Operation Downsize: taking the ultrabook plunge

By John Walton, February 21 2012
Operation Downsize: taking the ultrabook plunge

For something so slim and light, Ultrabooks seem to be the next big thing for business travellers.

But what do you give up when you make the move from a conventional laptop to to an ultra-portable Ultrabook -- and are those traits worth the trade-off?

Earlier this year I made the huge move from a 17 inch laptop which was top of the line in 2009, to a relatively tiny 11 inch ultrabook.

(My swap was from a MacBook Pro to a MacBook Air, but my thoughts apply equally to other ultraportables like the HP Folio, Dell XPS 14z, or Toshiba Satellite Z830.)

I knew I'd like the footprint of an ultrabook because I used a 12 inch laptop as my main computer back in 2004, before laptops moved to the widescreen form factor we see today, and loved the size and portability of that machine.

I'm not going to tell you that my eleven-inch Ultrabook is small, or light, or convenient, or anything else you already know if you're considering one.

What I will share with you are a number of observations -- both good and bad -- since I started using an Ultrabook as my full-time laptop some two months ago.

Here's what I really like about working on an ultrabook -- and the tradeoffs that I knew I'd have to make.

1. Instant startup, shutdown & sleep

One of the things I notice whenever I travel with a non-Ultrabook is that it takes forever for most regular laptops to start up, shut down and drop into sleep mode.

It's about moving data around the laptop from the short-term memory (RAM) to long-term storage (hard drive). Most since laptops come with mechanical spinning hard drives, and that copy-before-sleep process takes some time.

The immensely faster solid state drive (SSD) of an Ultrabook blows that away.

No more sitting at the office, cafe, hotel or airport lounge waiting for the blinking "it's safe to move me without damaging your hard drive" light – just drop the Ultrabook’s lid and head out the door.

2. The SSD speed boost

This may seem like a no-brainer if you're familiar with the tech, but one of the less well-advertised benefits of a solid state drive is the extraordinary speed advantage over hard drives -- especially laptop hard drives, which tend to be slower than their desktop siblings.

I've found that intensive tasks like Photoshop feel just as fast -- if not faster -- on my Ultrabook than my older laptop.

3. Web services aren’t quite there yet

A standard piece of advice doled out to Ultrabook switchers is to start using web services instead of trying to store too much stuff -- such as email, music, photos, videos, and even documents -- on the laptop.

This is driven by the smaller capacity of solid state drives compared to hard drives: you can be talking about 64GB for an entry-level Ultrabook but 320GB for a conventional laptop.

Sadly, hitching your wagon to web services isn’t always practical, especially for Australians and business travellers.

Music streaming services like Spotify aren't available everywhere yet, and if you're on the road you may not be able to access it.

Similarly, keeping your email entirely online is fine if you're always online -- but if you're in the air there are very few web-based email services that let you continue reading your email and bashing out replies without an Internet connection.

Photos and videos, too, are tricky, quite often because of bandwidth in our neck of the woods. We see more frequently metered hotel Internet connections and more expensive mobile broadband than the (usually US-based) people who give the "move your life online" advice. So these high-bandwidth activities can get costly quickly.

And some web services aren't yet adapted properly to smaller ultralight screens. Surprisingly, Google is particularly bad at this, with Google Reader and Gmail especially annoying to use on a small screen until their very latest style changes.

4. Prioritise your ports

The thinner profile of an Ultrabook means it has fewer room for the riot of ports, jacks, sockets and connectors found on full-size notebooks.

Here’s an example of what you can get on most big and brawny laptops.

Ultrabooks ditch most of those ports (many of which you probably won’t use anyway) and pare what’s left down to a minimum: typically two or there USB ports, some form of video output (such as HDMI or DisplayPort) and an SD memory card slot.

I've missed the Ethernet network port the most, mainly because there are still many hotels with either no wifi or in-room wireless that’s slower than a wired connection.

We’re now starting to see some Ultrabooks with networking ports, such as models from Toshiba and HP, so the more time you spend hotel-hopping the closer you should look at an Ethernet-equipped Ultrabook.

Another solution for hotels is a travel router (I use Apple’s Airport Express), which  plugs into the wired network connection and turns this into a low-power password-protected wireless network.

(It’s often an easier and more reliable option than trying to connect to hotel wifi anyway.)

If most of your travel is within Australia you should consider a USB mobile broadband dongle. What you pay for three nights’ of hotel internet is usually equal to a whole month of mobile broadband!

5. Seeing your notebook from a new angle

Here’s something I wasn't expecting from my time living with an Ultrabook.

The top of an 11 inch ultralight's screen sits several inches lower than that of a 17 incher.

That means the angle of my neck is more inclined when I look at the screen, and in turn I tend to crane slightly further forwards.

Since that's bad for posture, I'll often work on alternative surfaces like a cushion on my knees (where I can get the angle right), raise the laptop slightly on the surface it covers, or change its angle of positioning.

6. How’s the keyboard feel?

I've been pretty impressed by the keyboard on my MacBook Air, especially after being used to hammering away at the solid keyboard of my old 17 inch MacBook Pro.

However, since there's simply ‘less laptop’ under the keyboard it does feel a little less solid when typing at speed. That’s most noticeable on hard surfaces where it ‘echoes’ slightly.

This isn’t a deal-breaker by any means but I’d suggest you don’t overlook the keyboard when assessing your Ultrabook purchase.

7. Don’t shortchange yourself on RAM

The least expensive Ultrabooks can achieve their cut-price stickers by modest specifications, such as only 2GB of RAM instead of 4GB.

