Apr 01, 2012 (Pioneer Press - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
What is my favorite computer of all time? That's easy: Apple's current-model MacBook Air, hands-down.
I'm hardly alone in my love for the superthin laptop, in 11- and 13-inch models, which are largely hewn from single slabs of aluminum for solidity and stiffness and which have the nicest displays, keyboards and trackpads I've seen on notebook computers.
When I have a MacBook Air on loan from Apple, I'm lucky to get any time on it at home because my son likes to steal it for doing homework on the couch, playing video games and researching his next LEGO purchases. My wife loves to use it, too.
That's why I'm considering buying a MacBook Air for their exclusive living-room use while I work on my iMac upstairs or on the various loaner computers, including Apple ones, coming my way.
Lately, such loaners have included an assortment of superthin Windows-based laptops dubbed Ultrabooks, which are intended to compete with the MacBook Air.
Early Ultrabook versions have shown promise but also deep flaws.
Acer's Aspire S3 aims for value but feels chintzy compared with a luxury Air. Asus' Zenbook tries to go upscale but seems like a Bizarro version of the Air, oozing metallic sensuality yet falling a bit short with its display (limited viewing angles), keyboard (awkward) and trackpad (imprecise).
A second Ultrabook wave is bringing more-promising products. Here are three of these: HP's Folio 13, Dell's XPS 13 and HP's Envy 14 Spectre. You might have seen TV
spots for the latter two, which are getting heavy publicity -- and deservedly so because they are nice if not perfect machines. So is the Folio.
All these laptops use solid-state storage, which is faster than mechanical hard drives but has a limited capacity, and all the notebooks lack optical-disc drives, which are headed for the history books courtesy of Apple and its Air copycats.
Learn more about Ultrabooks at ojezap.me/GXe4xJ.
HP FOLIO 13
This aggressively rectangular notebook isn't the sexiest of Ultrabooks. That's just fine because it is also one of the best laptops out there -- and at a reasonable price.
A brushed-aluminum palm rest and lid give it a classy touch. I like its island-style keyboard with flat, square, nicely raised and not-mushy buttons.
The trackpad is a smidgen too tiny for my taste. Apple has me spoiled rotten on this measure. But it is responsive and has Air-like multitouch gestures accompanied by Apple-like demo videos.
It has no shortage of ports, including Ethernet and HDMI ports, one USB 3.0 port and one USB 2.0 port, along with a standard audio jack and flash-card slot.
The 13.3-inch display is not MacBook Air-awesome, and I wish it had a greater resolution than 1,366 by 768
pixels. Other Ultrabooks do. But I could live with it despite narrow viewing angles.
The Folio 13 isn't as thin or light as some other Ultrabooks, but it is plenty svelte compared with bulky Windows laptops of yore. I have no reason to gripe after using it for a week with zero discomfort.
My Folio 13 loaner has decorative, nonremovable "Hunger Games" decals on the lid in a nod to average consumers. The blatant branding was startling at first, but I like it now because I'm a fan of "Hunger Games"-like dystopian fiction.
At $900 and up, the Folio 13 is more affordable than the Air and fancier Ultrabooks. It is, therefore, worth a look for consumers who want to keep their superthin-laptop purchases under $1,000, which is harder if not impossible to do with other manufacturers.
The Folio 13 is available at the Mall of America's Microsoft Store.
More information: ojezap.me/HdY64R
DELL XPS 13
Incorporating Air-like touches while staying true to Dell's design personality, the XPS 13 has a shot at greatness despite a few minor flaws.
Its high-quality display with a thin black bezel are all very Air-like, but the XPS 13 has hit a sweet spot between the 11- and 13-inch Air by jamming its 13-inch display into a body smaller than that of the 13-inch Air and comparable laptops.
Too bad the screen resolution is a puny 1,366 by 768 pixels, like that of the Folio 13.
The curvaceous aluminum lid will remind you of the MacBook Air, but the rubbery bottom with an
inlaid "XPS"-etched metal emblem and two raised channels have a personality all their own.
So does the keyboard, which I like because it mimics those on other XPS-brand notebooks with subtly rounded and slightly scooped keys. The keys are black, as are the trackpad and the palm rest, which has a rubber-like texture. The all-black interior might be unusual, but I love it.
Audio via built-in speakers is surprisingly rich, and other sweet design touches include a battery indicator with five tiny lights and a button to display the current charge.
The XPS 13 aims for Air-like minimalism with port selection: You get only a couple of USB ports and a DisplayPort along with a headphone jack.
I experienced one major malfunction when using my XPS 13 loaner: When-ever I cranked up the brightness, the XPS eventually would dial it down. No amount of futzing with display settings would make this problem go away.
The Dell offers pretty much everything you'd want in a laptop that is not an Air, provided you can get by with a lower-resolution display and a price tag starting at about $1,000, which is beyond the value zone.
More information: ojezap.me/HhYzUl
HP ENVY 14 SPECTRE
Although the XPS 13 uses a substance known as Gorilla Glass for its display, HP's new Envy 14 Spectre takes this much further -- the lid and palm rest are also made of that sturdy material.
This sounded bizarre to me at first, but I love the look and feel of my loaner laptop, which is available at the Mall of America Microsoft retail store. It gives the laptop a distinct personality amid the gaggle of Air wannabes.
The design touches do not end there. The palm rest is raised a bit higher than the area surrounding the keyboard, which is visually jarring at first but creates zero typing discomfort and adds to this laptop's quirky charm.
The keys feel a bit jiggly but are very comfortable.
The screen on this laptop is better looking than that of the two laptops mentioned earlier, with a wider viewing angle and a higher resolution of 1,600 by 900 pixels. Note that it's also bigger at 14 inches, adding to the Spectre's overall bulk compared with other Ultrabooks -- but not uncomfortably so.
The Spectre has high-end Beats-branded audio controls built in, which will make a difference for audiophiles, and doesn't skimp on ports. It has two USB ports, one 2.0 and one 3.0, along with DisplayPort and Ethernet ports, an HDMI port and a flash-card slot.
The Spectre's power adapter incorporates a USB port for simultaneously charging a phone or a tablet, and the laptop is bundled with a nice Neoprene sleeve, much better than the leatherette version that comes with the Asus Zenbook.
One minor quibble: I wish the machine's power-charger port was on the left edge, or in the rear, and not on the right edge, because I sometimes use a notebook with a mouse at my desk, and the Spectre's power cord gets in the way.
This laptop is positioned as a luxury purchase at $1,400 and up, so you will have to ask yourself whether the glass-clad design and other enhancements are worth the extra scratch. If you want a laptop that will give you bragging rights alongside Air-toting showoffs, however, look no further.
More information: ojezap.me/HbMkqi
Julio Ojeda-Zapata writes about consumer technology. Read him: twincities.com/Ac techtestdrive and yourtechweblog.com. Reach him: email@example.com or 651-228-5467. Follow him: ojezap.com/social
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