A Road Warrior Plans To Shed Some Weight: Part 2

I really do need a new computer bag. After over six years on-the-road the old one is starting to become unworkable. In reality, I want my travelling suite of goodies to be a lot lighter than in the past, which implies not only a new bag, but reconsidering what I need in that bag. I think that I should be able to do more with less to carry.

Before someone again refers me to a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air let me add that I am a Windows user. My employer is a Windows development shop so its kind of unavoidable. While I genuinely admire Apple hardware, I’m not such a fan of some of their business practices. So I prefer to look elsewhere for hardware.

I’ve watched from the sidelines as the new “Ultrabook” category has come into prominence in the past year. This seems to be the path that most suits my needs. “Needs” maybe too strong a word… “desires” may be more appropriate.

Ultrabook is a term that Intel has trademarked. It order to be called an Ultrabook a laptop must meet certain requirements:

  • An Intel Ivy Bridge Series i3, i5 or i7 CPU (or better)
  • Battery life of 5+ hours
  • It must be thin
    • 18 mm for 13.3″ and smaller displays
    • 21 mm for 14.0″ and larger displays
    • 23 mm for convertible tablets
  • It must resume from hibernation in not more than 7 seconds
  • It must have storage capable of 80 MB/s transfer rate (minimum)
  • It must include USB 3.0 and/or Thunderbolt connections

You may see some laptops using slightly skewed nomenclature, like “Sleekbook.” All this means is that they don’t quite meet all these requirements.For example, HP’s “Sleekbooks” use AMD CPUs so they cannot be called Ultrabooks.

gigabyte-x11-lightest-ultrabook-leaked-press-shots-5

Thin is nice. Light is also nice. As a practical matter everything that calls itself Ultrabook weighs under 4 pounds, some as low as 3 pounds.

In my research I have found that the very thin, light form factor involves a couple of compromises. The first being that the system memory (RAM) is not upgradeable. This trend began with Apple’s MacBook Air, and carries on with most Ultrabooks.

The system memory, typically 4 GB, is soldered to the mainboard.  So when shopping for this class of system make certain that you buy what you need. If you might want more memory later on you need to buy it now.

Disk manufacturers have responded to Intel’s Ultrabook specs by making thinner disks. Where as a typical 2.5” laptop hard drive is 9.5 mm thick, hard drive makers have started to make some models that are only 7 mm or even 5 mm  thick. That allows PC manufacturers to wedge high-capacity magnetic media into the very thin Ultrabook cases.

The target storage performance can be approached using a hybrid combination of a large, fast traditional disk and a flash cache module. This requires support in the chipset. The relevant Intel chipsets are suitably capable. Some systems have 20-32 GB of flash to augment a magnetic disk of 300+ GB. Some actually pair a 128 GB SSD with a 500+ GB magnetic disk, providing the best of both worlds.

Micron mSATA SSDMore costly Ultrabooks forgo magnetic disks altogether, using a flash-based solid state disk (SSD) with no moving parts at all. SSDs are wickedly fast, but don’t have the raw storage space of magnetic disks.

Entry level SSDs run around 120 GB. High-end Ultrabooks can be optioned with 256 GB or even 512 GB  SSDs for those who can afford to pay the premium. That seems to be about as large as they get for now.

It’s worth noting that these SSDs are not in the common form factor of the 2.5” hard drive. They often come in a smaller format called mSATA. There seems to be some flux as manufacturers tinker with new SSD formats to accommodate ever-smaller hardware designs.

A year with the SSD in my netbook taught be two things; fast storage can help an otherwise slow system, and I need more than 120 GB of space on a system that will be used often. Most Ultrabooks offer 128 – 256 GB of storage. The 256 GB option can be a very costly upgrade. Like the memory, it may not be possible to upgrade the SSD later on.

After a good deal of reading reviews (here, here, here, here and here) and asking around  I settled upon the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon as being the current leader in the Ultrabook class.

products_X1_Carbon Touch_Hero_02

In truth, from the time I first saw pictures of it some months ago, I was smitten. It’s awfully pretty. You may have notice that I’ve used it in supporting imagery for a few posts over the past month or two.

