Friday night topic: where are the good ultraportables?


— 5:20 PM on April 18, 2014

If I don't upgrade before October, my primary laptop will soon celebrate its fifth birthday. I didn't mean for things to turn out this way. I liked my Acer 1810TZ when I bought it for $550 way back when, but I never had any intention of keeping it this long.

In fact, shortly before the release of Windows 8, I honestly expected convertible tablets based on x86 processors to capture a ton of market share, as people embraced the concept of a single device that could excel at both productivity and media consumption. I was primed to take part in this trend. Instead, the mobile PC market went to kind of a dark place. Windows 8 had problems with touchpad sensitivity and tracking, the Windows app store flopped, and most crucially, the portable systems from PC makers just overall weren't that great.

More time has passed, and Win8.1 has worked out some of its issues. The Bay Trail and Kabini/Temash SoCs are out there, as is Haswell, and yet I still haven't made a change. I think the problem is that my expectations have been set by two things: 1) the basic capabilities of the $550 laptop I bought 4.5 years ago and 2) the capabilities of tablets that cost as little as $200. I want to upgrade from my last system, not just replace it. Mobile computing has advanced in certain ways, and I figure today's laptop offerings should reflect that fact.

With that said, here is my entirely reasonable list of demands for a laptop and/or convertible two-in-one:

  • Decent performance, which I think a Bay Trail or Temash SoC can offer.
  • A decent 11-14" IPS display with a higher res than 1366x768. Touch would be a bonus.
  • At least 4GB of memory. Upgrade potential would be nice. (I edit 18MP photos and short videos.)
  • An SSD with ~128GB of capacity or a hard drive I can pull and upgrade.
  • A decent keyboard and touchpad, with good feel, nice surfaces, and precise input.
  • At least eight hours of battery life.
  • Weight of about three pounds or less.

I could add more "would be nice" items like a backlit keyboard, but those are the basics. I think all of these things can be had, but they seem rare in one system—unless you pay nearly a grand or more for a high-end ultrabook like the ThinkPad X1 Carbon or the MacBook Pro. Microsoft's Surface Pro seems OK, even though I'd prefer a clamshell system for use in the lap, but it's also pricey.

Some of the current Bay Trail offerings seem like good values, but the Asus T100 is a little small for my needs. And the Bay Trail stuff all runs 32-bit Windows right now. Blech. Systems based on AMD's Temash tend to have 1366x768 screens and battery life of four hours or less. My old laptop can still go for eight hours on a single charge.

At the end of the day, it seems like an awful lot of the supposed goodness that has come to the PC mobile space in the past five years simply hasn't translated into better ultraportable systems—at least not for anything near the price I paid back when. That's strange, because I keep reading about all of the competitive pressure from tablets and declining laptop sales. Surely those things would prompt, you know, improvements?

But maybe I'm just missing the boat entirely? Am I being too cheap? Are there good options I'm just missing? What current systems would you highlight that meet the criteria above? What would you recommend to a friend or buy for yourself if the need arose?

Discuss.

   
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