Overheating, dodgy trackpads and poor screen quality are among the most common problems with ultrabooks and MacBook Airs, according to a new study from FixYa, the problem-solving website. While the results are not statistically significant — the site is most likely to attract users who have problems with their machines — they do highlight areas that potential buyers should check.
Apple's MacBook Air is technically not an ultrabook, and appears to have problems of its own. The main complaints from FixYa users are "low memory" issues and "thermal shutdown" due to overheating. Both score 25 percent. MacBook Airs are also notoriously difficult to repair (which may mean returning them to Apple) and apparently suffers from poor speaker quality.
FixYa's advice is mainly to avoid overheating, including "let computer rest for a half hour". Maybe those MacBook Air owners who have the overheating problem can just build these half-hour rests into their working day.
Among those having problems with ultrabooks running Microsoft Windows 7, the main problem is "screen quality". This complaint is levelled at Acer's Timeline Ultra M5 (35 percent), Lenovo's IdeaPad (35 percent), and the Dell XPS 14z (25 percent). One exception is Vizio's Thin+Light. FixYa's report says: "The display is a gorgeous piece of work, which is entirely understandable considering Vizio's current reign as the most successful television company in the United States."
Screen quality is not a major concern for Asus ZenBook and Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon users, and obviously not for MacBook Air owners.
The touchpad is the main source of complaint about the Asus ZenBook Prime (45 percent), and ThinkPad X1 Carbon users (30 percent) also have problems.
Battery life is the main source of complaint for ThinkPad X1 Carbon and Vizio Thin+Light users (35 percent each).
Other significant complaints include the keyboards on the Vizio Thin+Light (25 percent) and Asus ZenBook Prime (20 percent); loud fans in the Lenovo IdeaPad (30 percent) and Timeline Ultra M5 (25 percent); and the Wi-Fi card on the Dell XPS 14z (35 percent), for which Dell's support site offers new drivers.
To minimise overheating and extend battery life, ultrabook and MacBook Air users can close their laptops when they are not using them. This has always worked well with MacBooks and now works with ultrabooks, because their Fast Start feature brings them back up in a couple of seconds. Turning down screen brightness and choosing energy-saving power schemes can also help a lot.
The sad point is that a few extra millimetres of thickness would enable manufacturers to fit bigger (perhaps removable) batteries while having no practical disadvantages beyond a slight increase in weight. As with supermodels, the fetish for extreme thinness in laptops is injurious to health.
Extreme thinness also prevents laptop manufacturers from fitting high quality keyboards of the sort that used to be standard with IBM ThinkPads in a previous century (and in general, Lenovo still does a better job than anyone else). In this case, users often like their crappy keyboards, possibly because they are much better than typing on screen on tablets and smartphones. Actual complaints about Ultrabook keyboards should therefore be taken very seriously: try before you buy.
For ultraportable users who don't mind carrying a couple of extras, decent earbuds (Sony or Sennheiser, for example) and a miniature mouse can help avoid problems with speakers and trackpads. Or shop around for an ultrabook with a TrackPoint in the keyboard. Lenovo, Toshiba and HP are among the companies that still sell laptops with those.