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An Architect's View

Help me choose an ultrabook!

November 5, 2012 ·

I don't often crowdsource recommendations for hardware but I figured this was a good candidate. Everyone who knows me, knows that I've been an Apple guy for a long, long time. I had a Performa 630 (68040-based), a Performa 6300 (PowerPC / RISC 6150 based), countless MacBooks and a handful of iMacs. I had a LaserWriter too - remember those? And a Newton (way ahead of its time), several iPods and a couple of iPhones.

I addition, I've used every version of Windows from 3.1 onward and I've run some sort of PC emulator or virtual machine on my Macs for a long time, always trying new versions of Windows as soon as they appear. And throughout all that time I've used various flavors of Unix and, more recently, Linux - either native or as a hosted (or parasitic) operating system alongside Apple System 6 thru OS X.

In 2007, when I left Adobe, I bought a 17" MacBook Pro as my main machine. In 2009, I started working for World Singles and bought a 27" quad core iMac as my main machine. I wasn't traveling much so I didn't need a workhorse for the road. After a while I bought a System76 Starling netbook for traveling. I wanted something very small and light. It was 2lb, had 2GB RAM and decent battery life (with the extended battery pack). It ran Ubuntu. It was quirky but relatively practical. Unfortunately, System76 discontinued the Starling line. Boo!

I've had the netbook two years and it's getting a bit long in the tooth (and the wifi has always been flaky which is a constant frustration). It's finally time to replace it. I want something more powerful and more flexible. Part of me would love a tablet, if I could use it for development as well. Part of me really wants a new generation iPad and... well... that's the problem. I really don't know.

The obvious choice for me would of course be a new iPad for reading books and casual 'net use (either the mini or the 4) and a netbook-sized more powerful machine... i.e., an 11" Air. I've lusted after the Air ever since it was released but could never justify it.

Now I have some budget for a new portable machine. My budget is $1,500 all-inclusive. I want a tablet, but I also want a useful laptop and that's more important. Apple don't quite make the machine I want but, to be honest, neither does anyone else so whatever I pick has to be a compromise.

So far, my two top choices are: MacBook Air 11" and Dell XPS 12 Ultrabook Convertible w/Windows 8. They're about the same price configured for an Intel i7, 8GB RAM and 128GB SSD. I'd like you all to help me with pros and cons so I can decide whether to buy one of these or something else.

MacBook Air 11"


  • Full synchronization with all my existing Apple stack, iCloud, contacts, calendar, bookmarks etc
  • Lightweight - less than 2.5lb
  • Built-in *nix


  • Small screen - 1366x768
  • Not a tablet

Dell XPS 12 Ultrabook Convertible


  • Bigger, better screen - 1920x1080
  • It's a tablet and a laptop


  • Windows 8 - sorry, but I don't relish living with Windows although it gets better with every release
  • Heavier - 3.35lb
  • Will require a VM to run *nix - but see below


Different reviews provide different battery life. Anything from 4 hours to 6 hours for both machines. If anyone has real life experience, I'd be interested!

I know I can run Emacs on Windows which gives me a consistent experience, even a *nix-like shell. I've run Emacs on OS X, Ubuntu and WinXP / Win8 and the experience is similar so I can do Clojure / CFML development much the same on both platforms and isolate myself from the operating system to some extent.

Help me add to the lists of pros and cons for each machine - or suggest other machines!

Tags: personal · windows8

22 responses

  • 1 Jas Panesar // Nov 5, 2012 at 11:29 PM


    I'm not sure if you considered the Lenovo Ultrabooks, they have some nice ones.

    I have a 13" macbook air, it's a nice fit. I (not so) secretly have wanted an 11" for a long time. If you develop in a shell I think it could be fabulous.

    I can't speak enough for how much of a difference having a light laptop with a decent battery has made lugging around a machine almost non existant.

    Buy both for a week and see which one you use more? ;)
  • 2 Sean Corfield // Nov 5, 2012 at 11:32 PM

    @Jas, 13" is just too big for what I want. I really like the portability of the Starling. I'm loathe to go larger but nothing seems powerful enough now in that form factor so 11" or 12" seems to be my minimum option.
  • 3 Sam Farmer // Nov 6, 2012 at 6:49 AM

    I think Windows 8 is an intriguing direction though I would wait until the rough edges get worked out before diving in. I'm also waiting to see if a joint computer / tablet can work or just feels like a compromise both ways.

