Buyers looking for premium Windows laptops today have plenty of choices; every few months sees some splashy launch of a new high-end PC. Ultrabooks have become the standard design for most premium Windows laptops, and they represent the best of what companies like Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Microsoft have to offer in terms of design, power, and innovation.
If you’re looking for a thin-and-light laptop that’s still powerful enough to handle work and play with ease—and doesn’t run macOS—a Windows ultrabook is what you want. But not all ultrabooks are created equal. That’s why Ars has tested some of the most popular Windows laptops to see which are worthy for consideration as your next high-end notebook.
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What is an ultrabook?
At their core, ultrabooks are powerful and portable personal computers. While original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) make a plethora of laptops and convertibles with different abilities, limitations, and prices, ultrabooks are generally reserved for flagship machines that define an OEM’s ideal vision for the personal computer.
Intel trademarked the term “ultrabook” back in 2011 when it wanted to differentiate a certain class of notebooks. These machines were to be thin and light but also powerful, with high-end Intel processors.
Intel created guidelines for the first ultrabooks—guidelines like maximum thickness in millimeters and fast boot times. Technology has advanced enough to make many of these original guidelines into standard laptop features. Intel wanted a roadmap for laptops of the future—now that future has become reality.
Ultrabooks demand more strategic engineering than other laptops because most want to be as thin as possible while still supporting powerful CPUs and GPUs, as well as a variety of random access memory (RAM) options, solid-state drives (SSDs), and relatively large batteries.
Ultrabooks were first expected to last just five to six hours on a single charge. That was significant back in 2011, though today a six-hour battery life would be considered abysmal—most decent ultrabooks now last at least nine to ten hours on a single charge.
All of this means that ultrabooks carry high price tags. As more advanced hardware components have joined the mix (touchscreens, 4K displays, high-capacity SSDs, etc.), the price of flagship ultrabooks has increased steadily.
Most of the ultrabooks considered for this guide start at $999—which puts ultrabooks squarely in competition with Apple’s MacBook Air. As the configurations increase in power and features, some ultrabooks can compete with the MacBook Pro in performance and pricing as well. This isn’t an accident; ultrabooks are in part designed as Windows alternatives to Apple’s popular laptops.
What we tested
Design and build quality are especially important for an ultrabook—they are the machine’s biggest selling point. Not only should an ultrabook be well built (in the sense that it shouldn’t bend easily or feel flimsy), but it should also be made with high-quality materials (as little plastic as possible) and make a statement with its design.
That statement doesn’t have to be garish—we’d prefer it not to be—but it should show buyers that the OEM has thought about how the machine will look, how it will work, and how its design can offer an advantage in terms of power and battery-life management.
For specs, we set a few hard rules for the ultrabooks we considered: all should measure less than 23mm at their widest point (typically the hinge area, where the lid and the chassis meet) and should weigh less than five pounds. Our weight cap is liberal because we tested and considered a few large, 15- and 17-inch ultrabooks for one of our categories. Thirteen-inch and 14-inch ultrabooks, arguably the most popular sizes, generally weigh less than three pounds.
We also considered screen size and quality, along with port selection. Size will vary depending on model, but generally the most portable ultrabooks have 13-inch screens. This feels like a sweet spot—not cramped like an 11- or 12-inch screen on the netbooks of yore but still small enough to let the machine fit into nearly any backpack or bag. Displays should have full HD (1920×1080) resolution at the very least, but we did consider the different panels and panel styles each OEM provides (QHD, 4K, touchscreen, non-touch, anti-glare).
Connectivity is also critical. In 2019, we still think the most practical ultrabooks include one USB-A port—but we’re aware that many no longer do. When OEMs start thinning their laptops, ports are often the first things to go. If a machine doesn’t have a USB-A port, it should include a combination of USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 ports as well as a selection of conveniences like lock, nanoSIM, and microSD card slots.
As with our individual reviews, we also considered other hardware aspects like keyboard comfort and trackpad size. This can make or break a machine, so we spent at least one day with each machine to test these components.
Specs and configuration range
Ultrabooks should run on the latest processors. Most of the laptops we review at Ars use Intel CPUs, with the exception of a few gaming-focused machines. Other specs, including RAM and storage, will differ greatly depending on the design of the device. Some convertibles and detachables start off with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage—but can be configured to hold much more than that.
For this guide, we considered starting configurations, the specific configuration we tested, and how many configuration options the OEM provides. Rarely does a company offer just one version of its flagship laptop, but it has happened in the past, and we wanted to make clear just how customizable these machines truly are.
Performance and battery life
Going hand in hand with specs are performance and battery life. We treated each laptop as if we were reviewing it individually, running all of our typical benchmark and battery tests. Those include:
We also used each device for at least one day to see how it handled dozens of open Edge and Chrome tabs, photo editing programs, video streaming, and other real-world use cases.
The benchmarks comparing our winning machines in each category are below:
Ultrabooks are among the more expensive laptops you can buy, but they don’t to be budget-breaking purchases. Most of the laptops we tested start at $999, and when evaluating them, we took into account the starting price, the price of the review unit we received, and how easily you can drop hundreds of extra dollars on the machine if you want to spec it out.
We also considered any extras (keyboard cases, active pens) that are included in a machine’s price. Some OEMS make you pay extra for accessories that you need to get the full experience of a convertible or detachable. That’s not ideal, so any machines that include accessories in their pricing will be a better value in the long run.
A note about operating system
All of the machines we considered for this guide run Windows 10 and were designed to be Windows laptops. We didn’t consider any macOS laptops for this guide, nor did we consider Chrome OS machines. If you’re interested in the latter, check out our Chromebook Guidemaster.