How to buy an Ultrabook: Beyond the specs


Ultrabooks are everywhere these days. Coined by Intel in 2011, the term Ultrabook refers to a category of laptops that are lightweight yet powerful and meet a baseline standard of specifications that are continually evolving.

Recently, Intel required every new Ultrabook to have touchscreen capabilities, hardware ready for voice command, and a battery-life of at least six hours of HD video playback, suggesting the semi-conductor manufacture hopes to spur even more innovation.

But if anything is preventing Ultrabooks from becoming mainstream, it’s the price. Manufactures have yet to release a decent budget Ultrabook option. Evolving spec requirements (most importantly size and weight) can make a pretty minimal device cost well over $1000. No, Ultrabooks aren’t for gamers or spendthrifts. Or, for that matter, anyone in need of a screen over 15 inches. Also cross it off your list if you depend on three USB ports. And expect to find most Ultrabook devices designed for the tablet optimized Windows 8 OS.

Even so, Ultrabooks are becoming less niche. If you’ve decided to make the purchase, we recommend giving any device a thorough test-run, because there are physical attributes aplenty that will affect your Ultrabook user experience that don’t show up on a spec sheet. Most Ultrabooks are available for testing at brick-and-mortar retail stores such as Apple and Microsoft, allowing you to fiddle with the trackpad, keyboard, software interface, and other components that substantially differ from model to model.

While you’re at it, check out our favorite Ultrabooks and common mistakes we’ve noticed among laptop buyers.

This article was originally published April 1, 2012 and has been updated to reflect changes in the market. Matt Smith contributed to this article.

Slimmer isn’t always better

Designing a seriously slim device will come with trade-offs. Some Ultrabooks sacrifice quality composition for a lightweight feel. Take the Dell Inspiron 14 7000 Series, for example. We gave the laptop a positive review. Even so, the chassis was awkwardly designed; the frame had sharp sides that dug into our reviewer’s hands when held. Often times, featherweights have too many creaks and groans or surfaces that feel awkward. That’s the kind of information that won’t show up on a spec sheet.

Dell Inspiron 14 7000

Testing out an ultrabook at your local retailer will give you a good sense if your desired device will feel flimsy. It will also give you a good sense of the chassis design. Pay close attention to any vibration or any surfaces that seem to re-align themselves as your hands place pressure on the exterior. Also, note the quality of the materials used and the way they feel.

Keyboard and touchpad function

Touchscreens may be required by Intel, but today’s Ultrabooks still depend on well performing keyboard and touchpads. Testing the keyboard will give you a good sense of key travel. Type a few sentences and see how the keyboard reacts. Is there enough space below the keyboard for your palms? These may seem like minor points, but they can cause frustration over time.

HP Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4

Another factor to consider is the touchpad. Move your fingers across the surface to see if you like the texture. Also make sure to depress the integrated buttons.

There probably won’t be individual left and right buttons – that’s because most manufacturers have integrated them into the touchpad surface. Instead of touching a button, you now just depress the lower left or right hand side of the touchpad. Some touchpads require almost no effort to activate, while others require quite a bit, and everyone has a personal preference.

Display considerations

A device boasting a resolution exceeding 1080p is certainly worth more than a cursory glance, but its not always the right choice, given that many Ultrabooks have yet to master properly scaling anything over 200 pixels per inch. High-resolution laptops often yield a smaller picture because operating systems such as Windows render dimensions in pixel size. More pixels on the screen reduces the size of everything, including fonts, icons, and other key aspects of the visual display.

Take note: while Ultrabooks aren’t known for their gaming prowess, increasing native resolution may make things move slower. Games and movies benefit only marginally from the increased sharpness. Games can take quite a hit if the underlying hardware isn’t powerful enough. And generally Ultrabooks sacrifice under-the-hood speed for portability and power saving compared to their bulkier brethren.

Glossy screen

It’s easy to overlook the importance of a screen. Many Ultrabooks have a glossy screen. It looks great under some lights but working in a room with lots of natural daylight can render a high-gloss screen nearly useless.

