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.
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!
About 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.