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Ultrabook, laptop, hybrid or Chromebook? How to pick the best portable PC

Brad Chacos | Dec. 4, 2013
Don't let the variety daunt you. Revel in the choices, from hybrids that pull apart to desktop replacements that keep it all together.

Ultrabooks
Now let's take a walk on the high end! Ultrabooks are Intel's Windows-based answer to the MacBook Air, and the company controls the requirements for these pricey portables with an iron fist to ensure high-end consistency (and, if you want to get cynical, to promote CPU-intensive technologies that showcase the power of Intel's Core-series processors, which must be used in order for a device to be called an Ultrabook).

Basically, Ultrabooks are meant to be powerful, yet portable. Newer Haswell-based Ultrabooks have to measure less than 0.9 inch thick, wake from sleep quickly, provide at least six hours of HD video playback, and pack a touchscreen, Intel's Wireless Display technology, and support for voice commands. (Those last requirements promote Intel's "perceptual computing" push.) Haswell Ultrabooks also include antimalware software by default.

Ultrabooks frequently—but not always—sport fancy touches, such as a metal chassis, 1080p or better displays, and backlit keyboards. These models are the Cadillacs of computers, folks—though their slim designs mean most Ultrabooks offer skimpy port selections, and most lack discrete GPUs (no gaming for you!) and optical disc drives.

Older Ultrabooks may be slightly bulkier and weren't required to carry the same perceptual computing capabilities as Haswell-based models. As such, you may be able to find last year's Ultrabooks at a discount, which is a good thing: The portability of Ultrabooks tends to come at a steep price. You can also find AMD-based Ultrabook look-alikes for lower prices, often sporting a "ultrathin" or "ultraslim" tag.

Hybrids, convertibles, and two-in-ones
If you're on the fence about just how mobile you want to go, a hybrid, convertible, or two-in-one might be right up your alley. These are all terms for the same type of device. Hybrids straddle the fence between PC and slate, offering laptop functionality when you need to get things done, and tablet-style form factors when you want to kick back and relax with a touchscreen.

You'll find two types of hybrids. "Laptop-first" convertibles (like the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11s or Dell XPS 12) are basically full-blown laptops but with screens that fold, flip, or rotate to convert to a flat laptop form factor. Thinner, lighter "tablet-first" hybrids have slide-out keyboards or are basically tablets with optional keyboard accessories. (Think Microsoft's Surface slate.)

The chameleon-like capabilities of hybrids require some compromises, however.

Laptop-first hybrids carry a price premium over standard laptops, while tablet-first hybrids trade performance for mobility and often offer a subpar typing experience. The touchscreens found on all hybrids can also impact battery life, especially if you aren't buying a newer model with an energy-efficient "Haswell" Core processor or "Bay Trail" Atom CPU. And all hybrids are relatively big and thick compared to straightforward tablets, especially laptop-first variants. Your arms will quiver and shake if you try lying down and holding a convertible over your face for an extended period of time. As such, hybrids are better suited for laps, even while in tablet mode.

 

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