Windows 8 ultrabooks that live up to the name

Summary:Windows 8 has shifted the focus to tablets and convertibles. But there's still no substitute for a real laptop, and there is plenty of room left for innovation. For the past few weeks, I've been trying out several laptops that are leading the way.

The release of Windows 8 has revived the convertibles category. As the recent International Consumer Electronics Show demonstrated, computer makers are trying every conceivable way to merge a laptop and tablet. While many of these are intriguing, I've yet to find a design that made for either a great laptop or a great tablet.

When it comes to getting real work done, there is still no substitute for a conventional clamshell laptop. The notebook isn't going to disappear anytime soon, but it is sorely in need of some fresh designs and new features.

For the past few weeks I've been trying out several systems, including two versions of the Acer Aspire S7 and Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch, which demonstrate that there's still room for innovation in laptops. These systems, which all qualify as Intel Ultrabooks, are ultra-thin and lightweight, use fast Core processors, and have high-resolution touchscreens that make them perfect for Windows 8.

Acer Aspire S7

The Acer Aspire S7 comes in two sizes: 11.6 inches and 13.3 inches. Both have a similar white-and-silver design that measures less than half an inch thick (the 13-inch model is one of the thinnest laptops I've ever seen at 0.47 inches). The 11-inch S7-191 has an aluminum display lid and keyboard deck, and a white plastic base, while the larger S7-391 has an eye-catching white Gorilla Glass lid and an all-aluminum body. Unlike the HP Envy Spectre, which got a bit weighed down with all that glass, the Aspire S7 is still a featherweight. The smaller model is 2.2 pounds (2.7 pounds with an extra battery that attaches to the back) and the 13-inch version weighs in at 2.9 pounds. For comparison, the 11- and 13-inch MacBook Air weigh 2.4 and 3 pounds, respectively.

The most distinctive feature of the Aspire S7 is its Full HD touchscreen--something you won't find in most laptops this size (the Sony VAIO Duo 11 is the only other one that comes to mind). The high-resolution, 10-point touchscreen is perfect for Windows 8-style apps, and the hinge is stiff, so you can easily tap and swipe on the display with one hand. In the classic desktop, the display looks great too, though the default text size makes it a bit of an eye chart, especially on the 11-inch display. The display hinge also rotates a full 180 degrees so that you can lay it flat to share it with others (a keystroke combination rotates the display image).

One drawback of the ultra-thin design is that it doesn't leave much room for the keys to travel, but they are full-size and well-spaced, so in practice, I didn't notice much difference in my accuracy (though faster, more accurate typists probably would). The backlit keyboard has an ambient light sensor, but you can also manually adjust the brightness. The large touchpad worked fine for me, though some reviewers have complained about its responsiveness.

The Aspire S7 has micro-HDMI, rather than a standard HDMI or DisplayPort connector, and no Ethernet jack (Acer included USB adapters for VGA and Ethernet with the ones I tested). It also has two USB 3.0 ports (one of which can charge devices when the system is off), an SD card slot, and a headset jack. The audio quality of the speakers is above average, and the Aspire S7 includes Dolby Home Theater with an equalizer that lets you tweak the settings for movies, music, and gaming.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

The X1 Carbon has a larger display, measuring 14-inches diagonally, but it has roughly the same footprint as the 13-inch Aspire S7 because the ThinkPad's screen has a very thin bezel. It is slightly thicker and heavier than the Aspire S7, but it is still extremely portable, especially for a 14-inch laptop. (In fact, it's the first 14-inch laptop I'd be willing to carry on my daily commute.) The touchscreen version I tested is 0.7-inches thick and weighs 3.3 pounds; the non-touch version is a bit thinner and lighter, but otherwise, looks identical. As the name implies, the X1 has a durable, lightweight carbon-fiber and magnesium case with a black soft-touch finish that looks and feels good.

Although it has a slightly larger display, the X1 Carbon opts for an HD+ (1600x900) resolution. This is a good middle ground. The display image looks great and the 10-point touchscreen works well with Windows 8-style apps, but text is still easy on the eyes at the default settings in the classic desktop. The screen is also less reflective than the glossy displays on many competing ultrabooks. The X1 Carbon Touch is a bit top-heavy, so you end up placing one hand on the wrist-rest when tapping and swiping on the screen with the other to prevent it from tipping backwards. As on the Aspire S7, the hinges rotate nearly 180 degrees so that you can share the display with others, but there's no obvious way to rotate the display image.

The X1 Carbon has the ThinkPad's usual excellent keyboard. It was clearly more comfortable to use than the one on the Aspire S7, or most other ultra-thin laptops for that matter. Lenovo has finally thrown in the towel on the ThinkLight, which never really worked well, and adopted the standard backlit keys found on most premium laptops. Even better, the X1 Carbon lets you toggle between two brightness levels. It also has a large glass touchpad and TrackPoint pointing stick (the latter is a must-have feature for me, but this is a matter of personal preference).

Like with the Aspire S7, the X1 Carbon's thin chassis leaves little room for ports. It has a Mini DisplayPort and no Ethernet (though Lenovo includes a USB adapter for Ethernet and sells optional Mini DisplayPort adapters for DisplayPort, DVI, and VGA monitor inputs). It also has one USB 2.0 port (which can charge devices) and one USB 3.0 port. The speakers aren't great, but the included Dolby Home Theater equalizer--the same one on the Aspire S7--does help out. Lenovo has also developed some useful videoconferencing features, such as keystroke noise suppression and a face-tracking camera.

Intel has promised that touchscreen ultrabooks will be available this holiday season at prices starting around $600. But you get what you pay for. These premium systems cost twice as much or more. The Aspire S7 starts at $1,200 with the 11-inch display and $1,400 with the 13-inch one. The S7-191 I tested included a Core i5 processor, 4GB of memory, and a 128GB solid-state drive for $1,200. The S7-391 I tested, with a faster Core i7 processor and 256GB SSD, costs $1,650. The X1 Carbon Touch starts at $1,500 with a Core i5 processor, 4GB of memory, and a 128GB SSD. The configuration I tested, with a 180GB SSD, costs a bit more. Upgrades include faster processors, more memory, and larger capacity drives. The X1 Carbon can also be configured with integrated wireless broadband. Other systems in this class include the 13-inch MacBook Air, which starts at $1,200 (no touchscreen), and the Asus ZenBook UX31A Touch, which starts at $1,100.

These systems don't yet deliver on all of the promises of the ultrabook. The introduction of the fourth-generation Core, or Haswell, processors later this year should boost battery life--something that is still a weakness in these ultra-thin Windows 8 systems. It will also be the first Core platform to support connected standby, which will make the user experience more like that of a smartphone or tablet.

But with their ultra-thin and lightweight designs, and high-resolution touchscreens, the Aspire S7 and ThinkPad X1 Carbon illustrate how much progress has already been made on ultrabooks. They are easily among the best Windows 8 laptops currently available.

Topics: Laptops

About

John Morris is a former executive editor at CNET Networks and senior editor at PC Magazine. He now works for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are... Full Bio

Contact Disclosure

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.