If you paid top dollar for a laptop, wouldn’t you expect it to be a great computer? Of course you would.
That’s not been the case with premium-priced ultraportable laptops. Yes, they were impressively thin and light, so you could take them anywhere. But you had to be willing to compromise on pretty much everything else. Because while their svelte frames may have spared you from heavy lifting, they weren’t equipped to do much of it themselves.
This year, suddenly, things are different. For the first time, the thinnest laptops now pack a punch that belies their weight. So they’re easy to tuck under your arm when you scout a new spot to work when your partner needs the home office for a Zoom call. These new bantamweights probably won’t even break a sweat – even if you’re settling in for some serious number-crunching or video editing.
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To be sure, PC makers haven’t found a way around the laws of physics. Larger, comparably configured systems will always outperform ultralights because the extra elbow room inside helps dissipate heat, allowing the processor, graphics chip and hard drive to push harder without roasting. But thanks to huge gains in low-power performance, ultralights are viable options for many more types of work than ever before.
I’ve been evaluating three of these seemingly weightless wonders, all of which are just coming available: HP’s Elite Dragonfly G2, the ThinkPad X1 Nano from Lenovo and Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7+ for Business. All three business-class systems weigh just a couple of pounds and feature 13-inch displays, fast SSDs for storage, and the latest 11th-generation Tiger Lake Core processors from Intel. Here’s my take:
They could handle
Yes, these systems are impressively compact. But the biggest eye-opener for me was not their size, but how well they performed.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I’d been enchanted by the first 11th-gen laptops to earn Intel’s Evo brand designation, which means they’re certified to meet performance, responsiveness and battery life requirements. Those Evo systems were impressively zippy, even while on battery. And they ran cool, which suggests the latest processors might perform well even in much smaller systems.
And yet I was surprised. I guess it’s because I’d never seen strikingly attractive ultraportables roll up their sleeves and do real work.
To test the limits of the new ultraportables, I took turns using each as my go-to workhorse PC. I swapped them in for my 18-month-old desktop powerhouse, which I rely on for heavier-duty tasks like video production. One at a time, I hooked them up to my ultra-widescreen display, keyboard, mouse, camera and microphone.
Visually, these petite PCs looked woefully undersized for the job, like a tiny tugboat paired with a massive transcontinental cargo freighter. But the mighty mites ably handled everything I asked them to do. I never once missed my desktop.
What’s new under the hood
Credit Intel’s 11th-generation Core processors with much of the newfound capabilities. The high-efficiency processors give PC makers many more controls to help dial in just the right amount of performance to keep laptops humming, without burning extra power, generating more heat and forcing the system to throttle.
Each of these 11th-gen Core-based business-class ultraportables offers something a little different from the others. The X1 Nano, for example, is thinnest and lightest of them all, weighing in at just under 2 pounds. The Nano is also the first to offer Lenovo’s new Human Presence Detection, or HPD. It’s impressively quick and accurate at recognizing me when I get close enough to automatically unlock the laptop.
Like the original HP Dragonfly, the G2 has a 360-degree hinge along with Sure View, HP’s trademark integrated privacy filter. The filter is great for keeping prying eyes in coffee shops and on planes (remember those?) from seeing your work. And for such a skinny little system, it has an impressive number of ports.
Both the Nano and G2 sport Intel’s Evo designation. They also have Intel’s vPro security and manageability suite built in, which gives your company’s IT more tools to protect your laptop while you work from home.
Microsoft’s Surface Pro 7+ weighs just 1.7 pounds without the optional magnetic keyboard attached, and closer to 2.5 pounds with the keyboard. The Pro 7+ is also the only one of the three systems without a built-in fan to promote cooling during power-hungry tasks – an impressive engineering feat for a system this size. It’s also got a replaceable SSD.
As a group, these laptops are helping to usher in a new era of incredibly light, agile business-class ultraportables with the muscle of larger laptops. So now they’re not only nice carry-anywhere systems. They’re also great PCs – even if you never leave the house.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.