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HP Elitebook Folio G1 laid flat

There has never been a better time to buy an ultraportable computer. PC makers may face falling sales, but they haven’t stopped building great laptops.

For years the laptop market was stagnant, with lacklustre me-too designs and unappetising performance. That’s changed.

The challenge from phones and tablets has spurred a new wave of innovation. In some cases, laptop makers pulled technologies from phones and used them to build better laptops.

We’re seeing a laptop renaissance. Here are six of 2016’s best choices. Four are traditional laptops, albeit slimmed down and stripped back for mobile productivity. One is a hybrid, the other is a tablet moonlighting as a hybrid.

You can find fuller reviews of all the models mentioned here elsewhere on this site. They are expensive but remember this is a round-up of today’s best models.

The list is not in any particular order. Each one is worth considering. We’d be happy to live with any one of these computers, they are all worthy of your attention.

HP Spectre

HP Spectre rear ports

The Spectre marks a return to form for HP. It is slimmer than the 2016 Apple MacBook, with a great keyboard and three USB-C ports. HP didn’t skimp on the power either, inside is a full Intel Core i processor.

This is the best Windows laptop so far this year. It will take some beating. What you don’t get for the NZ$2500 and up asking price is a touch screen. If you think you’ll miss that, look at the Surface Pro or the Elitebook.

Dell XPS 13 Touch

Dell XPS 13 TouchIf you like a touch screen on a Windows laptop, Dell’s XPS 13 Touch should be on your list. Prices start at NZ$2800. For that money you get a dazzling 13.3-inch quad HD+ display along with a Core i7–5500U running at 2.5 GHz. That’s a lot of power in a small package.

The remarkable thing about the screen is despite being 13.3 inches, the computer is the same size as other 12-inch models. Dell does this by almost doing away with the bezels. Also worth noting, the XPS has great battery life. It beats everything here except the Apple models.

2016 Apple MacBook

MacbookNot everyone wants a Windows ultraportable. Apple may be about to retire the MacBook Air that started the ultraportable trend. So if you want a non-Windows machine it’s this or the iPad Pro.

The 2016 MacBook is thin and so light you may forget you’re carrying one in your bag. It has a great keyboard and a wonderful Retina display. Apple built a new keyboard for the MacBook. It isn’t everyone’s taste, but in practice, this is a wonderful machine to work with. Prices start at $2400.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

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Microsoft had a few goes at getting its laptop-PC hybrid right. This fourth-generation device got there in the end after a few firmware teething troubles. The result is well worth the wait. For Windows fans it is close to a dream machine being as coupled to its software as an Apple computer. A Microsoft operating system never felt this good.

Prices start at NZ$1600 plus another $240 for the type cover. Most people would be better off skipping the underpowered Core m3 entry-level model and getting a Core i model. Prices go all the way to a nosebleed NZ$4900 for a 1TB Surface Pro 4 with a Core i7 processor and 16GB Ram.

HP Elitebook Folio G1

HP Elitebook Folio G1 laid flat
HP Elitebook Folio G1 laid flat

HP’s made-for-business ultrabook is a touch more conservative looking and thicker than the Spectre. Yet it is still a powerhouse on the inside. The Elitebook has corporate features like Intel vPro support. It also folds back to a 180 degree position for laptop work.

There’s still the minimal aesthetic and only two USB-C ports. It comes in four configurations with an NZ$2600 non-touch screen model under-pinning the range. Spend $3700 and you get a the top of the line model. It has an ultra-high definition (UHD) touch screen with 3840 by 2160 pixels, an Intel Core m7 processor, 8GB of Ram and a 512GB solid state drive.

Apple iPad Pro 12.9

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro isn’t a true 2016 model, it appeared late last year. It also differs from the rest of the pack because it isn’t a laptop. It’s less of a laptop than the Surface Pro; a tablet with an optional keyboard.

While not for everyone, it does most of the work the other devices here can do and does many of them well, some better. Fans swear it replaces traditional computers, although it’s not good at dealing with complex file system problems.

Prices start at NZ$1400 and go all the way to $2180 for  a Sim card version with 256 GB of memory. You’ll need to find another $320 for the keyboard and, maybe, $190 for the Apple Pencil.

Dell XPS 13

The Dell XPS 13 is a premium Ultrabook. Dell designed it to show off what it can do with the format. It does that with style. You won’t find a better Windows 8.1 clamshell laptop. This is the first Dell PC I’ve been excited about in a long time.

For a while it looked as if traditional Windows laptops were a thing of the past. The main mobile computing action moved to smartphones, tablets and hybrids.