The X1 Carbon has a better display than most of its competitors. By better I mean it’s a matte finish and resolves 1600 x 900 pixels. Some system use glossy finishes that create problems with glare. Further, most 13-14” systems only resolve 1376 x 768 pixels. This last fact took HP out of play for me, even though I have a long history of using HP products.

Both Asus and Samsung make some very fine Ultrabooks, at various price points. However, in every case something or another seems just a little too much of a compromise.

It’s not entirely clear to me if the process of my research was truly logical or just a lengthy labyrinth of rationalization, but I settled upon the X1 Carbon as being my best choice. Further, I thought that I should get the model with 8 GB of memory and 256 Gb of SSD. That way the purchase would be most future-proof.

In the course of my research I Googled my way into the Lenovo support forum for the X1 Carbon. There I found a thread that seemed to indicate that there may be a slight opportunity for upgrade after the fact. The optional 3G HSPA+ radio, which I do not require, occupies a mini PCI Express slot. That very slot could be repurposed to host a second mSATA SSD of additional storage should be required down the road.

Elsewhere I read that there is a company about to release a new 512GB mSATA SSD. It’s expected to retail for $499, but that price will surely fall over time.

Over the holiday break I occupied myself with all of the research required to create & sustain the rationalization. I watched as several E-bay auctions for X1 Carbon systems came and went. That was a test of my self-control, but not really that difficult since most were not configured as I would have liked.

The kind of truly sophisticated rationalization I required took most of a month to evolve. When last week friend David Frankel of ZipDX remarked that he was happy with his recent purchase of a Lenovo Yoga 13 it was the last straw. I broke down and placed the order. I found one in the desired configuration ( 8 GB, 256 GB, Win7 Pro) on E-bay for a bit less than ordering from Lenovo.com.

Priced just over $1700 the X1 Carbon is the second most expensive computer that I’ve ever purchased for my personal use. Oddly enough, the only more costly computer I’ve ever bought for myself was the very first computer that I ever bought. That was a 12 MHz 80286 clone that I bought just after graduating from school back in the 1980s. It cost me $2250 CDN, which was a fortune at that time in my life.

Many people have suggested that I look at Apple’s MacBook Air. Since the X1 Carbon is quite costly I thought it wise to price a comparable MacBook Air to see if it was a better value. In the end I found the two systems cost about the same.

MacBook Air vs X1 Carbon

In truth, the comparably optioned 13” MacBook Air was about $100 less without considering any extended service plan. The MacBook comes with a one year warranty whereas the Lenovo system comes with a  three-year warranty. Adding the extended warranty to the MacBook Air makes it the more expensive choice, even before considering the cost of the Windows license I’d need to add.

In the end I’m hopeful that the X1 Carbon will be a solid choice. It’s more costly than most of the other options, but it should last me a long while before becoming a source of frustration.

When the X1 arrives, which is projected to be a week or two down the road, I’ll need to return to the question of my shoulder bag. I really do need a new one, y’know?

  • Kyle

    Did you look at the ASUS ZENBOOK Touch U500VZ? Its not available yet, but that’s what I am leaning towards. What did you not like about the Yoga 13? It seems to be one of the best deals for the price right now even if you don’t use the tablet features. 

    • mjgraves

      I did look at a few Asus models. They were on my short list. I didn’t want anything as large as 15″ as I’ve carried a 15.4″ laptop for some years. Part of the appeal of the X1 Carbon was the 14″ display in the same form factor as most other 13″ models.

      I didn’t really looks at the Yoga 13. I didn’t need/want the dual mode and it only comes with 4 GB of memory. You are right about it being a good value.

      • Kyle

        I understand on the size issue.

        You can easily add another 4GB of RAM to the Yoga 13. Here is a YouTube video showing how to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5uCooHm4kw

        In addition, if you don’t want to do it yourself there are many versions of the Yoga that have more ram (8GB) or a large SSD (256GB): http://shop.lenovo.com/SEUILibrary/controller/e/web/LenovoPortal/en_US/catalog.workflow:category.details?current-catalog-id=12F0696583E04D86B9B79B0FEC01C087&current-category-id=1A4B81C8AC677A5FB11849005C1752B5

        • mjgraves

          Funny, in my admittedly cursory look it seemed that 4 GB was all that was offered.