Acer Aspire S7

Heat and noise management

Heat and noise management is a widespread problem among Ultrabooks. Their small size can make cooling components difficult. What’s more, it’s one trait you can’t judge in a big box store.

Here’s the good news: we at DT record external temperatures in our Ultrabook reviews and we also make note of noise levels. While there’s no hard-and-fast rule for what people find tolerable, temperatures over 100 degrees usually cause discomfort. Temperatures over 90 degrees stands a real good chance of giving you sweaty palms.

Bottom Line:

Buying an Ultrabook is complex, but testing out Ultrabooks at brick and mortar stores is a good start. Beyond that, reviews will help assess Ultrabooks beyond the physical feel and spec sheets. We’ll walk you through every feature of a notebook and how it performed in our hands-on testing, from display, to durability, to performance. We take an in-depth look and evaluate every Ultrabook we receive, including everything from the user interface, the display-to-performance, and overall design.

Remember that you have options. You’re not required to buy that extra-thin convertible Ultrabook that weighs less than your phone. Hunt around the Internet a bit and you’re almost certain to find a similar that’ll work better for you. The wrong device is never a good deal, no matter how slim.


Don't spend a fortune on a PC. These are the best laptops under $300

Buying a laptop needn't mean spending a fortune. If you're just looking to browse the internet, answer emails, and watch Netflix, you can pick up a great laptop at a great price. These are the best laptops under $300.

Watch out for these top-10 mistakes people make when buying a laptop

Buying a new laptop is exciting, but you need to watch your footing. There are a number of pitfalls you need to avoid and we're here to help. Check out these top-10 laptop buying mistakes and how to avoid them.

Keep your laptop battery in tip-top condition with these handy tips

Learn how to care for your laptop's battery, how it works, and what you can do to make sure yours last for years and retains its charge. Check out our handy guide for valuable tips, no matter what type of laptop you have.

Don’t even bother with the rest. Here are the only laptop brands that matter

If you want to buy your next laptop based around a specific brand, it helps to know which the best brands of laptops are. This list will give you a good grounding in the most reliable, quality laptop manufacturers today.

It's not all free money. Here's what to know before you try to mine Bitcoin

Mining Bitcoin today is harder than it used to be, but if you have enough time, money, and cheap electricity, you can still turn a profit. Here's how to get started mining Bitcoin at home and in the cloud.

Need a free alternative to Adobe Illustrator? Here are our favorites

Photoshop and other commercial tools can be expensive, but drawing software doesn't need to be. This list of the best free drawing software is just as powerful as some of the more expensive offerings.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: camera with A.I. director, robot arm assistant

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!

What is fixed wireless 5G? Here’s everything you need to know

Here's fixed wireless 5G explained! Learn what you need to know about this effective new wireless technology, when it's available, how much it costs, and more. If you're thinking about 5G, this guide can help!

Fix those internet dead zones by turning an old router into a Wi-Fi repeater

Is there a Wi-Fi dead zone in your home or office? A Wi-Fi repeater can help. Don't buy a new one, though. Here is how to extend Wi-Fi range with another router you have lying around.

Heal your wrist aches and pains with one of these top ergonomic mice

If you have a growing ache in your wrist, it might be worth considering ergonomic mice alternatives. But which is the best ergonomic mouse for you? One of these could be the ticket to the right purchase for you.

These are the best indie games you can get on PC right now

Though many indie games now come to consoles as well, there's still a much larger selection on PC. With that in mind, we've created a list of the best indie games for PC, with an emphasis on games that are only available on PC.

Want a MacBook that will last all day on a single charge? Check these models out

Battery life is one of the most important factors in buying any laptop, especially MacBooks. Their battery life is typically average, but there are some standouts. Knowing which MacBook has the best battery life can be rather useful.

Want a Dell laptop with an RTX 2060? Cross the new XPS 15 off your list

The next iteration of Dell's XPS 15 laptop won't come with an option for an RTX 2060, according to Alienware's Frank Azor. You could always opt for a new Alienware m15 or m17 instead.

Always have way too many tabs open? Google Chrome might finally help

Google is one step closer to bringing tab groups to its Chrome browser. The feature is now available in Google's Chrome Canady build with an early implementation that can be enabled through its flag system.