I may be overweight but when it comes to my laptops, I like them thin and light.
I have spent over 20 years reviewing laptops, and suffice to say, they have pretty much become commodity products. It’s hard to find anything new and sexy these days about laptops. But everyone still needs one - which makes it harder for consumers to make a choice, especially when everything looks the same.
Many PC guides throw a bunch of specs and stats that might seem cool to the uber-geeks but from my experience, they are usually gobbledegook for the average mortal who just wants to get a laptop that meets his or her specific use.
For this series of our Laptop Buying Guide, I hope to offer useful tips to consumers to make a more informed buying decision, focusing on the key features and considerations that matter, explained in as simple layman language as I can muster.
The weapon for the road warrior
When you are constantly on the move, a laptop feels heavier as the day gets longer. Students, business executives and just about anyone who is constantly on the move will need a thin-and-light laptop that eases the strain from hours of lugging their device around and have plenty of battery to go the distance. At the same time, these road warriors are likely to be masters of presentations, so the best connectivity features are a must.
Key considerations when choosing a thin-and-light ultrabook
There are two key features to think about when choosing a laptop in this category – weight and battery life.
For many few years now, the magic number to achieve is 1kg. Having tested and owned many laptops for many years, I always look for laptops that are in this weight class. Such a light laptop would cost you an arm and a leg in the past, but these days, they are within reach of everyone.
For those who are on a tighter budget, there are also laptops that weigh about 1.2kg – 200g heavier than my ideal weight but also $200 to $300 lighter on your wallet for the same tech specs.
To illustrate this point, I got my hands on the 14-inch Acer Swift 5 (1kg) and 14-inch Acer Swift 3 (1.2kg) ultrabooks. Both machines look identical and only upon closer inspection does one realise that the Swift 5 has a touch screen. The other big difference is that the Swift 5 is 200g lighter.
Specs-wise, the Swift 5 with an 11th generation Intel Core i5 processor, 16GB RAM, 1TB SSD and a 14-inch Full HD resolution touch screen costs about $1,600 while the equivalent Swift 3 with i5, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD and a regular 14-inch Full HD screen is about $300 cheaper at $1,300.
If you ask me, I am willing to pay the price difference for shaving off 200g of weight. If you carry a laptop around for hours a day or even if you put it into your backpack, that 200g does make a significant impact over a long period of time.
(2) Battery Life
I remember back when I was at Digital Life (previously a weekly tech supplement with The Straits Times that ended in 2015), we would spend hours to test the battery life of ultrabooks. These days, these tests are largely unnecessary because a good ultrabook today should last you a full day of work (not gaming). It is important to note also that the life of a battery gets shorter over time, so a laptop brand that offers you the service to swap your battery is a good choice. For me, I aim to change my work laptop every 2-3 years, so the battery swap is not necessary.
More importantly, Intel has come up with a certification system called Intel Evo. If you see any laptop with this Intel Evo badge, it means the following:
(1) The laptop can last at least nine (9) hours on battery under real-world conditions
(2) A quick 30-min charge on the laptop will give you at least 4 hours of battery life
(3) The laptop needs to wake from sleep in one second
(4) The laptop has the new WiFi6 chip and the Thunderbolt 4 port (more on this later)
The simple answer then is just to choose a laptop with the Intel Evo branding since nine hours of portable power is more than enough for most of us. It is important to note that Intel Evo was launched with the current 11th gen Intel Core processors, which is also an indicator that you are not getting a machine running on previous generation architecture.
(3) Connectivity features and the power of Thunderbolt 4
Whether you are a business executive or an undergraduate, delivering presentations is likely to be a common occurrence. If so, then the presence of a full-sized HDMI port is a necessity. In a bid to shave space, some laptops come with add-on dongles, mini-HDMI ports and other variants – all of which I do not recommend because you will end up losing the dongles or getting into compatibility issues when the TV or projector on location only works with HDMI. HDMI has become the universal display port, and nothing except a full-sized one will I recommend.
While HDMI ensures compatibility with current systems, the Thunderbolt 4 offers progress and innovation for the future. The Thunderbolt 4 port looks and works a lot like the regular USB-C port but offers a little more in features.
USB-C is fast becoming de rigueur for our phones, tablets, PCs and even game consoles (except for the iPhone which is still keeping the lightning port). Most of us are already familiar with the USB-A port (which we usually simply refer to as USB). USB-C is a huge improvement over its predecessor – it’s slimmer, fits into the port regardless of which direction it is flipped, transfers data at a faster rate and supports the simultaneous and bi-directional transfer of data, video, audio and power over a single USB-C cable.
Thunderbolt 4 is USB-C plus more. For instance, with Thunderbolt 4, a single cable can output to two 4K monitors vs USB-C which can only support one. The good news is that all laptops with the Intel Evo certification must have a Thunderbolt 4 port, so you don’t have to worry whether you are getting a regular USB-C or the more advanced Thunderbolt 4.
The power of Thunderbolt 4 or USB-C comes alive when you connect an ultrabook to a USB-C external monitor. My daughter who is in first-year university uses an Acer Swift 5 for her work. When it’s Zoom lesson time, she takes the laptop with her to one of the bedrooms for privacy, but when she wants to sit down and do some serious coding work, she connects her laptop to the external monitor on her study desk in the living room.
