A Buyer's Guide To Ultramobile PCs

Ultraportables used to sacrifice too much performance. They're beefing up on features--not weight.

July 28, 2007

7 Min Read
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Ultraportable laptops have been criticized for underperformance, lack of features, and short battery life. That's kept them a tiny niche of the PC market. Most businesspeople rely on smartphones for access to the Web and wireless e-mail on the go, and carry standard laptops when they need more computing power. Ultraportable laptops have been caught in the middle.

But 30% of 687 company PC buyers surveyed by Forrester Research expect to increase buying ultralight laptops in the next two years, while just 4% expect a decrease. Laptop makers have made significant improvements in newer models, with faster processors and more system memory, plus batteries that can, in some cases, keep a laptop running for up to 12 hours on a single charge. And they're packing in more features--especially ones focused on mobility.

Fujitsu Siemens Computers, for example, will bring to market in August a new line of ultraportable laptops, the Esprimo Mobile Series, with integrated 3G. With a 12.1-inch or 14.1-inch display, they'll have built-in Universal Mobile Telecommunications System, or UMTS, technology, a 3G standard that allows Internet connections of up to 2 Mbps. That kind of embedded technology is what businesses will increasingly want, as employees grow dissatisfied with spotty Wi-Fi access via public hotspots, according to Yankee Group.

So what are the options today for mobile pros who want to go ultraportable? Here's a buyer's guide to some of the top choices.

Fujitsu LifeBook P7230

Fujitsu LifeBook P7230Fujitsu LifeBook P7230
Weight: 2.6 pounds
Price: Starting at $1,599

Fujitsu in February unveiled the LifeBook P7230 laptop, targeting mobile professionals who want elegance and functionality. It features a 1.17-inch frame and a 10.6-inch LED backlit display, and it comes with three operating system options: Microsoft Windows Vista Home Basic, Windows Vista Business, or Windows XP Professional.The LifeBook P7230 doesn't sacrifice battery life for a smaller frame, says Fujitsu. Its built-in modular bay can accommodate a second battery, for more than nine hours of computing time. Battery life can also be extended with the ECO button, Fujitsu's power-saving mode that disables the optical disk drive and reduces display brightness.

The laptop's major drawback is its single-core processor, the Intel Core Solo U1400, which puts many restrictions on performance.

Lenovo ThinkPad X61s

Lenovo ThinkPad X61sLenovo ThinkPad X61s
Weight: 2.7 pounds
Price: Starting at $1,474

The ThinkPad X61s is another ultraportable laptop that addresses battery life problems. Introduced by Lenovo in May, the laptop offers more than 12 hours with an eight-cell standard battery and optional extended battery life function. Lenovo's new Battery Stretch control can extend battery life by 15% when functions are disabled in the Power Manager ThinkVantage software.

In addition to a 12-inch display, up to 4 Gbytes of system memory, and a 160-Gbyte SATA hard drive, the ThinkPad X61 is powered by Intel's Core 2 Duo low-voltage processor. Mobile users also are likely to find the different options for wireless connectivity invaluable, including the wireless wide area network, along with the more common wireless location area network, Ethernet, Bluetooth, and modem.

The ThinkPad X61s doesn't come with a built-in optical drive, so if you need to run CDs or DVDs, having to carry an external drive around makes it less portable.

Dell XPS M1330

Dell XPS M1330

Dell XPS M1330
Weight: 4 pounds
Price: Starting at $1,299

With plenty of features and impressive performance, Dell's new XPS M1330 is a good laptop of choice for any traveling professional, and its 0.9-inch frame further proves the point. Features include a 13.3-inch backlit display, a built-in optical drive, integrated fingerprint reader, Webcam, and several Wi-Fi connectivity options. Additionally, it comes with Wi-Fi Catcher technology, which locates Wi-Fi hotspots when the laptop isn't powered on.The XPS M1330 is new, available only since last month, and so it features Microsoft's latest Windows Vista operating system--either Vista Home Premium or Ultimate versions. It uses the Intel Core 2 Duo processor.

The XPS M1330 has some limitations. It's not as power efficient as some other ultraportable laptops on the market and only offers up to seven hours of battery life. Inserting a nine-cell battery will add extra weight. And like the others on this list, it doesn't offer the option of reading Blu-ray discs.

Toshiba Portege R500

Toshiba Portege R500Toshiba Portege R500

Weight: 1.7 pounds
Price: Starting at $1,999

Toshiba's Portege R500 laptop, which was unveiled in June, is tagged as "the world's thinnest notebook series with an integrated optical drive." Toshiba offers two versions: Windows XP Professional and Windows Vista Business, both of which are intended for on-the-go businesspeople.

The Portege R500 is not only light, but it also takes into consideration various conditions that mobile professionals face on the road. For example, the laptop has a transreflective screen that uses natural light from the outdoors to bring out colors and images, and the LED backlit display produces rich colors even in poor lighting conditions. Toshiba promises up to 12.5 hours of battery life, as well as durability if it's dropped. Other features include a 12.1-inch screen, Intel Core 2 Duo proces- sor, Intel Graphics Media Accelerator, 802.11n wireless connectivity, and an integrated DVD-SuperMulti drive.

The laptop, however, has only one memory upgrade slot, and it lacks an integrated modem if you're forced to use a dial-up Internet connection.

Sony Vaio TZ

Sony Vaio TZSony Vaio TZ
Weight: 2.7 pounds

Price: Starting at $2,200

The Vaio TZ is sleek, stylish, and durable, and it shares many of the features with other ultraportable laptops on the market, including an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, Bluetooth technology, and support for 802.11n.

Sony's trying to make security one of Vaio TZ's selling points, incorporating a fingerprint sensor, an integrated Trusted Platform Module to control access to the laptop, and G-Sensor Shock Protection. Here's how the shock protection works: When the built-in 3-D acceleration sensor detects a risky movement, the HDD head locks up to secure its position and prevent damage to data.

On the off chance you can sneak time for a movie or some music on the road, the Vaio lets you play DVDs or CDs without booting up Windows. They're controlled with a set of dedicated audiovisual buttons.

Sony calls its Vaio TZ "an ultra-portable powerhouse," but with four to 7.5 hours of battery life, it's not going to give you the long hours away from a power plug that others will.

Apple MacBook Pro

Apple MacBook ProApple MacBook Pro
Weight: 5.4 pounds
Price: Starting at $1,999

The MacBook Pro has been creeping into the hands of mobile professionals who aren't typical Apple creative types. But there's a price for Apple pizzazz: size and weight, as its MacBook Pro comes slightly heavier and with a larger screen than most competitors in the ultraportable mold.Its smallest business-minded laptop runs Apple's Mac OS X Tiger and comes in two sizes: 15.4 inches and 17 inches. (You could get a MacBook with a 13-inch screen.) There's a lot to love about that 17-inch screen when dealing with graphics-rich applications, but the more portable 15.4-inch screen is a more practical, plane-friendly option for travelers. The 5-pound weight includes a built-in battery and optical drive.

The MacBook Pro comes with several features for businesspeople to appreciate, including Intel's latest mobile processor, Core 2 Duo, a built-in camera for videoconferencing, and wireless connectivity based on the 802.11n draft standard, which offers speeds up to five times faster and up to two times the range compared with the 802.11g standard of previous models.

The MacBook Pro's battery life also is shorter than most ultraportable laptops--only up to six hours. It's replaceable, but you'll have to travel with two.

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