    Looks like you can get both the Mac you want and the iPad mini for your budget. I have the iPad mini and the size and weight make for a fantastic device.
  • 4 Nick Collins // Nov 6, 2012 at 7:00 AM

    If you're open to Android, I had purchased an ASUS Transformer Prime and I love it. Tablet when I want, but then I can pop it in the keyboard dock for a 10" ultrabook. The new Transformer Prime Infinity has an even better display, but still sports a Tegra 3 chipset, and you can get it with up to 64GB onboard storage. Another boon for it is that the tablet portion itself has a microSD card slot if you find yourself needing more than the 64GB, and the keyboard dock has a full size SDXC card slot and fullsize USB port you can plug a thumb-drive or peripheral into. For me it was the best of both worlds. Also, if you go ahead and root the device (which ASUS provides an executable to do) you can access the full linux shell that is the core of Android.
  • 5 Sean Corfield // Nov 6, 2012 at 7:08 AM

    @Nick, I'm not against Android but I need to be able to use this machine for (Clojure) development so a tablet alone isn't sufficient. As noted with the Air being an option, I'm willing to give up the tablet aspect for a very small, lightweight but powerful ultrabook. That's my compromise with the Air. My compromise with the Dell is Windows and weight - I don't really want a 3.5lb slab, but it does provide a tablet as well as a full-function laptop.
  • 6 Sean Corfield // Nov 6, 2012 at 7:13 AM

    @Sam, yes, if I went for the lowest Air, I could - just - get that and an iPad mini but then I'm at the weight of the Dell (combined) and only an i5 with half the RAM (and half the SSD), and now I have two sets of cables etc. but it would be an all-Apple solution which would integrate well with the rest of my life. Compromises!
  • 7 Sam Farmer // Nov 6, 2012 at 8:28 AM

    @Sean My bad, I speced out the MacBook Air wrong. Though you could save $150 or so by buying a refurbished model -- they are completely cleaned and run through all manufacturing tests. I did that with an MB I bought in 09 and its still going strong. Save 150 that way and you would have enough for an iPad mini.

    As you mention above I can't see how a 3.5 lb tablet is enjoyable to use.
  • 8 Nathan Strutz // Nov 6, 2012 at 9:00 AM

    I'm in sort of the same boat (though I always come at it from the PC side). My wife needs an ultrabook - small enough to travel and powerful enough to do her real estate work, which requires Java and Flash - no typical for tablets here. I've kept my eye out on the PC ultrabooks, there have been some interesting options that have come out since Windows 8, but nothing that really does everything well, yet. If we compromise, we will end up getting something mediocre like an HP with a touchscreen. Touch screens on Windows 8 makes the experience way better. All the Win8 tablets I've seen are for the RT version, which isn't really acceptable. All the Win8 convertables I've seen are kind of lame. I am trying to hold out until the non-RT MS Surface tablet come out - finally a full PC in a tablet format. I was thinking it would hit the streets for Christmas, but now I'm not sure.

    I'm not being really helpful here, I realize. I just wanted to pitch in and say - "me too." Honestly I think 3 more months with Windows 8 on the market will push out some better devices. Let me know what you come up with.
  • 9 RayV // Nov 6, 2012 at 10:55 AM

    Be careful of the RAM. I nearly took the plunge last year until I found out the 4GB of RAM was soldered to the motherboard!
  • 10 Michael Long // Nov 6, 2012 at 11:07 AM

    I'd look at the Air and a mini. Best of both worlds in that you'd have a laptop and a tablet. (And also access to tablet apps, which are a lot cheaper than desktop apps.)

    If price is a problem, have you looked at refurbished Air's? Apple has a refurbished MacBook Air 2.0GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 for $1,049. 4GB though. Everything under guarantee.

    At any rate, it's worth keeping an eye on the page for deals...
  • 11 Sean Corfield // Nov 6, 2012 at 4:35 PM

    @Sam, @Michael, I hadn't considered a refurbished model. Not sure how I feel about that. You don't seem to save much and for that small a saving I think I'd rather have a brand new machine.

    @Nathan, the Surface Pro does look interesting - I wonder what the cost will be for one with 8GB RAM and 128GB SSD?

