A Mac user’s travels in Ultrabook land

I spent the long weekend with my family tooling around Cape Cod, which ended up offering two unexpected opportunities to sample the latest and greatest light weight laptops, or ultrabooks as they’re known, in Windows land. My 13″ MacBook Pro is getting near replacement age and I’m keeping an open mind so far about which way to go with my next machine.

Saving the best for first, the most impressive potential piece of kit was a pre-release Lenovo X1 Carbon Thinkpad running Windows 8. This was a fascinating and attractive piece of gear, extremely light in the hand yet with a solid feel from the carbon fiber shell. Lenovo specs say it weighs 3 pounds, just a hair over the weight of a 13″ MacBook Air. But it felt a lot lighter than the Mac perhaps because the weight was spread out over a larger area. The 14″ screen was gorgeous and bright at 1600 by 900 pixels.

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I am bored and out of love with Apple’s aluminum unibody styling, an unergonomic and occasionally knife-like pain in the wrists. It’s a turn-off from the legions of Windows laptop makers who have aped it, too. So I also especially liked the Lenovo’s more grippable and stylish black outer jacket. The keyboard was as good as any laptop I’ve tried lately, too. The trackpad was very nice although a bit smaller than I’d like. I’m not a big fan of the Lenovo stick mouse, or whatever that little red nib is officially called, but if you are, this is the laptop for you.

Windows 8 is a strange creature on a laptop. You must start in what used to be called the “Metro” view, where icons to activate programs are mixed on a grid of widgets and other kinds of active panels, showing you the weather, incoming emails, and so on. I love that kind of mixed display on my phone but at least at first blush it wasn’t doing much for me on a laptop. One click takes you to a traditional Windows style desktop, just as good as the one you see in Windows 7. I felt like I’d need a few weeks of use, really trying to get the most out of the Metro interface, to render a proper verdict. To be clear, the X1 does not have a touch sensitive screen so you have to operate Metro, which seems more apt for tablets, with the mouse pointer, track pad etc.

A day later, due to a cousin’s need to return an ill fitting pair of shorts at Macy’s, my son and I had an hour to wander the aisles of a local Best Buy. While he shopped for new Xbox games to put on his wish list, I perused the laptop offerings. At one end of a row, getting prominent play, were three recent Ultrabooks, all running the current issue Windows 7 operating system. If memory serves, they were the Samsung Series 9 15″ model, Toshiba’s Satellite U845W with a very wide 14″ screen and a 13″ MacBook Air clone from Acer, I think the Aspire S3.

These were all slightly to much less appealing than the X1 in my brief examination. The Samsung was just too darn big and heavy. Close to 4 pounds in weight and just massive when folded shut and held in one arm, it’s not what I need for my next flagship, I don’t think. And the screen’s resolution is the same as the X1 just spread over slightly more screen space so the actual gain in productivity from the larger screen would be small.

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The Toshiba had some very appealing features. I really liked the grippy, rubberized outer skin that covered a portion of the outside and the bits where you rest your hands inside. One of my biggest gripes about the MacBook Airs is their hard metal and sharp edges. But I couldn’t quite get my head around the screen dimensions. Already many laptops and monitors have gone from the traditional 4 by 3 scale to a more HD-movie friendly 16 by 9. The Toshiba takes the screen another step into Hollywood dream land with a scaling of 21 by 9. The actual pixel count is 1792 by 768, so you are only getting the height of an 11″ MacBook Air screen, for example, with the width more commonly seen on a 17″ notebook. Playing around with a few programs, I could probably get used to using two short, wide windows next to each other instead of the narrower, taller dimensions I typically use now.

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Unfortunately, other aspects of the Toshiba seemed less than cutting edge. It had an old-fashioned, spinning disk drive instead of a solid state drive. And battery life of four hours is among the weakest for this niche. The giant screen also left you with an awkward and heavy bundle of tech to tote around when you closed the screen and picked it up.

The Acer was seemingly a 13″ MacBook Air for people who really don’t like Apple. You can run Windows on any current Apple laptop these days thus reducing the decision-making dilemma to one of hardware. Price wise, the Acer running a prior generation of Intel CPU and graphics chips was about $900 versus $1,200 for the entry-level Air.

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And that gets to one of the big changes in purchasing decisions from years gone by, the cheapie Acer not withstanding. It used be that Apple offered premium products at a premium price. Today, thanks in part to the company’s amazing efficiencies and massive buying power, Apple offers premium products at the best price. Comparably equipped competing laptops cost more, especially when you start to add to base configurations. A 13″ MacBook Air with a 256 GB SSD and 8 GB of RAM is $1,600 versus $1,960 for the Thinkpad X1 Carbon, similarly specced. Apple also lets you go up to 512 GB on the SSD, not even an option on the X1.

The were some key questions for my needs which I could not answer in these brief peeks, such as how well the laptops worked in “clamshell” mode, sitting closed on a desk hooked up to a full size monitor and keyboard. That’s a real strength of my current MacBook Pro. Some of the tech web sites that get advance releases of these laptops have already posted their reviews, so for a more detailed and less impressionistic run down, check them out:

Wired: Paint it, Black: Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon

Engadget: Samsung Series 9 review (15-inch, mid-2012)

Theverge: Toshiba Satellite U845W and U845 review

Pocket-lint: Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook review - External elegance, functional design averageness

Note: I usually like to post pictures I’ve taken myself on the blog but stores frown on photogs and the pre-release X1 seemed a little out of bounds to be snapped.