Microsoft muscled in on the territory with its Surface and laptop-like Surface Pro tablets. Meanwhile Apple MacBook sales took off.

The Dell XPS 13 addresses everything you didn’t like about conventional Windows laptops. Well, almost everything. It’s lightweight and slim. It has a 13-inch screen but is smaller than my 13-inch MacBook Air and as powerful as a MacBook Pro.

Dell sent me the NZ$2500 top-of-the-line model with an Intel i7 processor, 256GB of solid state storage and 8GB of Ram.

Bright, sharp, glorious display

From the moment I opened the box it was clear this is special. The Dell XPS 13 display is glorious with 3200 by 1800 pixels. It’s bright and sharp. Too bright at times. On a night flight I worried about waking fellow passengers and tried to dial the brightness down. I couldn’t find out a quick way to do this, so ended up closing the computer down.

On the positive side images look great and, for the most part, text is easy to read. We’ll revisit this point later.

There’s a lightweight aluminium frame with almost no gap between the edge of the screen and the edge of the lid. That’s the bezel in laptop-maker jargon. The small bezel means the case is about the size of other computer makers’ 11-inch models. In practical terms it means it fits on a tray table on a business class flight.

One curious aspect of the tiny bezel is the webcam isn’t in the normal spot at the top of the screen.

This was noticeable the moment I powered up the computer because Dell uses facial recognition software to replace the traditional Windows password. The camera looks for your face, then asks you to centre your image. I had to hunt for the camera, located under the screen on the left to get this to work.

Intel i7 processor

Dell’s processor choice is interesting. The Intel i7 is fast by any standard. It is fan-less which makes for a quiet computer and uses Intel’s Broadwell design, which means better battery life.

Better than what? Dell says you can get 11 hours from the XPS 13. That may be true if you crank down the screen brightness and don’t overtax the chip. I found it lasted about nine hours, enough for a normal day’s work if you don’t push it.

If I sat and worked non-stop the battery would fade after a few minutes more than six hours. That’s less battery life than I get from an 18-month-old MacBook Air, but still good considering the grunt inside the box.

Dell’s keyboard is good enough for most work. The keys are smaller than I like and I found typing is a touch more cramped than is comfortable. Sometimes the keys don’t feel as if they move enough. However, I’m sure I could adapt if this was my main computer. The touchpad is excellent, the best I’ve seen in a Windows laptop.

Touchscreen are something you love or hate. I get fingerprints on my MacBook Air screen after spending time on a touchscreen computer, but for the most part I find I get wrist pains lifting my hand from the keyboard to point and touch the display.

My only serious niggle with the XPS 13 isn’t Dell’s fault. Windows 8.1 still struggles to use high-resolution screens sensibly. Often apps don’t scale and you find yourself staring at microscopic type. That’s something I don’t see on a Mac with a Retina display.

Dell XPS 13 verdict

Dell has managed to overcome all the things that annoy me about Windows laptops. This one is small, light, powerful, has a great screen and day-long battery life. For all these reasons it gets three thumbs up.

Even so it’s not the right machine for me. Although if I was planning a move back to Windows I’d consider this ahead of the Surface Pro 3 purely because of the better keyboard and trackpad.

Most of the time I use a word processor and a browser. These apps don’t require i7 grunt and the battery life trade-off that entails. There are days I need the 10 hours or more I can squeeze from my MacBook Air.

Asus Zenbook UX301Asus is best known for mid-price PCs and tablets in New Zealand. It aims to change that with the upmarket Zenbook UX301.

Ultrabooks tend to be better made and more elegantly designs than everyday laptops. Asus pulled out the stops building the Zenbook UX301.

Like most Ultrabooks it’s well engineered and nice looking. The metal lid has a distinct purple tint and a spiral pattern. There’s an Asus logo that lights up MacBook-style when the Zenbook is in use.

That’s no accident. The MacBook Air is clearly Asus’ reference point. The Zenbook aspires to be the nearest Windows equivalent. It gets close.

High resolution Zenbook

The Zenbook UX301 has a 13 inch 2560 x 1440 pixel screen. This makes it one of the highest resolution Ultrabooks on the market. It is an ideal device for working with photos, video or other creative tools that need high-resolution.

While high-resolution is a good thing, it’s not without problems. The way Windows works means text often displays in tiny sizes. The good news is you can view two documents side-by-side. That’s great for editing. The bad news is I ended up straining my eyes squinting at the tiny type.