    @Ray, I'd buy the machine with 8GB direct but thanx for the caution (I've upgraded my desktop from 4GB to 8GB to 16GB but I knew it was upgradable when I bought it).
  • 12 George // Nov 8, 2012 at 3:52 AM

    Sean, have you checked out Lenovo Thinkpad X230? It comes in both tablet and not. It has 12.5" screen and Windows (7 or 8) and weighs 2.5 - 3 lbs., processors up to i7, RAM up to 16GB, IPS screen upgrade, SSD available.
  • 13 Jeff Self // Nov 8, 2012 at 9:03 AM

    I purchased a 13" MacBook Air in late July after they updated them. I ordered it with 8GB's of memory and the i7 processor. Absolutely love it. And its for sale! Why? My work just bought me a 15" MBP last month so I can't really justify keeping it.
  • 14 Sean Corfield // Nov 8, 2012 at 12:30 PM

    @George, to get SSD on the ThinkPad prices it right out of consideration. I'm not convinced about the swivel screen on the convertible either. I looked at the Yoga but a) it's bigger than I want (I _really_ don't want anything bigger than 12" as it defeats the portability of a tablet) and b) the design is weird (leaving the keyboard exposed in tablet mode).

    The Sony Vaio 11 Duo looks interesting but the laptop configuration doesn't look comfortable. The Toshiba slider gets poor reviews on aspects that matter to me. In fact, most of the devices are getting worse reviews than the Dell XPS 12 Ultrabook Convertible.

    Still the Surface Pro _might_ be a contender... except that I want to make this purchase before the tax year ends!
  • 15 Aaron Greenlee // Nov 8, 2012 at 12:52 PM

    For what it is worth, I'm extremely happy with the Samsung Series 9. In fact, it is the first "laptop" I've been satisfied with--ever.
  • 16 Nando // Nov 12, 2012 at 7:06 AM

    I got an iPad 2 from one of my clients. I never would have thought I would use it as much as I do! to check and respond (quickly) to emails, keep up with blog posts, read books, watch videos, watch Federer tennis matches (the TV is the missus' domain) ... it's in constant use. I use the MacBookPro to work, to create output, but all information consumption, input, seems to pass through the iPad much more conveniently. So I'd suggest getting the iPad mini and an Air, stretch your budget a bit if need be. The to carry weight that the mini adds won't be that significant, but it will be far easier to read a book on it.
  • 17 Sean Corfield // Nov 20, 2012 at 9:03 PM

    Just ordered the Dell XPS 12 Ultrabook Convertible. Delivery date is 12/7 (boo!). I'll blog about how I get on with it...
  • 18 Angus // Nov 21, 2012 at 8:22 PM

    I thought you would have gone with the MacBook Air. Rob Pike [1] and Linus Torvalds [2] both praise the 11" Air.

    And the iPad mini is a pretty awesome tablet, especially if you're already in the Apple ecosystem. From AnandTech [3] "The mini's form factor is really where all of the innovation is. It's thin, light and an almost perfect balance of functional screen size and portability. I really love this form factor."

    My wife loves the iPad mini I recently bought so much she's claimed it for herself!

  • 19 Sean Corfield // Nov 23, 2012 at 6:56 PM

    @Angus, as noted above, the 11" Air's screen is just too small, vertically. The same resolution on my netbook drives me nuts, so I want a bigger screen, but the 13" Air is slightly bigger than I want to go - and to get the i7 I have to get the 256GB SSD model which is above my budget. And then I'd need to buy a tablet (iPad Mini) on top of that which completely blows the budget. And I don't want two devices - I want just one.
  • 20 David McGuigan // Dec 18, 2012 at 9:13 AM

    What you want is a Lenovo Yoga. I think it's less than 2/ 3 of an inch thick with all of the power of a laptop, amazing battery life and resolution ( 1600x900 ), and best of all an integrated touchscreen and fully cycling hinge to let you use it as a tablet or easel or what have you.
  • 21 Sean Corfield // Dec 19, 2012 at 1:28 AM

    @David, my problem with the Yoga is that when it is in tablet mode, the keyboard and trackpad are exposed which I think will risk damaging it.

    Anyway, I bought the Dell XPS 12 Convertible and have blogged about my first impressions. More blog posts will follow!
  • 22 Sean Corfield // Dec 1, 2013 at 2:26 PM

    Folks might be interested in how my first year with the Windows 8 / Dell XPS 12 has gone: