SAN FRANCISCO — In the realm of ultra-thin, ultra-light laptop computers, Apple’s MacBook Air set the bar.
No one else even came close — until now. Thanks to a new generation of notebooks running Microsoft’s Windows 7 operating system, new laptops featuring stylish designs, more-powerful processors and speedy storage have taken on Apple in this rarefied niche.
Don’t get me wrong: The latest Air, introduced last year, remains the gold standard. It uses chips rather than a conventional hard drive to store data, making it lightning swift to start up, while even the larger of its two models, with a 13- inch screen, weighs just 2.9 pounds.
Its smaller sibling, which has an 11-inch screen and weighs 2.3 pounds, is my main traveling companion these days. Using Apple’s free Boot Camp program, I’ve been able to easily run Windows and Microsoft Office on it despite its constrained, 128- gigabyte storage capacity.
You, however, may not need or want the Air’s Mac-ness. In addition, you may want more up-to-date hardware (at least until a likely update this summer, the Air uses two-generation-old microprocessors).
Here are three of the most capable Windows-only alternatives.
—It’s black where the Air is silver, and wavy where the Air is razor-edged. But if you want the closest Windows equivalent to the Apple experience, look no further. The Series 9 from Samsung Electronics is both gorgeous and capable.
At 2.89 pounds, the Series 9 is a hair lighter than the Air. The 13-inch screen lives up to Samsung’s reputation for bright and beautiful displays. And it features Intel’s latest-generation “Sandy Bridge” microprocessor, four gigabytes of memory and a 128-gigabyte solid-state drive.
Unfortunately, it all comes at a price, figuratively and literally. The nice screen and CPU cut down on battery life: I was able to coax just 4 hours while streaming a Netflix movie over Wi-Fi. And, at $1,650, the Series 9 costs $250 more than an Air with comparable screen, memory and storage.
—Ever since the days when IBM owned the brand, ThinkPads have defined a certain class of portable computers: sturdy business companions that make up in reliability what they lack in pizzazz. That’s still the case under Lenovo Group’s ownership. The X1, with its Corning Gorilla Glass screen and solid construction, certainly has the sturdy part down. But the X1 brings a little unaccustomed flash to the party too.
Start with that classic keyboard. Sure, it has the ThinkPad’s trademark orange eraser-like pointer protruding from between the G and H. But the keys themselves are generously sized and slightly concave, making for a comfortable typing experience. And at less than an inch at its thickest part, it’s the skinniest ThinkPad ever.
At 3.7 pounds, the X1 is almost a pound heavier than some of its competitors. And Lenovo opted for the higher capacity of a physical hard drive — 320 gigabytes at 7200 RPM in the $1,399 base model — over faster but more limited-capacity solid-state storage.
The X1 still emphasizes function over form, but the form has gotten a lot nicer.
—What Toshiba’s Portege line lacks in elegance, it makes up for in value. The lightweight R830 offers the broadest range of MacBook Air-substitutes, with models starting at under $800.
At those prices, there’s some obvious corner-cutting. The R830 case lacks the elegant design and solid feel of the Samsung, for example, and the lower-end models use poky 5400 RPM hard drives, a far cry from the solid-state storage that makes the MacBook and Samsung feel so zippy.
Moving up the price ladder, however, you get the R830- S8330. It’s $1,649, and comes with SSD storage, a top-flight Intel i7 processor and even a DVD drive, something that’s missing from the competition. The Samsung has it beat for portability and elegance, but the Toshiba comes the closest to a desktop replacement in an ultra-portable package.