Help me not throw $$$ away and choose the best ultrabook.
February 23, 2016 12:51 PM   Subscribe

Hi All, any input into the ultrabook world would be great. I have read ALL the ultrabook reviews, and am finding I need to choose between a good (great) screen and the 16 gb of ram I need (want). In the running are: RazorBlade Stealth, ThinkPad x260, Dell XPS 13, MacBook 12, and the Yoga 12. Are there any other good options for a 12/12.5 screen and 16 gb ram? Any recommendations form users of any of these? Thanks!
posted by 1inabillionmistake to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Well, immediately, the macbook is very much the odd-one-out here in terms of computing power. 16GB of memory isn't even an option, and the CoreM cpu is much less powerful that the core i5/i7 cpus available in the others.
posted by kickingtheground at 1:04 PM on February 23, 2016

The 12-inch macbook doesn't have a 16 gb of RAM option; it maxes out at 8. If you want 16 gigs you'll need to go with a Macbook Pro with Retina, either 13 or 15 inch. I have a 13 inch macbook pro and use a 15-inch for work - they're both great laptops, but the 15 inch one is HUGE, and considerably heavier than the 13 inch. So bear that in mind if you plan on travelling with it.

I can't speak for any of the others; I don't use windows. That's another consideration - which OS do you prefer?
posted by Itaxpica at 1:06 PM on February 23, 2016

To clarify: the Macbook, Macbook Pro, and Macbook Pro with Retina are three different lines of Apple laptops. Only the Macbook comes in 12 inches. Macbooks and Macbook Pros WITHOUT Retina are significantly underspecced compared to Macbook Pros with Retina (the macbook pro without retina is an older model that Apple is still selling; it also caps out at 8 gigs), so if you need a 12-inch screen and are unwilling to go up to 13 and you want 16 gigs of RAM, there's no mac option that will work. If you're willing to go up to 13 inches, the 13 inch Macbook Air with Retina is what you want.
posted by Itaxpica at 1:11 PM on February 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

i've owned various ibm / lenovo X series, and each one has been worse than the last (started at X30, i think, and latest is an X220). more plastic. less accessible. worse keyboards. loss of the the light. less status leds. the only thing going for them these days is that everything else seems to be even worse.
posted by andrewcooke at 1:14 PM on February 23, 2016

The Surface Book is a pretty neat option because you can get a real GPU in an ultrabook body.

The Surface Pro 4 is also an interesting option too. Don't underestimate it by thinking of it as a tablet.

I would skip Razr; they are a mouse manufacturer, and they haven't been making laptops for very long.

I've played with the Yoga and it's pretty nice. I'm always a little wary of non-standard laptop hinge design, but Lenovo has gone through enough versions with the Yoga that it's probably good.

The the XPS 13 is also a nice piece of hardware; feels really solid.

I would skip the MacBook/Apple options unless you've been using Apple for years or your entire office uses Apple hardware etc. Anything you can do on the MacBook you can do on a Windows laptop. And with Windows you get the advantage of 20 years of software whereas Apple manages to break old apps with every OS update.

My current ultrabook is a Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus which I've been super happy with.
posted by gregr at 1:27 PM on February 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have a Yoga Pro 3 and it's very nice. I love it, and I LOVE the hinge. Lenovo includes some software to intelligently figure out how you're using the hinge (stand mode, laptop mode, table mode, kiosk mode). It's really versatile and nice to use. The screen is retina-like and nice to look at. Reading magazines or comic books on it is a joy.

The keys are --well they're notebook keys-- nothing special but overall it's a great design and I would buy it again.
posted by Doleful Creature at 1:31 PM on February 23, 2016

I've had my xps 13 less than a week, and it was an upgrade from a six year old Sony laptop, so grain of salt, of course. But I did a lot of reading beforehand, and test drove a lot of models, and so far, I've been pleased as punch with my decision. Also - I'm very particular about how a keyboard feels, and this one blows the macs away, at least for how I type. My one quibble is with where the camera is placed, but it's not as terrible as the reviews had me believe.

I had sworn off dell, but so far, the whole experience is much better than it was eight years ago. I don't think it comes with a 16 GB of ram option, but in my mind, everything else is golden.

I really, really liked the surface book, but it was just too expensive. Otherwise, I would have gotten it, instead.
posted by umwhat at 1:35 PM on February 23, 2016

My SO has been using an XPS 13 for 8 months now, she's happy with it. Powerful/solid enough for actual work, light enough to be used everywhere.
posted by elgilito at 2:23 PM on February 23, 2016

I have the 2015 XPS13. I run Ubuntu exclusively on it, and my number one priority is light weight. I am an above average user of processing power; at the moment, my xps is solving a rather nasty set of equations. Core for core, the i7-5500 performs as well as I would expect for a non-Xeon based machine. I love it. I think it is the best laptop I have ever used. The screen is outstanding; the build quality approaches Apple standards. The camera placement is odd, but i do a lot of video conferencing with it, and aside from a few amusing giant hand spider effects, it isn't an issue. I do not work in the most professional field, though. I have 8 GB RAM; that isn't a problem for my usage, though. All the hardware works in Linux without a hitch, if that is of interest to you.
posted by q9f9A at 2:40 PM on February 23, 2016

And with Windows you get the advantage of 20 years of software whereas Apple manages to break old apps with every OS update.