In theory Windows 8.1 allows you to scale type, icons and other screen items. Scaling doesn’t work with all applications.

Touch screen good at times

This is troubling because the Zenbook UX301 has a touch screen. Some touch buttons and links are tiny.

In practice I found myself touching the screen only when using the Windows Modern interface and apps. The touchpad is better when working in the more familiar Windows desktop.

Laptop makers face a trade-off between raw computing power and battery life. Apple keeps MacBook Air lights on longer by reining-in the processor and other settings.

Asus takes the other approach with the Zenbook UX301. You get three or four hours use. In return the Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of Ram and graphics co-processor chew through tough tasks at a nifty pace. This is a good machine for running big spreadsheets. Storage is fast too, speeding data intensive work.

Zenbook UX301 verdict

At $2499, the Zenbook UX301 isn’t cheap. On the other hand it is roughly the same price as a similarly configured MacBook Air.

One niggle is the power supply. Asus packs a bulky charger, which needs an extra adaptor to fit in New Zealand power sockets. This isn’t well balanced, so the charger pack tends to drop out, disconnecting the device. On one occasion this left me with fully discharged batteries at an awkward moment.

Despite the shortcomings, the Zenbook UX301 is a good Ultrabook for anyone needing desktop processing grunt and graphics power in a portable. If you just want Windows grunt and portability, the Surface Pro 3 could be a better bet. If you prefer the same thing in a more traditional package, the Zenbook should fit the bill.

Asus New Zealand Systems Business Group manager David McKean says Sony and Samsung’s retreat from the laptop market left a gap his company plans to fill.

In February Sony sold the Vaio laptop brand to a Japanese investment firm. At the time Sony said it was dropping the underperforming PC business to concentrate on mobile hardware.

Samsung’s strategy is less clear. Earlier this year it said it was pulling back from many markets to focus on tablets and smartphones. The company still lists laptops and all-in-ones on its New Zealand site.

These moves have left a vacuum in the New Zealand market that Asus intends to fill. The PC business has been under pressure in recent years with falling sales thanks to the growth of tablets and smartphones.

Those left in the game have seen increased pressure on margins. Winning is partly about achieving economies of scale. That could be difficult for Asus in New Zealand as the company is a relative minnow here, not featuring in the top five PC suppliers. However, the company is a big player in some overseas markets.

Asus PR and marketing manager Sally Vernon says the computer maker is pushing its brand up-market in aiming to fill the gap. She says Asus isn’t widely known in New Zealand for its high-end products, but the products will be here once the brand is better known and establishes a greater market share.

ZBook laptop workstation
HP’s Z workstations including the Ultrabook-size ZBook 14 – third from left

Hewlett-Packard’s spring 2013 mobile business computing refresh brings slimmer, lighter laptops along with the world’s first workstation dressed in Ultrabook clothing.

Speaking at a press event in Auckland, market development manager Simon Molloy showed the Ultrabook-style workstation, more conventional mobile workstations and HP’s latest business-class Ultrabooks. Also on show were the company’s made-over range of desktop monitors and a point-of-sale jacket for HP’s Elitepad tablet. 

HP’s business notebooks are all variations on the EliteBook 800 theme. Molloy says they are as much as 40 percent slimmer and 28 percent lighter than the models they replace. In practice there’s a noticeable lack of physical heft in the new devices. HP has moved to the new Haswell chips which he says means users should see about 10 hours battery life.

Molloy describes the new models as: “Ultra mobile and ultra-secure”.

There’s an emphasis on security; the new computers come with a self-healing bios. This gives protection from malicious attacks on a computer’s boot sector. The bios has a mirror image, it checks itself against this image during boot. If they don’t match, the software loads a fresh copy. If it kicks in, the process only adds 15 seconds to the boot time.

Elsewhere on the security front, the notebooks come with proprietary HP encryption software as standard.

Molloy talks of the difficulty of cramming business-class computing into an Ultrabook package. The inevitable result is a degree of consumerisation, even in kit built for medium to large organisations. He says there are touch screen options but adding touch makes the notebooks thicker and heavier.

Nevertheless, he says some customers have asked for touch and demand is growing as Windows 8 gains acceptance. Perhaps not too much, because he also admitted most new notebook customers in HP’s business sector choose to downgrade the operating system from Windows 8 to Windows 7.

HP expanded the Z series workstation line with new models using Thunderbolt technology for high-speed data transfer. To date Thunderbolt has been mainly seen in Apple products. All the mobile workstations are thinner and lighter, but the HP ZBook 14 is Ultrabook size.