Let’s be honest: The ultrabook phenomenon is by and large Intel's and the rest of the PC industry's reaction to Apple’s MacBook Air. Just take a look at a lot of the designs and the features: the influence (and in some places the outright imitation) is obvious. However, while the ultrabooks on the market today have all tried to mimic and beat the Air on one thing or another — price, more storage, and so on — none have managed to pull it off.
In fact, I’ve concluded in almost all of The Verge’s ultrabook reviews that it’s probably worth spending a bit more and buying an Air. However, I’ve realized (thanks to a number of readers) that really isn’t an apples to apples comparison: the Air doesn’t run Windows 7, at least not out of the box, and many who are buying ultrabooks are likely looking for a very thin and light Windows PC, not a Mac OS X laptop.
A MacBook Air running Windows 7 costs a minimum of $1,419 — if you go with the lowest end 13-inch Air ($1,299) and Windows Home Premium ($119.99) — which is quite a bit more than the average $1,000 ultrabook. So, is it worth the extra cash? Are there any tradeoffs? Does Apple make the best Windows ultrabook? Let’s finally make this a fair comparison and find out.
Obviously the Air doesn’t run Windows 7 out of the box, but getting Windows on the Air is a fairly simple process. I’ll briefly discuss that in one of the later sections, but before we get started it’s important to know that for this review I tried out both Boot Camp and Parallels. For those who don’t know, Boot Camp creates a partition on the hard drive and runs Windows natively on the hardware. As the name suggests, you boot directly into Windows. Virtual machine software, like Parallels or VMware Fusion, is a virtualized version of Windows running within another operating system, which in this case is OS X.
Hardware / design
Yes, it still fits in a manila envelope
The MacBook Air’s design is beyond iconic at this point. In fact, it is so iconic and so deeply associated with how a thin-and-light laptop should look that nearly every ultrabook manufacturer has modeled their machines after the 0.68-inch thick aluminum unibody laptop. (The Lenovo IdeaPad U300s, original Samsung Series 9, and Sony Vaio Z deserve honorable mentions for having unique designs with well-built chassis.) You’re almost certainly familiar with the Air, but I will say that in terms of build quality, the Air is the best thin-and-light machine on the market. While the Asus Zenbook UX31 and U300s came close to matching the unibody build, the Air feels more tightly constructed: the lid and base are solid to the core, the screen hinge exhibits zero wobble, and there’s no flex to the keyboard. The machine weighs 2.96 pounds, though it isn’t as light as the others, especially the 2.47-pound Toshiba Portege Z835.
One place where the Air doesn’t compete with some of these newer ultrabooks — the Folio 13 and Portege especially — is on ports. Apple has outfitted the machine with two USB ports, an SD card slot, a Mini DisplayPort / Thunderbolt port, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The lack of an Ethernet jack (and a $29.00 price tag for the dongle if you get it through Apple) is a handicap; Asus actually includes that dongle in the Zenbook UX31’s box. That said, thankfully Apple added back the SD card slot in the latest revision of the Air; Lenovo continues to leave this off its ultrabooks for some reason.
|Dimensions (in.)||Thickness||Weight (lb.)|
|MacBook Air (2011, 13-inch)||12.8 x 8.94||0.33 - 0.68||2.96|
|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||2.47|
|Folio 13||12.54 x 8.67||0.71||3.3|
|Samsung Series 9||12.9 x 8.9||0.62 - 0.64||2.88|
The lack of an Ethernet port is joined by one other complaint: the sharp front edge. It consistently irritates my wrists, but if you’re using my colleagues as a focus group, I’m in the minority on this one. And yes, we have at least seven full-time MacBook Air users on staff.
Perhaps it’s not really fair to compare the sub-$1,000 ultrabooks to the 13-inch Air on build quality — material costs are usually the first thing to be cut when going to a budget system — but even so, the Air still tops all the other current $1,100 and $1,200 options (like the Zenbook and U300s) on both portability and pure manufacturing quality. Samsung’s new Series 9 shows some promise on that front with an aluminum build and very thin profile, but I will hold final judgement on that one until we review it.
Can you deal with changing your finger placement?
The keyboard on the Air raised the bar for the industry; the chiclet panel is backlit and the height of the keys is decent despite the thinness of the bottom of the system. It’s a much, much better typing experience than the one provided on Asus’, Toshiba’s, and Acer’s respective ultrabooks, and while the Lenovo has a very nice keyboard with curved keys, it left out the backlight. I’d say the only keyboard that comes close to competing with the Air is the one on the HP Folio 13 — the backlit, soft-touch keys are very comfortable — but, as seen in the chart above, the machine is much thicker. Also, HP doesn’t allow you to adjust the brightness on the keyboard like you can on the Air.
So Apple’s keyboard hardware is great, but how does it interact with Windows? On a basic level things work just fine: adjusting the brightness with the F5 and F6 keys works just as you’d expect, whether you’re in Boot Camp or Parallels. If you prefer those keys default to the standard Function options (i.e. F5 to refresh in a browser), you can change the setting in the Boot Camp Control Panel.
However, the biggest adjustment comes with keyboard shortcuts; the position of the four keys in the lower left hand corner (Fn, Control, Option / Alt, Command) differs greatly from the layout on a typical PC. The Command button doubles as the Windows key, meaning the following shortcuts work: Tab + Command to toggle through open apps and Ctrl + Alt + Delete (or Control + Option (Alt) + Delete). But they’re not in the positions you’re probably used to. (In Parallels Ctrl + Alt + Delete shortcut doesn’t work, but there is a software option just in case things stall or if you want to take a look at the Task Manager.) Annoyingly, you can’t remap these keys in Boot Camp.
Still, the reordering of the keys is a big adjustment: it takes a long time to learn that the Control key isn’t in the corner when you want to quickly copy and paste. If you’re coming from a Windows PC, you’ll probably find yourself hammering the Fn key a lot, and that’s not going to do anything of value. Similarly, if you’re coming from an OS X machine, Command + C and Command + V will only invoke the Start menu and type in useless letters instead of moving text from one place to another. The loss of Home, End, Page Up and Page Down keys is also annoying for Windows enthusiasts, although the excellent trackpad softens the blow.
The Achilles' heel of so many ultrabooks — the Zenbook UX31 and Lenovo U300s especially — has been their trackpads. Many PC manufacturers have attempted to mimic Apple’s large touchpad and integrated mouse button, but none have been able to master it. And the result has been a host of usability issues: regular pointing and clicking suffers, touch responsiveness has been weak, palm rejection has been non-existent, and multitouch gestures, like two-finger scrolling, have been sluggish and choppy. The truth is that no Windows laptop manufacturer has come close to matching the fluidity of Apple’s trackpads.
What every other PC maker has failed at, Apple nails: the touchpad on the Air works better with Windows 7 than any other Windows laptop on the market. Everything works as it should with Windows; navigating with two fingers on the pad is smooth with no jumping cursors, two-finger scrolling is smoother than anything I’ve seen on any other Windows 7 laptop, and palm rejection is top notch. Apple hasn’t supported other gestures in Boot Camp, including pinch-to-zoom and rotate, but they do work quite well in Parallels. Ultimately it’s Apple’s decision how its trackpad works in Boot Camp, but forcing people to pay $79.99 for Parallels to get better touchpad support seems beyond unfair. As an advanced trackpad it works great, but it also works well for those that aren’t quite used to the integrated button. You can configure it for regular tapping and pressing two fingers on the pad enables right clicking.
I could go on and on about how much better the touchpad experience is on the Air, but the big question I’ve always had is: why? Why is it that other laptop makers haven’t mastered the touch experience and Apple has been able to make it work so fluidly, even with another operating system? It turns out a lot of it has to do the hardware. According to Synaptics’ Ted Theocheung, it’s Apple’s use of high quality glass, an image sensor, a wider pad, and a USB controller to connect to the motherboard that makes the experience better than most Windows laptops. Of course, there’s a mix of software in there, but it seems that it’s really hardware that gives Apple the edge. And it is quite a strong edge — I can’t overemphasize how much the touchpad really enhances the Windows 7 experience and eliminates one of the biggest frustrations of the competing ultrabooks.
Apple nails what every other PC maker fails at
Screen and speakers
Like the touchpad, Apple’s decision to use premium parts shows in the display. The 13-inch 1440 x 900 resolution panel bests most of the others in terms of resolution and pixel density. (Most are at 1366 x 768 at screen sizes ranging from 11.6 to 13.3 inches.) On top of all that, it is also a very high quality display. That means that you can see what’s on the screen from most angles, and there isn’t any noticeable color change when you move the display back, like on the Folio 13. (You do lose brightness when the screen is pushed back to a 45 degree angle, however.) It should be noted that Asus’ Zenbook UX31 has a 1600 x 900 resolution display, but the actual quality of the LCD is not as good as the one on the Air; blues aren’t as crisp and blacks not as deep.
