Ultrabook Reviews: Dell XPS 13, HP Envy 14 Spectre, and Samsung Series 9

Best new ultrabook? Can any of them beat Apple's MacBook Air?

April 12, 2012— -- Ultrabook. It's a new term you might start hearing around town – or, you know, around the Internet or in Best Buy ads.

It refers to a new class of thin and light laptops; computers that have more in common with tablets and smartphones than ever before.

Not only are the machines -- which are arriving from Dell, HP, Samsung, and others -- less than an inch-thick and usually lighter than 3.5 pounds, but they boot quickly, resume from sleep in just a few seconds, and have long battery life (or at least that's the promise). Sound a lot like Apple's MacBook Air, which has long been the thinnest laptop on the market? That's exactly the point. They all also leave off the DVD drive in order to keep their trim dimensions.

The ultrabooks, which are being spearheaded by Intel, are in large part an attempt to knock Apple's MacBook Air off its perch, while offering consumers a wide choice of Windows 7 laptops that are just as thin and light.

However, choosing a new ultrabook is much harder than you'd think. Most of them have identical hardware internals – an Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB solid-state drive, which is faster than a typical hard drive. Most of them boot Windows 7 in less than a minute and resume from sleep in under five seconds.

So what sets them apart? Mostly it's design, ergonomics, and price.

So of the three brand new ultrabooks, which is the best? And can any of them really hit the MacBook Air where it hurts? Let's find out.

Dell XPS 13 ($999.99)

Stats: 0.71-inches thick, 2.99 pounds, Lasted 4 hours and 7 minutes on a video battery test

One look at the XPS 13 and it's easy to see that Dell took its design inspiration from Apple. However, the aluminum laptop is one of the best-made laptops on the market, and that's not something I've said about a Dell laptop in a long time. It's got a 13-inch display, but Dell has crammed the wide display in a case that's closer in size to a 12-inch laptop by using a smaller frame around the display. It's very thin and light and the chiclet-style keyboard, which has gaps between the keys, is very comfortable. The rubberish palm rest is also comfortable.

But the trackpad, which has integrated mouse buttons, can be very finicky. Dell recently released an update and it improved things, but not enough to make it as smooth as the scrolling experience on Apple's larger glass touchpad. Also, the fan noise on the laptop can get loud during regular use. And the battery life isn't as long as the others; it only lasted four hours and seven minutes on a battery test, which runs a video repeatedly with brightness set at 65 percent.

Like the rest of the laptops written about here, the Dell XPS 13 is fast to boot, resume from sleep, and a very capable performer. All of the laptops managed my everyday workload, which includes simultaneously writing emails, browsing the web with a number of tabs open, listening to music, and periodically watching video clips.

Verdict: The XPS 13 is one of the cheapest ultrabooks, but its touchpad, fan noise, and subpar battery life hold it back. I'd suggest at least waiting until the touchpad and fan noise issues are solved.

HP Envy 14 Spectre ($1,399.99)

Stats: 0.79-inches thick, 3.79 pounds, 5 hours and 15 minutes on video battery test

The Envy 14 Spectre is unlike any laptop you've ever seen before. Sure it has a screen and keyboard, but the lid and the palm rest are coated in glass. Yes, glass. But it's not any glass – it's coated in Gorilla Glass and it's very durable so it can withstand scratches. However, while it is very striking, it also picks up lots of fingerprints.

The Envy might knock the others out of the park in design and creativity, but it simply isn't as thin and light as the competition. It weighs 3.79 pounds and I noticed the extra pounds in my bag. However, the extra thickness does allow it to accommodate more ports than the others; you get two USB ports, an Ethernet jack, and a full HDMI socket. It also has a beautiful 14-inch, 1600 x 900 resolution Radience screen, which displays very crisp and bright images and video. The keyboard is comfortable, but unfortunately the trackpad is very stiff and hard to operate. Noticing a pattern with these touchpads?

Verdict: The Envy 14 Spectre is a beautiful laptop, but it is thicker than the other ultrabooks. It would be an even better laptop if it were a bit cheaper, which is why I say wait until it drops a bit in price. But even then you have to be okay shining your laptop to keep the fingerprints off.

Samsung Series 9 ($1,500)

Stats: 0.60-inches thick, 3.5-pounds, lasts five hours and 34 minutes on battery test

The Samsung Series 9 is the thinnest and lightest of the bunch, even though it has the largest screen. In fact, at .60-inches thick, it is now the thinnest 15-inch laptop on the market. And thin, is exactly what you notice about this laptop – it slides into a very narrow bag and can easily hide under a stack of papers on your desk. The dark grey aluminum also gives the machine a very good build and gives it a minimalistic look.

The keyboard is very spacious, and like the others, has a backlight for when you have to type in the dark. I particularly like how this one glows green. The touchpad is the best one out of the bunch since it is wider; however, while scrolling with two fingers is smooth, it's not as smooth as the experience on the MacBook Air. The 15-inch, 1600 x 900-resolution display is matte, or not glossy, which helps with outdoor use, but it looks a bit washed out from some angles.

Even more impressive, is that the Series 9 lasted the longest on my battery test – at five hours and 34 minutes. That is the longest out of the new ultrabooks featured in this article, but still not as long as the Air's six and a half hours.

Verdict: The Samsung Series 9 really is the most well-rounded ultrabook – it's insanely thin and light, has a frustration-free trackpad, while providing the same performance as the others but with longer battery life. However, at $1,500 it is also the most expensive.

If you're in the market for the best Windows 7 ultrabook, the Series 9 is a great choice and worth the cash, but the $1,300 MacBook Air's better battery life, display, and touchpad keep it at the top of the pack.