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Ultrabooks and premium laptops

Product Price
13" Macbook Pro with Retina display $1,299.99
13.3" Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus $1,399.99

Whoa, whoa. Are we skipping straight to thousand-dollar systems? What happened to regular notebooks?

Good question. The short answer is that vanilla notebooks outside the convertible and premium ultrabook categories tend to be, you know, not so great. It's not that they aren't capable productivity workhorses; it's just that most of them have lousy keyboards, low pixel densities, and crummy battery life. One can occasionally luck out and find a machine with just one or two of those shortcomings, but avoiding these issues altogether calls for a budget in excess of $1,000.


Source: Apple.

Probably the best deal north of the thousand-dollar mark right now is Apple's 13" MacBook Pro with Retina display. Good keyboard? Check: Apple's laptop keyboards are among the best in the industry. High pixel density? Check: the 2560x1600 native resolution gives you a pixel density of 227 PPI. Good battery life? Check: the 72-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery is rated for nine hours of web surfing.

There's plenty more to be excited about. The base config comes with a Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Apple pre-installs OS X Mavericks, which is pretty solid as far as operating systems go, and it provides drivers for Windows, should you choose to dual-boot (or go Windows-only, which is also possible.) Finally, if you live near an Apple Store, you also get the benefit of Apple's terrific in-store customer service, which is head and shoulders above the kind of support big PC makers typically provide.


Source: Samsung.

If the thought of using a computer with a fruit logo makes your skin break out in hives, there are Windows-toting PC notebooks similar to the Retina MacBook Pro. One of them is Samsung's Ativ Book 9 Plus, which has roughly equivalent specs and an even higher display resolution: 3200x1800 (which works out to about 275 PPI). The rated battery life on this laptop is a little shorter, though, at 7.5 hours, and the built-in Wi-Fi is only 802.11n.

Also, keep in mind that a lot of Windows apps don't handle high-PPI displays gracefully. That may change thanks to the influx of cheap 4K monitors, but at least for now, OS X should deliver a better high-PPI experience.

A note on Chromebooks
For the most part, Chromebooks lie at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the premium notebooks mentioned above. Chromebooks are small, cheap, and surprisingly limited in their functionality.

HP's Chromebook 11, for example, costs only $279 and features an 11.6" IPS display with a 1366x768 resolution, an ARM-based Samsung Exynos processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of built-in storage. Naturally, it ships with Chrome OS, which is less of an operating system and more of a glorified web browser running on top of a Linux kernel.


Source: Google.

The premise of Chrome OS is that, with a handful of exceptions (for basic file management, video playback, and the like), the web browser is the center of your world. All third-party applications and games are meant to be web-based, and there's really no out-of-the-box way to install anything like a native copy of Steam, iTunes, or Photoshop—or The Gimp, for that matter.

If this is going to be your second or third computer and you just need a web-browsing, note-taking machine for school or work, that's probably fine. There are lots of good web apps out there nowadays, including online versions of Microsoft Word and Excel. For anything more involved, though, we'd strongly recommend that you consider something else. Heck, even an iPad can run the kinds of native apps and games Chrome OS just doesn't support.

Because some Chromebooks are Intel-based, some folks might be tempted to squeeze Linux or Windows onto them. Keep in mind that most Chromebooks are stuck with 16GB of built-in storage. The idea is, of course, that everything should be stored in the cloud. Unfortunately, that doesn't quite fit the modus operandi of traditional operating systems, which involve a reasonably hefty footprint and additional storage requirements for third-party software.

So, no, you probably shouldn't get a Chromebook—unless you're really, really sure you want one.

What's on the horizon
That about covers our recommendations in the realm of currently available systems (or almost-available ones, in the case of the Surface Pro 3, which doesn't come out until June 20). We'd be comfortable buying most of these machines for ourselves, provided we were in the market for new gear right now.

What about the systems that are just around the corner? Is anything truly groundbreaking mere months away from release?

Well, yes, actually. Intel's next-generation Broadwell processors are due out later this year, and one of them, the Core M, promises to enable a new breed of convertible tablets: thinner, lighter, fanless systems that should still pack a lot of processing punch.

We haven't gotten confirmation of this yet, but we expect Asus' upcoming Transformer T300 Chi will be powered by the Core M. That machine will have a 12.5" screen with a 2560x1440 resolution, and it will be just 0.56" thick... with the keyboard dock attached. For reference, the Atom-powered Transformer T100 is 0.8". If Asus plays its cards right, the Transformer T300 Chi could very well be the finest dockable convertible ever.

Broadwell isn't going to be out right away, though. In the nearer term, we're intrigued and hopeful about some of the systems unveiled at Computex earlier this month. Those include HP's Pro x2 612, a Haswell-powered convertible that packs an auxiliary battery in its keyboard dock. HP claims a whopping 14 hours of run time thanks to that battery. Too bad the machine isn't due out until September.

64-bit Bay Trail convertibles are also starting to break cover, which is a welcome development. Earlier this year, Scott deplored the absence of such systems, which have the potential to offer a great blend of portability, versatility, and affordability, all without restrictive memory limitations. HP's Pavilion x360 and Lenovo's Yoga 2 11 both wrap Bay Trail in a 64-bit package with 4GB of RAM, though they don't have detachable keyboard docks. Sadly, we're still on the lookout for a 64-bit version of the Transformer T100 with 4GB of RAM—or something like it. We'll probably have to update this guide as soon as we find one.

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