The forthcoming HP Envy 14 Spectre and Samsung Series 9 will also have 1600 x 900 displays, but the bottom line is that Windows absolutely pops on the Air’s high quality panel. (The Vaio Z has a very high resolution 1920 x 1080 matte display, but that model costs well over $2,000.) On top of all that, Apple’s used an anti-glare coating on the screen, and while it isn’t great in direct sunlight, it makes a big difference in readability compared to the competing glossy displays on other ultrabooks. I think it's clear: Windows looks better on the Air's display than it does on any of the other ultrabooks out there.
The speakers still remain decent, although Asus’ Zenbook UX31 beats them in sound quality. M.I.A’s Bad Girls came through fuller on the Zenbook than it did on the Air. Still, the Air’s speakers are loud and perfectly fine for basic personal listening.
Performance and graphics
Like most of the other ultrabooks, the entry-level Air has a Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB solid state drive. Interestingly, the Air beats a lot of the other ultrabooks in benchmarks, likely because of its fast Samsung SSD. Still, how you run Windows heavily impacts the sort of performance you get. I couldn’t run the standard Windows benchmarks in Parallels (they don’t seem to recognize the integrated Intel graphics when virtualized), but in general, I felt Boot Camp was more responsive when opening programs and web pages than Parallels. Of course, the benefit of Parallels is that in Lion you can set it up as an additional Space and then simply swipe four fingers across the touchpad and be back into OS X. Ultimately, it depends on what you’re looking for, but overall performance in both environments has been solid without any lag in either.
|MacBook Air (2011, 13-inch)||10134||1748||4195|
|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|
|HP Folio 13||8371||1523||3451|
|Sony VAIO Z (2011)||12079||1984 / 4019*||4333|
|*Denotes discrete GPU score|
I didn’t feel any slowdowns while simultaneously writing this review in Microsoft Word, surfing the web in Chrome with over 10 tabs open, and checking Twitter periodically in MetroTwit. In some cases, I felt it was snappier than other Windows 7 ultrabooks like the Folio 13 or the U300s. And there’s more on this below, but the lack of bloatware really speeds up the general responsiveness of the operating system.
BOOT AND RESUME TIMES
The solid state drive feels fast when it comes to everyday performance, but it’s not as fast as others when it comes to raw numbers. It took one minute and 8 seconds to transfer a 1.8GB file in both Boot Camp and Parallels, which is slightly slower than the U300s and Zenbook over USB 2.0. The USB 3.0 ultrabooks bested that time by 20 seconds in most cases. Of course, the Air does have a higher-speed Thunderbolt I/O port, but currently there are really no consumer-level external hard drives that support those higher speed transfers.
The Air also falls behind a few of the other ultrabooks in resume and boot times, at least in Boot Camp. While it has a very fast solid state drive, it takes a full minute to boot into Boot Camp. It takes 18 seconds to boot into OS X and then an additional 41 seconds to get into Windows 7 through Parallels. That’s behind most other ultrabooks: both the Zenbook and U300s boot Windows 7 Home Premium in less than 25 seconds. Similarly, the Air takes a long 6.6 seconds to resume from sleep running Windows natively in Boot Camp. Resume only took 1.7 seconds in Parallels since it’s simply running on top of OS X, which resumes faster than any Windows ultrabook.
|MacBook Air (Boot Camp)||66||6.6||68 |
|MacBook Air (Parallels)||59||1.7||68|
|Asus Zenbook UX31||20||2.0 ||59.8 |
|HP Folio 13||33 ||4.8 ||59.2 |
|Lenovo IdeaPad U300s||25||4.9 ||59.8 |
|*All times measured in seconds |
The Intel HD integrated GPU provides typical graphics performance. Streaming 720p or 1080p video was quite smooth, but Flash gets the system’s fans rolling and can make the bottom of the system quite warm. While some have said that running Windows heats up the system more, I haven’t experienced that over the last couple of weeks.