With OS X, you get the advantage of 30+ years of Unix-y software and 20 years of Apple software, whereas Microsoft manages to break old apps with every OS update.
posted by Mo Nickels at 2:44 PM on February 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm the guy who does tech support for the big company that uses almost exclusively Dells and a very small collection of Macs and Surfaces.

One nice thing is that I have my pick of any of the hardware that isn't specifically designated for someone (as it usually is), so I've gotten to play with a lot of stuff. One of the oddities that I landed was an old XPS13. I'm thinking maybe four or five years? I call it an oddity because as far as I know, there are 10 of them in a company of about 10,000 employees and countless computers. And I had one, sitting in the storage room, because it "wasn't very good". I scare-quote that because that's what I was told. And yeah, it was definitely under-powered when compared to the E6430s that were its peers and also four or five times its weight.

But since no one else seemed to want it, I added it as one of the machines I used regularly: they are really very lightweight and it was perfect for those situations where I needed to use a bar-code gun or something similar, and I didn't want to heft some big block around with me.

Eventually I had to give it back, but I liked it a lot when I was using it. It felt much more robust than I would have expected from something of that size and time period.

Macs are macs. You know it is going to be good, and you will pay for it. I love 'em, but I can't argue that the cost stings more than a little.

Intellectually, I love the Surfaces, but as another oddball device, I have a Surface Pro 1, and there is no doubt that having a real full OS on a tablet is nice, and they are solidly built, but - at least with the first generation one I've used - the touch interface doesn't fill me with joy, and the stylus is next to worthless. With that said, I know that they've made vast improvements, so don't discount it, but go handle one first. Make sure it does what you want.

Anecdotally, with access to more or less any of the computers we have here, I use an E7440. It's a generation or two old, but it uses an mPCIe as the storage device (think big chip instead of a drive) and it comes in a funny little assembly that makes it fit into a 2.5" bay. But, and this is cool, you can take the chip out of the bracket, and mount it in the mPCIe WAN slot right next to it (I don't know how technical you are, but what I mean is that you can fit the storage into a spot meant for a paid mobile network device.) it works perfectly and you get an empty albeit thin 2.5" drive bay. So in a little ultrabook, you can fit two SSD drives, or an SSD and a slim mechanical. This allows you to upgrade and keep your OS separate from your files, or create a RAID, or whatever. It provides a quite unusual range of options for an ultrabook which are typically all sealed up. Sadly, the next generation that we are using changed the design so it isn't the same kind of WAN slot, which is why I've stuck with an old one.

Also, as indicated above they can be taken apart; which means you can upgrade the RAM, upgrade the storage, and replace the battery yourself, none of which you can do with most of the other ultrabooks, including the XPS.

If you can find one in good condition, it'll probably run you $600 or so. It is older, but the adaptability to what you need is fantastic, and mine runs nearly as fast as the newest model.

There is one other one that might be of interest. The E7250. It's the newest of its generation, uses the cool mPCIe chp, but is only 12" so it is crazy lightweight. And you still get the other goodness of being able to change the battery, ram, and so on. And while 12" is unquestionably a tiny screen, it has full video out, so you can drive two full-sized monitors plus the built in screen at the same time.

Good luck. It's a tough decision, but the best suggestion I can make, and it's one I use whenever I'm upgrading someone to a new machine: get your hands on them. See them in person and make sure that the keyboard fits your hands and the touchpad doesn't interfere with your typing and so on. Many people come to me expecting to want the most powerful machine I can give them, but once they see the still-quite-powerful-but-not-as-powerful ultrabook, they realize that they'd prefer the light weight over the horsepower. You already want an ultrabook, but the concept stands. If you can, get hands on. It helps.

Good luck.
posted by quin at 3:41 PM on February 23, 2016

I'm pretty happy with my Alienware 13. It has 16gb ram.
posted by zug at 7:04 PM on February 23, 2016

In my prior role with a Big Employer (was one of 50K), had to use both the MacBook Air, a MacBook Pro Retina 15", and spouse currently uses a MacBook (the 12"). Completely agree with Itaxpica's assessment above, the MacBook Air Retina 13" is likely what you need to look at. When looking at the MacBook 12" (Retina) the screen is wonderful - but you need to deal with OSX, which after 3 years I was frankly happy to give up a year ago when I switched employers. (Mainly has to do with certain limitations of MS Outlook on OSX, including certain calendaring functions.)

And quin's analysis I read with interest - coincidentally the New Employer (a small place of a few hundred) outfitted me with the aforementioned Dell E7250, and as one who attends a lot of scientific conferences (think once per month, on average) it does it's job well - very light to haul around. There are times I forget to put it in my bag going home from work, and I cannot tell I forgot it. The battery life is a solid 5+ hours on transcontinental flights (and a handy external battery pack from Dell easily extends that a few more hours, great for those conferences where I may need to go for almost 10 hours straight), the SSD plus Windows 7 makes it very fast (new Windows 10 should be fine), the screen is fine (but to be honest those Retina screens are beautiful).

Only a few minor quibbles on the hardware side: I prefer a pointing stick, and really do miss it (trackpad only), the trackpad buttons are not as solid as I feel they should be (not a show-stopper though). I also believe it could be thinner (that MacBook my spouse has is super-thin) but these are just minor things. It's not going to garner any attention (it's just a black laptop that runs Windows) but it does the job I need it to do without any issues. Hope this helps!
posted by scooterdog at 2:26 AM on February 25, 2016

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