Say so long to your aching back. Like Apple's razor-thin MacBook Air, the new Windows machines called Ultrabooks are ultralight—most weigh in at 4 pounds or less. Many eschew hard drives and DVD drives, saving space, reducing noise and conserving power. Like tablets and smart phones, they start up instantly and save files and apps on a flash memory chip, also known as a solid-state drive (SSD).
Before you buy, take the machine for a test-drive. Does it feel solid, and is the keyboard big enough for your hands? Is the screen big and bright enough? Make sure the laptop has at least two USB ports—preferably ones that support the faster USB 3.0 standard—and an HDMI port for connecting to an HDTV. And don't forget about battery life. Some Ultrabooks promise to run for as long as 11 hours on a charge; others power down after five hours or less.
Powerful and thin. The Acer Aspire S5 ($1,400) holds its own with a comparably equipped MacBook Air and costs $100 less. It is amazingly thin—about a tenth of an inch thinner than the Air—and has a sharp, 13.3-inch display. At 2.65 pounds, the Aspire weighs just slightly less than the 13-inch Air. Plus, the Aspire S5 has a 256-gigabyte solid-state drive, same as the Air.
The S5's most clever innovation is a motorized door on the back of the system that opens to reveal four ports for connecting peripherals. The Dolby sound system is crisp and clear for a laptop, and the S5 comes with a wireless Bluetooth mouse—handy for those of us who loathe laptop track pads. The Aspire S5 does have a few shortcomings. Unlike the Samsung machine described below, its keyboard isn't backlit. Plus, given the laptop's high price, I'd have expected screen resolution better than the usual 1,366-by-768 pixels.
Big-screen beauty. The Samsung Series 9 ($1,400 to $1,800, depending on configuration) manages to squeeze a big, 15-inch display into a 14-inch chassis that's only 0.58 inch thick. Weighing 3.6 pounds, the laptop features a curvy, black case made of duralumin (an aluminum alloy), and the screen boasts a 1,600-by-900-pixel resolution that is better than the MacBook Air's display. (Samsung also offers a 13-inch Series 9 for $1,300 or $1,400.) Among the downsides: the price. Also, most models have a 128GB SSD—half the size of the Aspire and high-end MacBook Air SSDs and a bit skimpy for a high-end Ultrabook.
Bargain alternative. The Dell Inspiron 14z ($700) skirts the line between a laptop and an Ultrabook. It includes both DVD and hard drives, and it weighs a relatively hefty 4.12 pounds. Still, it is only 0.83 inch thick, has a 14-inch display and includes a 32GB SSD for fast start-ups. The 14z won't win any design awards, but it's a solid, affordable laptop for home and school use. Unlike some Ultrabooks, it has a dedicated graphics card that enables it to play videos smoothly. And the spillproof keyboard is a nice safety feature when you’re sipping java in the wee hours.
Looking ahead. Ultrabook sales have been disappointing so far, largely because of steep prices of $1,000 or more. But the average price is expected to fall to about $800 by the end of the year, according to research firm IDC. And dozens of Ultrabooks are arriving in the coming months from major vendors. The new Ultrabooks will be loaded with Microsoft's Windows 8 software, with its redesigned interface tailored for touch tablets and PCs (See our story: Review of Microsoft's Windows 8). We'll report on them as they hit the market.
This article first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. For more help with your personal finances and investments, please subscribe to the magazine. It might be the best investment you ever make.