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Folio 13
Folio 13

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HP Folio 13 review

A Core i5 processor, 128GB SSD, backlit keyboard, and a plethora of ports for just $900 — is this finally the ultrabook to beat?

“I hardly think that we're too late, the work we're doing with Microsoft is extraordinarily compelling — ultraportables are compelling," HP’s Todd Bradley said during the call where Meg Whitman, the company’s new CEO, declared her decision to keep its PC business. Of course, Bradley wasn’t only defending HP’s role in the computer and mobile market, but he was hinting at HP’s intention to jump into the new crowded ultrabook pool. And the HP Folio 13 is just that entry.

Interestingly, the 13.3-inch Folio isn’t really a consumer-focused PC — it doesn’t have HP’s typical Beats branding or its characteristic playful design language — but it does have a nice array of features that will appeal to everyday users. Sure, it has the standard ultrabook specs — an Intel Core processor, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB Samsung SSD for fast boot and resume times — but for just $899.99, it also has a backlit keyboard, Core i5 (most at that price have an i3), and the important ports that many ultrabooks have left off (see Lenovo's IdeaPad U300s). So, is the Folio just as “compelling” as Bradley believes, and can it provide HP — a company with a floundering mobile strategy — with the firm momentum it needs in this new fiery ultrabook market? And more to the point, is it the ultrabook you should buy? Read on for the full review of the Folio 13.

Video Review

Video Review

Design

Hardware / design

It's not the lightest, but it's not heavy. It's not the most attractive, but it's not ugly.

Just one glance at the Folio 13 is enough to tell that it isn’t a descendant of HP’s consumer Pavilion or Envy line; it’s much more the offspring of the enterprise or business focused Elitebook or ProBook side of the family. The greyish aluminum lid and palmrest, which are offset by a black soft-touch plastic underside and edges, are almost identical to that of the new Elitebooks. What that means is that no one is going to call the laptop ugly, but "boring" and "not very stylish" were amongst the adjectives a few friends used when I asked them about the design. So no, it’s not as attractive as Lenovo’s IdeaPad U300s, but it’s definitely not as humdrum as the Toshiba Portege Z835; I’d say it’s really your middle-of-the-road ultrabook from an aesthetic point of view. Still, for the price, this is one well-built machine. While it’s not completely clad in metal, there are no creaks around the edges and there’s zero wobble to the screen and its hinge. And that almost-rubberish-feeling bottom gives the system a nice feel in hand when you grab it off a table.

Design isn’t the only place where the Folio 13 doesn’t quite match the competition; it is also both heavier and thicker than all four of the other ultrabooks. That doesn’t mean at 3.3 pounds the .71-inch thick machine is cumbersome to carry — it’s really not — but it’s just not as svelte as the MacBook Air or as light as the Toshiba. Again, though, it really is very easy to hold in one hand. In fact, when I first got the box from HP, I thought they may have forgotten the laptop since the cardboard package felt so light. HP didn’t opt for any ostentatious packaging (perhaps to match the look of the laptop); the machine comes wrapped in a plastic bag and locked in styrofoam holders. My guess is that HP is saving all that luxurious stuff for its Spectre ultrabook.

Dimensions (in.) Thickness Weight (lb.)
HP Folio 13 12.54 x 8.67 0.71 3.3
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 12.8 x 8.5 0.58 2.90
Asus Zenbook UX31 12.8 x 8.8 0.11 - 0.71 2.86
Acer Aspire S3 12.6 x 8.5 0.51 - 0.68 2.98
Toshiba Portege Z835 12.8 x 8.94 0.11 - 0.68 2.96
MacBook Air (2011, 13-inch) 12.4 x 8.94 0.33 - 0.63 2.47
Samsung Series 9 12.9 x 8.9 0.62 - 0.64 2.88

That added thickness allows for more ports than some of the other ultrabooks. The left edge is stocked with an Ethernet, HDMI, and USB 3.0 ports as well as a SD card reader. The right edge is home to an USB 2.0 jack and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Of course, Toshiba managed to fit all those ports on its .63-inch thin system, but I really do prefer the make and design of the Folio.

