Five ultralight laptops that blend features and functionality

The ultralight laptops in our roundup compete with Apple’s MacBook Air (in dimensions, if not in style).

While we admire the MacBook Air’s form and the engineering achievement it presents, it isn’t the only worthy ultralight laptop, and it may not be the most practical.

In our tests it earned poor scores for performance and features.

1) Lenovo ThinkPad X300 Laptop — PC World Rating: 77 (Good)

The buttoned-up Lenovo ThinkPad X300may not have the Apple MacBook Air’s superslim, spartan style, but from rock-solid construction to piled-in perks, this laptop offers just about everything that matters to the business traveler.

Unlike most ultraportables, it has both an eraserhead and a touchpad.

The keyboard, with full-size keys and properly oriented arrow keys, feels great.With a 1.2-GHz Core 2 Duo L7100 processor and 2GB of RAM, the ThinkPad X300 scored a 64 in PC World’s WorldBench 6 benchmark tests .

What the X300 lacks in style, compared with the Air, it more than makes up for with better features and more functionality.

2) Asus U2E Laptop — PC World Rating: 74 (Good)

The Asus U2E laptop’s luxurious leather-trim exterior and long list of extras will make you feel like you’re handling premium gear.

The Asus U2E weighs just 2.8 pounds, and its traveling weight with an AC adapter is only 3.5 pounds. It has a brilliant 1366-by-768-pixel wide-screen display. As on Sony’s VAIO VGN-TZ295N laptop, the Asus U2E’s screen is easy to view in tight spaces, though it lacks LED backlighting.

The U2E’s WorldBench 6 score of 53 put it at the middle of the pack among ultraportables that we tested at the same time, but it’s still pretty slow for laptops in general. The shiny, slick mouse buttons are crammed in tightly under the touchpad.

You can connect the Asus U2E to an HDTV with its HDMI port, but we’d rather see a FireWire port. The Asus U2E is a fun, stylish, long-running notebook, and its unusual leather covering and lining is bound to turn some heads, though perhaps not the heads of die-hard Apple fans.

3) Toshiba Portege R500 Laptop — PC World Rating: 73 (Good)

You can easily twist the Toshiba Portege R500’s screen in your bare hands, deflecting it by an inch or so.

Pressing the plastic panel on the bottom of the case underneath the hard drive makes it pop inward.

The company insists that these unusual design attributes are intentional, and indeed bills both as features ensuring improved durability, but we’d still prefer a rock-hard shell.

The Toshiba R500 has a somewhat anemic engine (a 1.2-GHz Core 2 Duo U7500) that slogged through our tests with a score of 49 on WorldBench 6.

But what the R500 lacked in the short sprint, it compensated for by staying in for the long haul, lasting a little over 5.5 hours in our battery tests. Toshiba provides all the outputs that one expects from an ultraportable laptop these days.

Heck, it even has an old-fashioned analog volume knob. A handy button conjures a special control panel; another one kills the backlight.

The Portege comes with only one USB port. The R500, however, also has ethernet.

A fingerprint reader and status lights accompany the somewhat cramped mouse buttons.

4) Sony VAIO VGN-TZ295N Laptop — PC World Rating: 73 (Good)

The Sony VAIO design team must be ticked.

Sony keeps producing geek-chic products like the VAIO VGN-TZ295N laptop we tested, and yet Apple gets all the attention with its MacBook Air.

Sony deserves some recognition too; sure, Mac fans may be able to slip an Air into a manila envelope, but at least the VGN-TZ295N will let you watch DVDs without an external drive. Roughly the size of a hardcover book and weighing 2.6 pounds (3.2 pounds with an AC adapter), Sony’s tight little package comes with an 11.1-inch, 1366-by-768-pixel display that uses LED backlighting technology, giving it one of the sharpest, brightest screens of all the ultraportable laptops we’ve seen.

In our WorldBench 6 tests, the Sony VAIO came in close behind Lenovo’s ThinkPad X300 in performance, scoring 58 to the X300’s 64.

The VGN-TZ295N displayed stellar battery life, too; the notebook held out for nearly 6.5 hours in our lab tests.

Sony provides an off switch for the integrated Sprint EvDO Revision A mobile wireless circuitry. And as on the MacBook Air, this VAIO’s keyboard uses a cut-out design with space between the keys, but the VAIO’s keys are small, making them difficult to type on.

This VAIO looks great, and its screen is phenomenal. But for its lofty price, we’d accept no less than perfection, and it falls just short.

5) Fujitsu LifeBook P8010 Laptop — PC World Rating: 72 (Good)

Fujitsu’s LifeBook P8010 looks like a true business laptop; it lacks the trappings of more fashion-forward models like the MacBook Air or the Sony VAIO VGN-TZ295N ultraportable laptops.

You don’t get a lot of flash for your cash, but at 2.6 pounds, the P8010 is one of the lightest laptops in this group.

The 1.2-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SL7100 CPU proved poky in our performance testing: Its WorldBench 6 score of 50 made it the second-slowest of the group and put it about 22 percent below the average of all ultraportables we’ve tested.

That this Vista laptop came with only 1GB of RAM didn’t help matters (most Vista systems we test come with at least 2GB).

Thankfully, it can support up to 4GB of RAM, with a 2GB upgrade running about US$120 extra.

Its battery lasted for just 3.5 hours–an hour short of the average ultraportable we’ve tested.

While the 12.1-inch, 1280-by-800-pixel display looks okay, it pales in comparison with the ones on the MacBook Air and the Sony VGN-TZ295N.

You get lots of buttons, which link to Fujitsu’s Web site, a display manager, power settings, and a tech support utility, respectively.

The laptop is well equipped with ports and slots, though it doesn’t have an HDMI port or an ExpressCard slot. Instead, it has a FireWire port and a PC Card slot–crucial if you have lots of wireless networking cards lying about.

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