Half a year into their launch, Ultrabooks are expanding beyond the niche expensive business market into the 'enthusiast consumer' stream as well. Here we look at how they differ in a quick half-day preview, with Toshiba's two flagship entries from each camp, side by side.
The users' opinions may vary, but I did like the idea of Ultrabook the first time it was mooted by Intel last year. Why? Well, who wouldn't like a full feature, productive PC machine in a sexy looking, ultra slim, light form factor not much heavier than an iPad, yet able do actually create business and other content, rather than just show it like the tablets usually do? And, for all the dislike of X86 platform – shared by me, surely – it is a proper PC, not dependent on some online application stores for things I want to run on it.
Of course, the challenges of combining decent PC performance and feature set, together with usable keyboard, power & cooling gadgetry, slim display and long battery life, into those slim enclosures – ah yes, rigid and sturdy enough enclosures – do affect the cost too.
The main problems with the initial Ultrabook rollouts – aside from having to wait for the Ivy Bridge as a true full-performance Ultrabook platform within the prescribed power envelope – are the focus on the business form factor, and, of course, the still somewhat high (or perceived so) price. You've all seen how sexy the ASUS UX31 is, however the price – which even went up slightly here in Singapore recently – is a huge barrier, leading Asus to create the lower end UX21 model as well.
Toshiba, as one of leading notebook makers and designers over the past two decades, is one of the few Japanese names, together with Sony and Fujitsu, that stays still strong in global mobile PC business. They have their fair share of unique innovations in this segment – remember the little Libretto with two LCD screens, one of them a touchscreen in place of a keyboard? Here, in a quick glance over a few hours we had available, we look at their attempt to differentiate the business and consumer Ultrabook streams – the Portege Z830 being the first one, and the new Satellite U840 as the second one.
Portege Z830, being the flashy corporate model used to beam up presentations to (or by) CxOs, among others, has smaller AND slimmer casing, with its 13.3-inch LCD screen being stretched quite close to the edge – it is definitely a very compact, lean design well comparable in the sexiness factor to the Asus UX31, for instance, even though it doesn't taper to a sharp edge like the Asus offering. At just over 1.1 kg and a third of an inch thick, the Portege Z830 is among the lightest 13-inch notebooks around, partly enabled by the magnesium alloy casing material. The CPU, Sandy Bridge Core i7-2677M CPU at 1.8 GHz, is pretty decent for such a compact notebook, with up to 8 GB RAM supported – we had 6 GB, a little odd number, in the test unit. There was also a 128 GB SSD built-in.
On the other side, the Satellite U840, while still quite slim, is larger – the 14-inch LCD is there too – and heavier, at some 1.6 kg, feeling more like a cross between Ultrabook and standard thin notebook. Its speaker seems larger too, an useful feature when playing multimedia content – something more likely to happen in home use, anyway. To make it more affordable, the Satellite U840 is based on Intel's Sandy Bridge ULV Core i5-2467M 1.6 GHz processor, a few notches below the CPU in the Portege, although it still has up to 8GB of DDR3-1333 RAM – only 1 DIMM was installed in the test system, with 4 GB capacity. The 128 GB SSD from Portege is replaced in the Satellite by a 500GB + 16GB hybrid drive – yes those 16 GB are a SSD cache. It also has 3 USB ports (one is USB3) as well as usual Ethernet and audio I/O.
Both systems' displays are at 1366×768 resolution – something that, like with most other Ultrabook systems, could be changed for the better. Even if one sticks to the irritating 16:9 aspect ratio that the mentally myopic panel vendors seem to impose on the laptop brands these days, going up to 1600×900 or, better, 1920×1080 FullHD resolution does improve the usability somewhat. I hope we see that in the Ivy Bridge refresh, at least.
In the short time I had with the systems, the goal was to find the differences in basic hardware performance between the two systems, as well as the battery life impact. I ran Sandra 2012 and PCmark Vantage tests here – PCmark Vantage was chosen rather than PCmark 7 as its lighter graphics load is more appropriate for Ultrabook usage models.
Here are the results:
As you can see, there is a marked difference between the two machines, with the smaller business Ultrabook having a noticeable lead. However, a part of the explanation is not in the two CPU bins slower processor, but in only one memory module present, which halves the memory bandwidth for both CPU and the integrated graphics, of course. This, of course, is easily solved by plugging in another similar DIMM into the empty socket for dual channel operation. The SSD in the Portege also helped with storage performance in the PCMark Vantage run over the hybrid solution in the Satellite.
Overnight, I also left both systems to drain their batteries with idle run, but with screens forced on. The Portege reached around 7 hours 20 minutes, while the larger Satellite managed more – 7 hours 50 minutes to be exact. These are quite good figures, within the spec expectations.
In summary, these are well built systems despite the challenges, and the design of both machines is attractive, but the Portege is still the sexier – and faster – choice, of course at a premium price. The Satellite can be a good student or home Ultrabook choice, however do make sure the memory is configured in dual-channel mode for full performance. We will look at these and more Ultrabooks in our subsequent detailed reviews.