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Keyboard / trackpad

Keyboard and trackpad

The best keyboard on any ultrabook to date
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The Folio 13 has the best keyboard of any ultrabook to date. While the Asus Zenbook UX31 and Toshiba had well spaced layouts, the keys were incredibly shallow. The soft-coated keys on the Folio, however, don’t suffer from those issues — perhaps, because of the added thickness of the base of the system. The squared-off keys are just the right height and feel great. Sure, the deck on the Lenovo U300s was similarly comfortable, but HP understands the importance of lining the bottom of the deck with a backlight. Yes, you get illuminated keys here, though you cannot adjust the brightness and there’s no ambient light sensor to automatically adjust the light level. However, the F5 key doubles as an on / off switch for the light.

Almost every ultrabook I've reviewed so far has been ruined by a flaky touchpad with integrated buttons, but the Folio 13's touchpad is much better than most. It's still far from perfect, though. The good news is that the ClickPad itself is adequate for navigating. My usual finger positioning — keeping my thumb on the left mouse button and an index finger on the pad — didn’t result in any cursor jumps. It was smooth navigating throughout my testing. Similarly, two-finger scrolling was very responsive: no added pressure was needed to get to the bottom of this very website with light drags.

The bad news is that the hardware itself could be more ergonomic. The 4.5 x 2.5-inch pad is very stiff, meaning that clicking not only takes more effort but is rougher on the side of a finger. Additionally, there isn’t much room between the keyboard and the pad. A few times my palms swiped at the pad as I was writing this review, causing the cursor to jump to another place in the text. This poor palm rejection is something I’ve seen with a number of these ultrabooks and is likely a result of poor software drivers. At least you can easily disable the touchpad by double tapping twice on the small rectangle on the top left corner of the pad. HP's ruined plenty of laptops with bad trackpads in the past, but the Folio 13's unit marks notable improvement both for HP and for ultrabooks in general. Unfortunately, it still can't hold a candle to the MacBook Air's glass pad.

Screen / speakers

Screen and speakers

A good quality, high resolution display would solve everything
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Like every other ultrabook I've tested, the Folio 13 has a 13.3-inch 1366 x 768-resolution display. The low resolution and lack of higher-density options are annoying — but not quite as annoying as the crappy display quality of the panel you're stuck with. Not only is it not as bright as some of the competition (especially the Zenbook), but viewing angles are quite narrow. Pushing the screen backwards while working on this review in bed caused colors to mute, and trying to make out how the battery test was running while it was positioned three feet away was nearly impossible because of the reflectiveness and the poor vertical angles.

However, what bothers me the most about the display is that surrounding the glossy display is a matte bezel. While those gloss-less bezels are usually less distracting, the thin frame looks cheap and lacks a uniformity to the look of the machine. It’s a small detail, but one that bothers me to no end.

Jimmy Iovine can’t be happy about the lack of Beats branding on the system, but the speaker strip along the top edge of the keyboard does provide some decently loud sound. It's branded with Dolby Advanced Audio, for whatever that's worth. I could hear Adele pop up on my Rdio mix from the other room in my apartment, but obviously I didn’t think it was a stand-in for my Griffin speaker dock that broke in the middle of my New Years Eve party — sad and true story. Also, I really appreciate the one touch volume and multimedia controls along the top row of the keyboard.

Performance

Performance and graphics

Unlike Toshiba or Acer, which saddled their $900 ultrabooks with Core i3 processors, HP has managed to equip the Folio 13’s $899.99 configuration with a 1.6GHz Core i5-2467 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. All together, they provide a really solid performance experience. I didn’t find myself waiting around when programs were installing and the machine kept up with my everyday tasks, including simultaneously writing this review in Google Docs, running Chrome with over 15 tabs open, listening to Rdio, chatting in Trillian, and checking Twitter every so often with MetroTwit. Even when I threw a 1080p YouTube video of Foster the People in there and then played it on my 40-inch Toshiba HDTV using the built in Intel Wireless Display (WiDi) feature, I saw no slow down. (Note: Wireless Display is integrated into the Folio, but you need an additional box for your TV to take advantage of the capability.)

