooks makes a strong showing and gives the Apple MacBook Air a run for its money.
Check out the reviews below to learn more.
Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt)
The Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (Thunderbolt) is a formidable player in the ultraportable space, thanks to a Core i5 processor, the return of the backlit keyboard, and the addition of a Thunderbolt port.
Asus Zenbook UX31-RSL8
The Asus Zenbook UX31-RSL8 is the clear leader in the budding ultrabook category, with better overall performance and battery life than any competitor.
Acer Aspire S3
The Acer Aspire S3 ultrabook has a super-thin profile, larger storage capacity than competitors, and unmatched affordability.
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s
The Lenovo IdeaPad U300s, Lenovo's entry into the ultrabook arena, is as well-engineered as you'd expect, but it's not a knockout blow to its competitors.
Toshiba Portege Z835-P330
The Toshiba Portege Z835-P330 is the lightest, longest-lasting ultrabook we've seen yet, and its affordability adds sparkle to a system with moderate performance and limited graphics capability.
This article is in partnership with Ziff Davis Media.