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Best ultraportable laptops for business 2018

Ultraportable laptops are the mobile professional's friend, but which size and model should you buy? We explore the options and list some of the best.

ultraportables2018header.jpg
Image: seb_ra, Getty Images/iStockphoto

For mobile professionals, the ideal computer is probably an 'ultraportable' laptop -- a device suitable for carrying day in, day out, in a briefcase or backpack. Obviously it needs to be lightweight and relatively compact, but at the same time it should be robust enough to cope with the rough-and-tumble of life outside the office. It also needs to pack a specification that allows real work to be done -- not just content consumption -- without running out of battery life before the working day is over.

And increasingly, ultraportable laptops need to look the part in whatever out-of-office spaces itinerant workers might find themselves in. After all, who wants to be seen tapping away on a dull-looking 'corporate' device on a train or in a hotel lobby?

That's quite a challenge for engineers and industrial designers, which is why debate is often fierce over which ultraportable laptop is the 'best'. As ever, the answer depends on exactly what the user wants to do with the device, and therefore which combination of features is most important.

"It's really dealing with this new way of working," Chad Paris, HP's industrial design manager, told ZDNet recently. "No longer are our customers trapped in cubicles all day -- they're working in coffee shops and at home, while office environments are becoming more open. A lot of our features and designs try to take these new environments into account."

What is an ultraportable laptop?

Although Intel attempted to 'own' the ultraportable space with its trademarked Ultrabook concept back in 2012, the concept is now somewhat less tightly defined. For example, Gartner currently typifies ultraportables as devices with displays ranging between 7 and 13.9 inches and weighing less than 1.6kg (3lbs), but other definitions may vary slightly (Gartner also includes tablets and convertibles in its 'ultraportable' definition -- hence the 7-inch starting point).

However they're defined, ultraportable laptops will have wi-fi and Bluetooth, and some will also have LTE mobile broadband and/or wired Ethernet. Screens can be touch or non-touch, while space in the chassis for keyboard, battery and connection ports will necessarily be restricted. Because ultraportables are regularly taken out of the office, security features such as biometric authentication by fingerprint or face recognition, perhaps backed up by smart card support, will be particularly important.

See: The 10 worst things about working from home (free PDF)

All these sometimes-competing requirements mean that designers and engineers must inevitably make trade-offs when shrinking a laptop to an ultraportable form factor.

"We're very tied into working collaboratively with other teams," said HP's Paris, "from setting out the definition of what the product needs to be to when we build a product like the EliteBook x360: how do we package a sleek mobile device with that aspirational feel for these new enterprise users we're designing for? With any product it's always a challenge to balance the visual feel with internal structures -- for example, achieving a 14.9mm-thin laptop yet still optimising the thermal envelope."

Another example is balancing the desire for a minimal-bezel screen with a suitable webcam position for video conferencing. Dell's otherwise excellent XPS 13 (see list below) is arguably marred by its webcam location below the screen, giving a somewhat unflattering 'up the nose' angle on video calls. Other designs accept a wider upper bezel in order to site the webcam in its optimal position -- front and centre, above the screen:

dell-xps-13-webcam.jpg

The webcam on Dell's XPS 13 sits below the screen.

Images: CNET

On the webcam/bezel question, Paris had this to say: "We're very insights-driven, and this is the optimal location [above the screen]. Now, are we getting much thinner on screen borders? You bet, and we're going to pursue that kind of immersive display. But as of right now, we're not making trade-offs in terms of the video conferencing experience."

Then there's the quest for extreme slimness, with some laptops -- such as Acer's Swift 7 and HP's Spectre -- now down to around 10mm thick when closed. This not only creates headaches in terms of cooling and potential flexibility in the screen and keyboard sections, but also rules out interfaces such as RJ-45 Ethernet. Or does it? Fujitsu's 15.5mm-thick Lifebook U938 manages to squeeze wired Ethernet into its chassis via an ingenious pull-out/pop-up arrangement:

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Fujitsu fits an RJ-45 Ethernet connection into its Lifebook U938 via a pull-out/pop-up mechanism.