SSD Performance

But don’t underestimate the power provided by the Samsung MZMPA128HMFU SATA II drive. While it isn’t the fastest ultrabook to actually boot up, it does start in 33 seconds and resume from sleep in 4.8 seconds. Comparatively, the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s boots in 25.8 seconds and the MacBook Air in 18 seconds. However, it is faster than the U300s when it came to transferring files. Transferring a 1.8GB file from a USB 3.0 external hard drive took 14.5 seconds when plugged into the 3.0 port and 59.2 seconds when plugged into the USB 2.0 port. It took the Toshiba Portege Z835 twice as long at 35 seconds, though the IdeaPad U300s only took 15.7 seconds (via USB 3.0).

PCMarkVantage 3DMarkVantage 3DMark06
HP Folio 13 8371 1523 3451
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 8815 1413 3357
Asus Zenbook UX31 6692 1574 N/A
Acer Aspire S3 5222 1475 3282
Toshiba Portege Z835 6115 1372 3610
MacBook Air (2011, 13-inch) 10134 1748 4195
Sony VAIO Z (2011) 12079 1984 / 4019* 4333
*Denotes discrete GPU score
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Graphics and heat / FAN

As per usual, the Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics is perfectly fine for watching local or streaming HD video, but not what you’d want around to play Arkham City or some Portal 2. However, the bigger issue is what happens when you fire up a Flash video; despite having HP’s hardware and software CoolSense cooling feature, the bottom of the system gets warm and the fan vents (also located on the bottom) start whirling. The sound actually persists, even long after you’ve stopped playing video. It’s rather annoying, though, yes, I got used to it after awhile.

Battery life

Battery life and software

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HP claims the Folio 13 lasts nine hours on a charge, and while I couldn’t squeeze that long out of the 59Wh battery, it is now the longest-lasting ultrabook I’ve tested. On The Verge Battery Test, which loops a series of 100 websites while sporadically downloading some pictures and brightness set to 65 percent, the laptop lasted for seven hours and seven minutes. Not only is that longer than all the competing ultrabooks, but it's longer than the MacBook Air. It's a fairly solid comparison, but because of the dimness of the display on the Folio, it may not be exactly apples to apples. Regardless, the run time is impressive here and you can absolutely leave the AC adapter in the overhead bin on that flight from New York to Vegas.

Things take a more sour tone when it comes to software. My review unit came with Windows 7 Professional, which would bring the cost up to $1,048.99 — that’s the only difference between the Windows Home Premium version which is locked at $899.99 right now on HP’s website. Unfortunately, paying for the business version of Microsoft’s operating system doesn’t wipe the crapware. My review unit came with a number of desktop shortcuts, including link shortcuts to eBay, HP’s Download store, RaRa (HP’s music service), and Zya’s Music Service. It’s blatant marketing on your new desktop, and on top of that, there’s a shortcut to HP’s WildTangent games. It’s one of the worst offending ultrabooks when it comes to crapware, and while it is somewhat forgivable because of its extremely competitive price tag, deleting shortcuts and programs as soon as you take it out of the box isn't going to be fun. On a deeper level, HP has organized folders in the start menu (i.e. put Skype and YouCam into a "Communications and Chat" folder) and created a LaunchBox feature, which lets you group and organize different apps on the Windows Taskbar.

The longest-lasting ultrabook yet, with over seven hours of juice
Battery Life
HP Folio 13 7:07
Toshiba Portege Z835 5:51
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 5:33
Asus Zenbook UX31 5:31
Acer Aspire S3 3:27
MacBook Air (2011, 13-inch) 6:12
Sony VAIO Z (2011) 5:27 / 10:34*
*With slice battery

I can confidently say that the Folio 13 is the most well-rounded ultrabook on shelves right now. That’s not to say it is the flashiest or the most portable, but the machine is well-built, lasts the longest on a charge, is the most comfortable to use in terms of typing and navigating, and packs more performance than the others priced at $900. If you’re looking for something thinner, lighter, and with a much better display, the MacBook Air is the obvious choice, but it will cost you $400 more. And that’s why the Folio 13 is the first ultrabook to live up to Intel’s dream — for less than the competition, you get a very nice blend of portability and performance without sacrificing the essentials. And with that I'd say HP's got the right momentum as it stays the course in the PC business.

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