Although small, ultraportables are often expected to cope with just about anything a full-sized laptop can handle, and that includes multimedia. After all, who doesn’t like a bit of entertainment when travelling? All but one of the ultraportables came with a dual-layer DVD burner built in. The odd man out was the Apple, which requires an optional (extra cost) external optical drive.
The ability to play DVD movies can be great for travelling, but two models — the Sony and the Toshiba — won’t do so out of the box. Both these laptops come standard with the Windows Vista Business operating system, which lacks support for DVD playback without the addition of MPEG2 decoder software.
For testing, we installed the Cineplayer DVD Decoder pack ($US15) from the Microsoft website (Microsoft.com), but you can also use the free K-Lite codec pack (codecguide.com) or the excellent free VLC media player (videolan.org).
Our expert LCD assessment panel compared the screen quality of each laptop. The Lenovo and Sony were judged most impressive, with a rating of ‘very good.’ The Apple was close behind, rated in the upper end of the ‘good’ scale.
You shouldn’t expect high-fidelity sound from an ultraportable, but two of the tested models sounded surprisingly good. Ironically, these were the same two that lacked the movie-playing software components mentioned above, the Sony and the Toshiba. Both produced good, balanced sound and handled low, mid and high tones well.
The remaining six notebooks struggled to produce clear-sounding audio from their tiny speakers. Much of the output was muffled, flat sounding, ‘tinny’ and had poor bass levels. The Dell included a set of Creative noise-isolation earbud headphones in its extras. All the laptops in this test included a built-in microphone and webcam.
A multimedia card reader can be very handy for storing and transferring images and data. All the ultraportables tested had built-in multiple format card readers, except the Apple, which didn’t have a reader at all. The Dell had the most versatile reader, an 8-in-1 unit that handles most popular formats.
In all, seven laptops recorded an average time of well over two hours when running multimedia in our heavy usage test, which is a decent usable life and usually enough to watch a full DVD movie. They were the Apple, BenQ, Dell, Lenovo (with the supplied 7-cell battery), Sony, Toshiba and Twinhead. Falling short of the two-hour mark by a large margin was the Pioneer, which endured only one 1 hour 17 minutes in heavy usage. A second battery would be highly desirable.
Ultraportable laptop computers are designed to be very frugal with power consumption and the cost of running them is almost negligible. We measured power consumption and calculated the running cost per year, based on a usage scenario of 4 hours active and 20 hours on standby per day.
The cheapest to run was the Apple at just $5.04 per year, while the most expensive was the Toshiba, at $11.15. By comparison, a standard desktop computer using 771 kWh per year would cost $131.07 — that’s nearly 12 times as much.
If you want to compute on-the-cheap as well as on-the-go, an ultraportable is about as cheap as you can get and a much greener option to boot.