Thin is in again

The ultrabooks are back.

While these skinny laptops did not actually vanish from retail shops, there were practically no new models last year. We even scrapped the thin-and-light category for our annual Digital Life Awards this year.

But the first three months of this year have already seen more new ultrabooks than in all of last year.

The reason: the ultra low-power Intel Core processors used by these ultrabooks were delayed. Originally slated to debut last year, these chips, part of Intel's Broadwell family of processors, finally made their long-awaited appearance early this year.

With new ultrabooks launching this year, the category is expected to grow. Market research firm Gartner predicts Asia-Pacific shipments in the premium ultramobile category (including Windows ultrabooks and the Apple MacBook Air) will grow by 41 per cent this year.

So if you have been wanting a thin-and-light laptop, it seems the time has arrived. But what can you expect from the latest ultrabooks?

Broadwell v Haswell

Intel calls its latest processors "fifth-generation Intel Core" but Broadwell is the codename for the entire family of processors. The previous generation was called Haswell.

The similarity in names is no coincidence. Haswell and Broadwell share the same CPU design. In other words, the performance should not differ by much.

What Intel actually did in moving from Haswell to Broadwell was to reduce the size of the chip's internal circuits - a die shrink, in semiconductor lingo.

Haswell processors are fabricated using a 22 nanometre (nm) chip-processing technology. This is reduced to 14nm with Broadwell.

For Intel, it means lower production costs as it can fit in more chips on the same silicon wafer. Chips also run cooler than those of the earlier generation, allowing Intel to bump up clock speeds.

For end users, this means that their computers can run longer at higher speeds. Graphics performance is improved, but not enough to turn ultrabooks into powerful gaming machines.

More importantly, Broadwell laptops are expected to have longer battery lives - by up to an hour, according to Intel estimates.

To test both performance and battery life, I compared two near-identical ultrabooks - the latest Acer Aspire S7 with a Broadwell Core i7 chip and an older S7 (2013 edition) with a Haswell Core i7 CPU.

Both laptops have 47 watt-hour batteries and similar hardware specifications. Apart from having different processors, the newer S7 has a higher resolution screen (2,560 x 1,440 pixels versus 1,920 x 1,080 pixels) than the older S7.

In the PCMark 7 benchmark, the S7 (2013) scored 5,127, while the new model managed 5,190. It was a tie.

But the Broadwell-powered S7 showed its mettle in the battery test. It managed 7h 42min while the 2013 version clocked just 7h. Also, the newer S7 managed this despite having a higher-resolution screen that probably consumes more power.

High-end features

Ultrabooks are positioned as premium computers. High-resolution displays are practically standard on such laptops. Expect at least a full high-definition display on these laptops.

Manufacturers have also refreshed the wireless chipset on these new models. The latest standard is 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Most, if not all, of these ultrabooks should support the newer and faster technology.

Intel Core M v Broadwell-U

If you look at the table below, you may notice that some models use the Intel Core M chip. This is a Broadwell-class CPU that Intel managed to launch last year.

This processor, which consumes so little power that it does not require a fan for cooling, is more suitable for ultra-thin hybrids and tablets. However, we have also seen it powering ultra-thin laptops. Notably, Apple uses the Core M in its new 12-inch MacBook.

While not as fast for sustained workloads as low-power Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, collectively known as Broadwell-U, the Intel Core M offers decent performance. It should suffice for Web browsing, office productivity tasks and video playback.

So, to wait or not?

Broadwell was delayed, but its successor, Skylake, is on track.

Intel is expected to announce these processors, with a new design that supports DDR4 memory and wireless docking, in June. These chips should be available in laptops by Q4 this year. So some PC makers may skip Broadwell and move to Skylake for some of their models.

If you already have a Haswell computer, it may be prudent to wait till the end of the year before upgrading.

If not, check out the following reviews to find out what we think of the latest ultra-thin laptops.

Acer Aspire S7 (2015)
HP Spectre x360
Lenovo Yoga 3 (14 inch)
First Look: Asus ZenBook UX305
Dell XPS 13 (2015)
Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro

What about Apple MacBooks?

So far, the focus has been on thin-and-light laptops and convertibles that run Microsoft Windows.

But what about Apple? The latest numbers available (November 2014) from market researcher IDC pegs Apple's share of the PC market at 13 per cent in the United States. This is also Apple's highest-ever market share.

While we do not have figures for the local market, Singapore consumers can well afford to buy Apple's premium computers.

So should you consider the Macbook instead of a Windows PC?

The case for Apple...

Price: The days when critics savaged Apple for overpriced products are long over. Their phones and the Apple Watch are relatively expensive, but MacBook prices are quite competitive. MacBooks do cost more than the average Windows laptop. However, they are also premium computers intended for affluent consumers.

Besides, laptops with similar hardware from PC vendors are in the same price range. Take the current Apple MacBook Air. The 13-inch model with an Intel Core i5 chip, 4GB RAM and a 128GB solid-state drive is priced at $1,328.

The new Dell XPS 13 offers similar specifications for $1,699, albeit with a 1,920 x 1,080-pixel display instead of the Air's 1,440 x 900-pixel screen.

The Acer Aspire S7 doubles the RAM to 8GB and has a 2,560 x 1,440 pixel screen for $1,798.

In short, MacBooks are neither cheap nor overpriced.

Warranty: A perk of Apple's global reach is that its laptops come with international warranty. This is useful for road warriors, but keep in mind that you will be out of luck in countries without authorised service centres.

However, this is still better than the coverage most PC vendors offer. They often have global coverage for their business machines, but not the consumer models.

Software: Those who dislike the touch-based Windows 8 interface may find Apple's OS X more to their liking, especially if they are used to Apple's iOS devices. OS X has been borrowing features from iOS in recent years. More importantly, Apple is able to make its products work well with one another because it does both the software and the hardware.

While OS X does not support touchscreens, MacBooks have arguably the best touchpads in the market, ably supported by a number of useful multitouch gestures on OS X.

Finally, OS X upgrades are free, provided the hardware requirements are met.

... and the case against Apple

Apps: Office, Adobe Photoshop and other popular software apps are available for Apple computers. But many businesses have their own proprietary apps for the Windows platform. A workaround to getting Windows on an Apple computer is to install Boot Camp or a virtualisation app such as Parallels.

It is viable, although you will incur extra costs for the Windows and virtualisation software licences. You can also expect the performance of your Apple computer to be inferior in Windows compared with OS X because of the lack of driver updates and optimisation. In particular, battery life is not as good.

Apple remains a second-class citizen when it comes to games.

While there are now more Mac-compatible games than ever, they are significantly fewer than Windows or console versions. Mac-compatible games are also likely to be released later than PC games.

Hardware: The latest 12-inch MacBook looks enticing with its ultra-thin build and Retina display. But like the original MacBook Air, Apple is pushing the envelope here with its design choices. The MacBook has just a single USB Type-C port for both charging and data connection.

Most users will find this overly restrictive - adaptors cost extra, too. The new USB interface also makes Apple's gamble on the Thunderbolt connector look increasingly like a failure. Woe to those who have invested in Thunderbolt accessories.

The company has so far resisted the urge to upgrade its current MacBook Air with an improved display. This is a big reason why I hesitate to buy a MacBook Air.

In short, Apple will do what it thinks best and you are just along for the ride. If you want more customisation, look to the Windows PC platform.


This article was first published on April 22, 2015.
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