The MacBook Air is one of Apple's fastest-selling computers – and for good reason. It's one of the most attractive machines the company has ever released.
And we're not just talking about outward appearances. The Air (from $999, store.apple.com) may be thin – perhaps impossibly so – and built with a similar, aluminum brushed-metal chassis as its older siblings. But it's also fast. While most laptops this size tend to be middling slow – especially when you get into 11-inch netbook territory – that's one stigma Apple has managed to overcome. You can even upgrade the stock i5 CPU to a beefy i7 chip.
At less than an inch thick, you'd think the keyboard would suffer most. But the 13" model, at least, is surprisingly similar in look and feel to the rest of Apple's MacBook line. The keys are definitely thinner, and they don't quite travel as far, but at least in this generation, backlighting has finally returned.
That thinness also means very few ports. There are only two USB ports – one on the left, and one on the right – with the addition of an SD card slot on the 13" model. Luckily, the one area Apple hasn't scaled back is the screen. While not quite as vibrant as Apple's Pro laptop displays – it's the viewing angle that suffers most – the Air's 1440 x 900 pixel screen is still among the best of any Ultrabook on the market.
Without a hard disk or optical drive, there are no moving parts – except for the fan, that is. This also helps keep the size down, and battery life long – in some cases you can get five hours of usage from a full charge. That's what we consider mobile productivity bliss.
The MacBook Air might have come first, but the likes of Asus, Acer and Toshiba are determined to be the best.
Asus's Zenbook is the most striking of the bunch, taking obvious inspiration from Apple's Air. In fact, with a brushed metal body, and blemish-free design – there are literally no stickers on this machine – "inspiration" might be a bit too kind. Luckily, the Zenbook's design isn't without substance, as you'll find an i5 processor and 128GB SSD lurk standard within. The resolution, at 1600 x 900 pixels, is even better than the Air's, but little quirks – like a maddening trackpad, and a non-backlit keyboard – don't quite match the MacBook's polish. (Asus Zenbook – MSRP: from $999)
Acer's Aspire S3 is, at first glance, a step in the right direction. As far as size and weight are concerned, it's a dead-ringer for Apple's Air and a couple hundred dollars cheaper, too. But appearances are deceiving. The body is all-plastic, and the tiny keys – especially on the bilingual Canadian model – make for a maddening typing experience. Still, Acer gets points for the dual hybrid SSD/hard drive configuration, which actually makes waking from sleep less painful than your typical Windows PC – useful in a ultra-mobile machine like this. (Acer Aspire S3 – MSRP: from $899)
Toshiba's first Ultrabook, the Z830, is arguably the least interesting in terms of design, and lacks the tapered thinness of the Asus, Acer or Air. Luckily, that extra width makes for a surprisingly responsive keyboard, that actually feels closest to Apple's Chiclet keys. The Z830's most intriguing feature is a dedicated "eco-button" that kicks the laptop into a low-power, battery-saving mode that also lets you measure the energy you've saved. Just don't be too rough – the screen is frighteningly flimsy. (Toshiba Z830 – $1,149, Toshiba.com)