As long as I can remember, people have been asking me why small, ultra-portable notebooks are more expensive than their 14 and 15in counterparts. "But they're smaller and don't need as much material to build" is one of the arguments I'd hear. I'd counter this by saying that it was the engineering and research involved in getting decent processing power and capacity into the smaller build, while also designing a strong, well-ventilated, yet light enough case to house those components, that drove up the cost. There has always been a strong interest in ultraportable notebooks, not just from business users, but also from students and travellers. Most people aspire to get one because they want something that's light and very easy to carry. The good news is the price of ultraportable notebooks is coming down, and there are some great new models on the market. Here's a guide to the key features to look for when deciding which ultraportable suits your needs, and the five best ultraportable models we've recently put to the test.
Price: ASUS and HP have recognised that a market is present for inexpensive ultraportables, and have built models with price tags that are within reach of the average user. But these aren't fast notebooks; they're only good for word processing, browsing the Internet and listening to music or viewing videos while on the road. However, if you're willing to spend around $2500, there are a few small, yet potent options available, such as Toshiba's Portege M800 (PPM80A-03H009).
CPU: Most ultraportables use ultra-low voltage CPUs — which aren't as powerful as their all-consuming brethren. Ultra-low voltage CPUs help keep heat generation to a minium and maximise battery longevity. Units around the $1000 mark might feature a CPU from VIA — such as the HP 2133 Mini-Note PC (FH441PA) — while more expensive options will feature an ultra-low voltage version of the Core 2 Duo — NEC's VERSA S9100-1203DR is one such notebook. Of course, you'll want a Core 2 Duo CPU if you're looking for fast performance.
Size and weight: Ultraportable models typically feature a 12.1in screen and a weight that's just on 2kg, or under without a power supply. A typical ultraportable might be 30cm long, 21cm deep and about 2cm thick. The weight is kept down not only due to the physical size of the notebook, but also because it might use light construction materials, such as magnesium alloy. Furthermore, it might not have an optical drive built in. For an example of a true ultraportable, check out Toshiba's Portege R500
Battery life: Just because they're small, doesn't mean that all ultraportable notebooks have great battery life — interestingly enough the smallest notebook on our list, the HP Mini-Note, also has the worst battery life. This is because the batteries might also be small (as is the case with the HP), although some ultraportables do have large batteries (some even stick out a couple of centimetres from the chassis) that can last for up to four hours in a worst case scenario. But it's not just the size of the battery that matters; a notebook with a solid state drive will last longer than one with a traditional spinning disk drive, while a notebook with less RAM and a less powerful CPU will also last longer. For long battery life and good performance, look for a model that offers a battery with a high milliamp per hour figure (for example: 5800mAh as opposed to 2700mAh). A higher rating generally means it will last longer.
Ease of use: Due to their small size, ultraportables aren't always easy to use — see the ASUS Eee PC 900 (Linux version) and Eee PC 900 (Windows XP version) as two examples. You'll want something with big keys that are comfortable to touch-type with. Luckily, most 12.1in models are relatively roomy and they don't have regularly used keys in odd positions. You'll also want one with a good-sized touchpad and logically laid out left and right buttons. The screen should also be bright (or transreflective) so that you can use it comfortably outdoors or in other bright-light environments.
Connectivity: Most importantly, make sure the ultraportable has all the connections you'll require. Look for at least two USB 2.0 ports and get one with an expansion slot if you can, as this will let you plug in a mobile data card, for example, without leaving a USB stick or dongle hanging off your notebook. Some notebooks, such as Fujitsu's LifeBook T2010 (3.5G) even have 3G capability built in, so all you have to do is insert your SIM card.
Here are five ultraportable notebooks that have impressed us recently. Click on the links to read the full reviews.
5. Toshiba Portege R500
It's the lightest ultraportable notebook on the market, so we just had to squeeze it in at number five.
4. NEC VERSA S9100-1203DR
Even with a built-in optical drive, that little gem weighs only 1.3kg.
3. Fujitsu LifeBook T2010 (3.5G) LifeBook T2010 (3.5G)
If you're a mobile professional who needs to stay connected, then this model is well worth your time as it has a built-in 3G module. It's also the only tablet-convertible ultraportable in our list.
2. Toshiba Portege M800 (PPM80A-03H009)
This ultraportable hits the sweet spot for price, features and size. It's a little heavier than most, but that just means there's more of it to love.
1. HP 2133 Mini-Note PC (FH441PA) We can't go past the $999 Mini-Note for our number one spot. It's affordable, has a decent feature-set, it's very well built and most importantly, it's easy to use.