This requires a change of habits to avoid bogging down the Ultrabook down with more active tasks than it can juggle -- trying to do too many things at once such as multiple web browsers, Photoshop, email and so on.

This takes up more RAM than the laptop has on tap, and as a result makes everything run slower.

So I've got into the habit of (a) not running as many apps at once, and (b) leaving fewer browser tabs open for later reading. I’ve also deleted the memory- and battery-hog Flash from my main browser (Firefox) and using Google Chrome's built-in version as a backup whenever I need Flash.

Over to you...

We know that many of our readers have also taken the ultralight plunge. How does it work for you? What's changed? What's the app, peripheral device, gadget or service you can't live without? Share your thoughts with other AusBT readers in the comment section below!

John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

21 Feb 2012

Total posts 40

I've been researching ultrabooks for a while and settled for an Asus Zenbook UX21E from Costco. I have confirmed with them that I can take it on a holiday and then return it for a full refund if I am not satisfied with it. I will be doing this once the new Macbook Air is released.

I find that the Zenbook screen is a TN Panel and therefore not as nice as an IPS enabled panel, but as a Windows Ultrabook, for $839 now at Costco (I bought it for $899), its a pretty good deal.

And with Costco, you can return it within the life of your membership. So its Win-Win. They also do have the Toshiba, but I find that the Toshiba had a very flimsy screen.

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 666

Thanks -- useful tips on the purchase and build quality side of things!


10 Sep 2011

Total posts 162


Something that goes with the form factor of a device like this or slates is that while they are easy to lug about, they are not OH&S friendly to use, and you're more than likely going to want to get back to a desktop or large laptop as soon as possible.  To enable this, you are going to want some sort of sync service for your files.

Dropbox and Sugarsync are well known, but have the issue of the US Patriot Act (the US Government is entitled to look at the data without your knowing).  Another service is Wuala, which is encrypted at your terminal, has basic version control, and is stored in Switzerland, Germany and France with tight data protection laws.

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 666

Actually, I find it just as ergonomic (if not more so) than the larger laptop.

With the proviso of the factor I mentioned in the article (screen height and angle), the lower in-the-bag and in-the-hand weight makes a big difference.

More important to me than the size of the laptop is the ability to work flexibly with it, on multiple surfaces, to ensure that the in-OS setup works for me and to take regular breaks. Your mileage may well differ, of course.

On sync, after HADOPI, I'm not sure that I'd trust the French government with my data. Wuala is a useful service, though — I looked into it a while back. I am still waiting for decent sync, though...

I also took the plunge last year, getting the mid 2011 Macbook Air 11.6", which replaced a 13" windows laptop and a Dell Latitude 10" netbook which I had begun to travel with. It's worth considering the switch to mac first, for windows users who are hesitating using a mac. I haven't used a mac regularly for 20 years but I found it relatively easy converting to mac. As I do most of my work in MS Office, I have found that Office 2011 for Mac now converts seamlessly to Windows. I can be working on a report on the Mac, save to Dropbox, and open in windows MS Office 2010 perfectly.

I have found that my Dell Latitude netbook was a hassle, both screen and keyboard too small to regularly work on. Not so the 11.6" macbook. The full size keyboard is fabulous and the screen is big enough to work on when travelling. It's also small enough to use in economy class, where room is constrained.

The 1kg weight of the MBA has transformed the ease of travelling, even compared to using a relatively light 13" Windows machine- which is over 2kg. I also use the Airport Express when travelling to give me my own wifi network in hotel rooms, for the MBA and iPhone I travel with. I don't take my ipad with me when travelling. The MBA is only slightly larger and can meet my entertainment as well as work requirements on the road- and I've already got the apps I want on the iphone.

At home I connect the MBA to the 27" Apple Thunderbolt display, giving me all the benefits of a destop computer- but still using the same MBA. The display has extra USB ports and an ethernet port and I have a cheap 1TB external hard drive to give me storage and backup- apart from what is saved on dropbox.

I would have considered a Windows ultrabook, but they seem to be similarly priced to the MBA for the same specification (4GB RAM 128GB SS HD). And the ultrabooks I have seen all have weaknesses compared to the MBA- screen not so good, or keyboard not as good or body not the same quality feel as the MBA.

I still use windows in the office, transferring the files I'm working on via dropbox.

Clearly the days of big laptops are ending and the ultrabook/MBA form factor is the future. I've not missed an internal DVD burner (I already had an external one)- or that there are only 2USB ports. But an ethernet port continues to be useful when travelling, unless you use an airport express or similar wifi solution.

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 666

Nice setup! Those Thunderbolt displays are pretty awesome, aren't they?

The Thunderbolt display is expensive, but not for what you get. Brilliant screen, very good audio (for my ears) and best of all the ability to make the 11.6" Macbook Air your only computer. No need for a desktop anymore, just plug in the thunderbolt connection and mag power which the display comes with. Voila! A powerful desktop machine. Leave your powercord in your bag.

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2551

+1 for that – I've bought a Thunderbolt monitor to go with my 13 inch MacBook Air and enjoy everything you've cited, MountM. Thunderbolt, MacBook Air and an external keyboard/mouse (I used a Logitech DiNovo for Mac keyboard for Mac and VX Nano mouse) is a great combo.


19 Dec 2011

Total posts 49

I use both the macbook & macbook air. I use the macbook pro at home & the macbook air I take overseas with me & connect the two through icloud. For me it gives the perfect combination.

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