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Ultra Thin Laptops: Worth the Cost?

These portable computers combine svelte styling and functionality.

The iPad and other tablet computers may be trendy, but for real work you still need a keyboard. If you crave the iPad 2's compact design, an ultra-thin laptop is a more practical alternative. Two products come to mind. Apple's MacBook Air is a wisp of a clamshell computer that, when closed, is no thicker than a college-rule notebook. And Samsung's Series 9 laptop, the Air equivalent for Windows users, is equally sylphlike. Both laptops are stunners, but each will run you well over a grand.

When introducing the latest MacBook Air in October 2010, Apple CEO Steve Jobs asked: "What would happen if a MacBook and an iPad hooked up?" The answer: A thin-and-light Mac that's not only great to look at, but also starts instantly, has excellent battery life, and shuns a traditional hard disk and CD drive. Jobs called the Air "the future of notebooks," and he's probably right.

Sincere flattery. Samsung's Series 9 may be a knockoff of the Air, but it's a lovely imitation. Its curvy, black duralumin (an aluminum alloy) case is stronger than the plastic shells found on cheaper laptops. Samsung claims its "aircraft grade" metal has twice the strength of standard aluminum -- an apparent dig at the MacBook Air's aluminum shell.

We didn't stress-test our demo models, but you can bet that both are sturdier than your average notebook -- just don't drive nails with them. Both are impossibly thin, too. When closed, the MacBook Air measures 0.68 inches at its widest point; the 9 Series is only 0.64 inches. Each comes with either a 13.3-inch or 11.6-inch display. The 13.3-inch models weigh just less than 3 pounds; the 11.6-inchers are a bit lighter at 2.3 pounds.


No more CDs. The ultra-thins' design is made possible by eliminating the optical-disc drives that bulk up most laptops. Replacing the standard hard drive is a solid-state drive that, like in the iPad and iPhone, uses flash memory to store documents, photos and videos. As for the lack of a disc drive, well, when was the last time you used one? Downloadable software, streaming videos and browser-based apps have quickly gone mainstream, making CDs and DVDs increasingly superfluous.

Little details make these laptops special. The MacBook Air and 9 Series each have a full-size keyboard with an ambient light sensor; if you're working in a darkened room, the keyboard lights up automatically. An instant-on feature is handy for picking up where you left off -- right in the middle of an e-mail, for instance -- without having to wait for the computer to wake up from its nap.

As you'd expect with such slim machines, battery life is very good: up to seven hours between charges, although five to seven hours is a more realistic expectation. And you'll love the silence -- no whirring fans or spinning drives.

Worth it? Premium portables, of course, command premium prices. The 13.3-inch MacBook Air is $1,300 with a 128-gigabyte solid-state drive (SSD) or $1,600 with a 256GB SSD. The 13.3-inch 9 Series is $1,650 with Windows 7 Home Premium or $1,700 with Windows 7 Professional. It has a 128GB SSD -- half the storage of a comparably priced Air -- but twice the memory (4GB versus 2GB). The 11.6-inch MacBook Air is $1,000 (64GB) or $1,200 (128GB). The comparable Series 9 with 64GB of storage is $1,200 (there is no 128GB model). Before you marvel that Apple has the lower-cost models, remember that Apple never discounts prices, and Samsung inevitably does.

So which super-skinny laptop is best? We call it a draw. For everyday tasks, the MacBook Air and 9 Series perform similarly, and neither is a barnburner built for demanding chores such as 3-D gaming and video editing.