You'll want to sit down for this — here comes the bad news
|MacBook Air (OS X Lion)||6:19|
|MacBook Air (Win 7, Boot Camp)||4:11|
|MacBook Air (Win 7, Parallels) ||4:28|
|Asus Zenbook UX31||5:31|
|HP Folio 13||7:07 |
|Lenovo IdeaPad U300s ||5:33 |
|Sony VAIO Z (2011)||5:27 / 10:34*|
|*With slice battery|
Battery life was one of the more impressive features of the new Air; when I first reviewed it, it lasted six hours and 53 minutes on The Verge Battery Test, which loops a series of websites and images with brightness set at 65 percent. I re-ran that test in OS X Lion when it came time to write this review since the laptop is now six months old and the battery has been heavily used. Still, it managed to last six hours and 19 minutes on the test, which is in line with many of the new Windows ultrabooks.
However, this isn’t a review about the Air running OS X, and sadly, the battery takes a big hit when you run Windows. In Boot Camp, the Air lasted four hours and 11 minutes and in Parallels four hours and 28 minutes. That’s about two hours less than I had gotten just the day before in OS X. This battery life gap has been widely reported in the past, and it likely has to do with the lack of power efficiency tweaks made in Windows 7 for Apple’s hardware. Reasons aside, it’s very disappointing and the reality is that you will get about two hours of additional cord-free time with one of the other Windows ultrabooks than with Windows 7 on the Air.
Software, setup, and storage
This is the part in most of the ultrabook reviews where I berate the manufacturers for loading up the laptop with tons of crapware — WildTangent games, shortcuts to eBay, Norton browser bars, etc. — which slows down Windows and litters the desktop. Obviously, that’s not a complaint with the Air since you get the beauty of a completely fresh and clean Windows 7 install. As I said above, it truly makes the computing experience smoother and frustration-free. Whether that sort of experience is worth the premium of paying more for the OS is up to you. (Yes, I am assuming everyone gets their copy of Windows legally!) If you opt to go the Parallels route, you’ll also be spending $79.99 on the full software. VMWare Fusion costs $49.99, though Parallels has long been considered the better solution. (Ars Technica has a great face-off between the two. Spoiler: ultimately they find Parallels to be worth the extra cash.) For what it is worth, our own Microsoft expert Tom Warren prefers VMware; he finds Parallels "a little too deep linked into OS X for my liking." There are also some free alternatives like VirtualBox, but features are limited.
There are two other pieces to consider when talking about software: storage space and setup. Apple makes setting up Boot Camp a very easy process: Click Boot Camp Assistant in Applications and go through the steps. However, because the Air doesn’t have an optical drive you either need to make sure you have a bootable version of Windows 7 on a USB drive or an external CD drive. I set up Boot Camp using an external drive, but I realize many may not have those just laying around. Apple provides a good set of instructions on how to set up Boot Camp. Solutions like Parallels and VMWare Fusion are similarly easy to set up as well.
Then there’s the issue of storage. When partitioning the drive in Boot Camp, you must leave around 8GB for OS X. That means you’ll be left with 120GB or so for Windows, which itself takes up 6GB. Going up to the 256GB Air costs $300 more, for a total of $1,599.00 if you go with the Core i5 processor. That price doesn’t include Windows, either. Not cheap.
The MacBook Air is simply best in class when it comes to hardware. The build is outstanding, the touchpad works better with Microsoft’s operating system than any other laptop trackpad out there, and the display makes Windows look better than ever. All that combined with very snappy performance makes the Air more enjoyable to use than many of the other ultrabooks on the market, including the higher end $1,110 Asus Zenbook and the $1,200 Lenovo IdeaPad U300s.
However, there are some insurmountable issues that make the Air with Windows very hard to recommend over the Asus and Lenovo. The battery life is disappointing, especially when you can jump into OS X and get more juice out of the same cell, it’s hard to overlook that the keyboard was crafted for a different operating system, and the price — which is at least $1,500 — is significantly more than other ultrabooks. No matter how you break it down, it’s a lot of cash to lay out for some glaring compromises.
What is clear is that there is not yet a perfect ultrabook for Windows 7 users — one with the perfect balance of features and value. Obviously, Apple is never going to make that machine, but in many ways its hardware enables the best Windows experience right now, even if it hasn’t been tweaked for power efficiency and costs too much for the tradeoffs involved. It might be hard to recommend the Air with Windows over a competing ultrabook based on sheer expense and the reduced battery life, but what’s not hard is seeing exactly where PC makers have to focus their efforts if they ever want to give Windows users a machine that can match up with Apple.