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Of course, if your 'ultraportable' needs to be able to withstand extreme environments, take heavy drops or knocks, and offer a wide range of connections, then you're going to have to accept some extra bulk and weight. Fully rugged 13-inch laptops from specialists like Panasonic, Getac and GriD weigh around 3.5kg, for example -- nearly three times the weight of a typical business or consumer ultraportable.

As with any market segment, there are different levels of functionality available at different price points in the ultraportable market. Here's a high-level breakdown:

ComponentEntry levelMid rangeTop end
ProcessorCore m3, Core i3Core i5Core i7, Core i9
RAM4GB8GB16GB
GraphicsintegratedintegratedDiscrete (AMD, Nvidia)
Storage (SSD)256GB512GB1TB

Although they are currently few and far between, keep an eye on laptops running on AMD's Ryzen Mobile processors -- especially if you're interested in graphics performance, which is a particular strength for AMD.

Best ultraportable laptops (H1 2018)

Here's ZDNet's current list of the best ultraportable laptops -- running Windows or macOS (no Chromebooks made it onto the list at this time) -- on the market. Note that we have excluded 2-in-1 hybrid (convertible and detachable) laptops from this list, as these have been covered in a separate roundup.

ProductScreen size (inches)Weight (kg)OS
Dell XPS 13
Vendor links: US / UK / AU
13.31.21Windows 10
Microsoft Surface Laptop
Vendor links: US / UK / AU
13.51.25Windows 10
HP Spectre
Vendor links: US / UK / AU
13.31.11Windows 10
Razer Blade Stealth
Vendor links: US / UK / AU
12.51.33Windows 10
Dell XPS 15
Vendor links: US / UK / AU
15.62Windows 10
Acer Swift 3
Vendor links: US / UK / AU
141.5Windows 10
Apple MacBook
Vendor links: US / UK / AU
120.92macOS
Asus ZenBook 3
Vendor links: US / UK / AU
12.50.91Windows 10
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon
Vendor links: US / UK / AU
141.13Windows 10
Acer Aspire S 13
Vendor links: US / UK
13.31.3Windows 10
Apple MacBook Pro
Vendor links: US / UK / AU
13.3 / 15.41.37 / 1.83macOS
Asus ZenBook 13 UX330UA
Vendor links: US / UK / AU
13.31.12Windows 10
Huawei MateBook X / X Pro
Vendor links: X / X Pro
13 / 13.91.05 / 1.33Windows 10
Samsung Notebook 9
Vendor links: US
13.3 / 151.0 / 1.3Windows 10

Screen sizes range from 12 to 15 inches, and weight from 910g to 1.83kg. Generally speaking, the bigger the screen the heavier the laptop, but several products stand out as lightweight for their screen size:

ultraportablesscreen-size-vs-weight.png
Chart: ZDNet

Another clear pattern is that a high-capacity battery generally means a heavier laptop. Again, some products stand out as being lightweight for their battery capacity:

ultraportablesbattery-vs-weight.png
Chart: ZDNet

Technology advances may ease some of the trade-offs for designers and engineers in the future, but choices will always have to be made in the ultraportable space. So, as a customer, you'll need to weigh up the relative importance of factors like screen size, weight, battery capacity, thinness, keyboard action, security features and performance, to arrive at the choice that's best for you.

See: 20 pro tips to make Windows 10 work the way you want (free PDF)

HP's Paris sums up the evolutionary nature of laptop design: "Today we're getting progressive form factors thanks to materials and machining technology, but there are still limitations to those processes. So, as the world of 3D printing advances, for example, are there more progressive things we can do on the form factor? Maybe. As technologies in displays change, will they be integrated differently to how you currently see it with hinges? Of course. Can we get to more a seamless design between all the components? Those are the things we aspire to as designers -- to continue to refine. Design is never finished once a product ships: it's a constant iterative process."

Keep reading our reviews, and check back later in the year for an update on the list of best ultraportables.


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