That single USB-C cable does the following:
- draws power from the monitor to power her laptop (so she doesn’t need an extra laptop power adaptor)
- outputs audio and video from her laptop to the external monitor
- outputs data from the laptop to the monitor, so she can use the USB-A ports that are on the monitor
The end result is that she can nestle the laptop in a corner of her desk, and only a single cable extends from that laptop to the monitor. She connects her USB mouse and keyboard to the USB-A ports on the monitor, connects her headphones to the audio port on the monitor and basically works off the monitor for a minimalist work desk. For me, it meant that I didn’t have a buy her another desktop for her to do her schoolwork on the big screen.
And that same USB-C cable connected to my daughter’s monitor – sometimes I use it to fast charge my Google Pixel 4a phone and my iPad Pro.
(4) Why you need to know about aspect ratios
The aspect ratio of an image refers to the ratio between its width and its height. When it comes to laptops, it’s important to know the aspect ratio of the screen because it affects the way you end up viewing documents, images and video on your screen.
In the past, TV and PC screens adopted the standard 4:3 aspect ratio. For those familiar with VGA, the resolution is 640 pixels by 480 pixels, which if you do the math, is actually 4:3. That almost squarish boxy screen dominated our homes for many years until the advent of High-Definition TV. With HDTV, a new aspect ratio was created for TV screens and films – the 16:9 widescreen. Again, if you are familiar with 1920 x 1080 resolution (the spec for Full HD screens) you will again realise that the 1920:1080 ratio can be simplified to 16:9.
This 16:9 resolution has overtaken 4:3 as the de facto standard for screens today. All of your streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+ and HBO streams movies and TV shows in 16:9. If you tried watching Netflix on a laptop with a different aspect ratio, you would end up with a lot of letterboxing (black spaces at the top and bottom). Modern video games are also designed for the 16:9 aspect ratio and trying to play a game built for 16:9 on a non-standard aspect ratio screen is simply a horrible experience.
It’s no surprise that most laptops today run on the 16:9 aspect ratio. If you want to watch Netflix or play video games on your laptop, you should stick to the standard 16:9.
However, for people who are using their laptops for productivity – viewing spreadsheets, coding, Word documents and even browsing the Web – choosing a laptop with a narrower aspect ratio such as 16:10 and 3:2 offers greater vertical real estate. It also means you need to scroll less.
In recent times, more laptop makers are offering alternatives with 16:10 and 3:2 aspect ratios. The Acer Swift 3 for instance has a variant that offers the 3:2 aspect ratio and has a slightly higher resolution (2256 x 1504) compared to the standard 1920 x 1080 Full HD resolution. It is also priced closely to the regular Acer Swift 3 which runs on the 16:9 resolution.
Because the thin-and-light machine is primarily used for productivity, the 3:2 and 16:10 variants can be considered if you do value that extra viewing estate, but if you want to also watch Netflix on your laptop, go for the regular aspect ratio archetype.
(5) Do you need a touchscreen?
The touchscreen in the laptop really came about with the disastrous launch of Windows 8 – Microsoft’s attempt to achieve hegemony by forcing laptop users to ditch the familiar desktop interface for the tablet-style touch system paired with Windows Store mobile apps. I still remember the ascend of current CEO Satya Nadella, who had an easy time stamping his mark as the new leader by simply reverting back to the familiar desktop in Windows 10.
I hated the early touchscreen convertible laptops because they added heft and the design often meant that the laptop was heavy at the hinge, creating an overall weight imbalance in the laptop. Today, many premium thin-and-light laptops such as the Acer Swift 5 offer the benefits of a touchscreen – smoother navigation, document scrolling and signing documents with finger – without the old heft.
In fact, the touch screen of the Acer Swift 5 is as thin as the non-touchscreen as its Swift 3 sibling.
For me, a touchscreen on a clam-shell laptop is not essential but a nice-to-have. If it would shave off some moolah, I would go for the non-touch version. However, many premium thin-and-light laptops such as the Acer Swift 5 only have the touch screen version and the price remains highly competitive.
The Price Sweet Spot
The key hardware specs that affect the ultimate price of the ultrabook are mainly the processor, RAM, SSD storage and screen resolution.
I always recommend the Core i5 over the i7 to save some moolah, as most users do not need the incremental benefits of the i7.
If you are using your laptop for general work productivity, 8GB RAM is sufficient, though many ultrabooks today come with a default 16GB.
Storage is important, and I would always recommend buying or upgrading to a 1TB SSD storage instead of sticking to the 512GB in some laptops because you don’t want to worry about running out of space as your library of documents and photos grow on you.
As for screen resolution, the standard Full HD screen is good enough. Paying for a higher resolution 4K screen on a 14-inch laptop screen is really a waste of good money.
Discrete (separate) graphics cards are not recommended for thin-and-light machines as they add weight, heat, drains battery and increases your purchase price. Don’t worry when you see words like Intel Iris X or AMD Radeon graphics, it means you are utilising the power of the integrated graphics in the main processor, which is a built-in feature of the modern processor.
Here is a quick summary of what I recommend for a thin-and-light machine:
Processor – 11th generation Intel Core i5 (laptops running on 12th generation Intel mobile processors are only expected bout Q2 of 2022) or AMD Ryzen equivalent
RAM – 8 GB (note some ultrabooks come with 16GB by default, no harm if you are not paying more)
SSD – 1TB always recommended
Screen – 13-inch or 14-inch screen for portability, Full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution
Connectivity – at least 1x full-sized HDMI port, at least 1x Thunderbolt 4 or USB-C port (they look and work the same)
Intel Evo – this badge is highly recommended as you get assurance on battery life and Thunderbolt 4 connectivity