Critics' Choice: Top 5 Ultraportable Laptops for Mobile Computing


Netbooks are nice for checking e-mail and surfing the Web on the go. But sometimes, you need to get some serious work done. Or maybe you want to enjoy an HD movie on a long flight without feeling like you’re enduring a stop-motion animation.


These are the times you need an actual laptop. Fortunately, computer makers are upping their game, offering ultraportables that aren’t too bulky or heavy or (for the most part) ridiculously expensive, yet have some serious processing cred. And most come with cellular broadband options and other perks.


Among the current crop of ultraportables, HP has produced a clear winner: the ProBook 5310m. Marketed to business users, the ProBook 5310m is ranked among the top 5 in its category by four of the five tech review sites I checked: CNET, Computer Shopper, LAPTOP Magazine, PC Magazine, and PC World.


The ProBook 5310m is our No. 1 ultraportable, based on the consensus of reviews and ratings from those five tech review sites. Rounding out the list are ultraportables from Lenovo (with two models), Sony, and Toshiba.


By the way, this is our fourth Critics’ Choice roundup. Each month, we evaluate mobile tech product reviews written by our colleagues at other review sites. Using their ratings (most use a 5 star system), we look to see which mobile devices landed on the most top 5 lists and/or earned high ratings in their categories from more than one reviewer.


Our previous Critics’ Choice roundups:  Top 5 Budget Laptops (February 2010); Top 5 Smartphones (January 2010); and Top 5 Netbooks  (December 2009).



1. HP ProBook 5310m

Online price: $699 and up.


Pros: Top-notch combination of industrial design and mobile performance for under $1,000; great keyboard; 2 megapixel Webcam.


Cons: You’ll need to upgrade to get the best performance; mouse buttons are a bit small; lacks eSATA or pass-through USB charging port; no built-in optical drive.


Worth quoting: “HP has a thing of business-savvy beauty on its hands with the ProBook 5310m. Why do I say that? Even the guys in the PC World Labs—who see everything under the sun—were impressed by its industrial design. The sleek black aluminum case, the supple texture on the undercarriage...the list goes on...When they weren't ogling this slick, 13.3-inch, 3.8-pound, 0.9-inch-thin ultraportable, I grabbed the machine for my own testing.” – PC World (3.5 stars)


“The system weighs less than 4 pounds and the power adapter adds just less than a pound to the travel weight. This is borderline ultraportable, but unless you absolutely need the lightest thing possible, this is light enough for regular travel.” – CNET (3.5 stars)


Worth noting: The 13.3-inch diagonal LED-backlit wide-screen display is available with either a matte finish or HP's glossy HD BrightView coating.


2. Lenovo ThinkPad X201 and X201s

Online price for X201: $1,029 and up.

Online price for X201s: $1,400 and up.


Pros: Durable and lightweight; powerful performance; spectacular battery life; gorgeous screen; great keyboard; multiple hard drive options.


Cons: Expensive; no Webcam; sluggish (5400 rpm) hard drive; touchpad optional.


Worth quoting: “Lenovo had such an ultraportable with its ThinkPad X200—the perfect carry-on for executives on the go. Now, the line's next iteration, the ThinkPad X201, combines the power of an Intel Core i5 processor with outstanding battery life…You can probably buy several netbooks for the price of one ThinkPad X201, but it's well worth it…” – PC Magazine (4 stars)


The X201s “is a blazing business machine you can take anywhere.” – LAPTOP Magazine (4 stars)


Worth noting: The ThinkPad X201 and X201s are similar but not entirely identical twins. The X201s is slightly lighter in weight and offers a bit longer battery life but is more expensive, among other variations. Lenovo has a downloadable spec sheet (a PDF file) that details their differences.


The ThinkPad X201 and X201s aren’t technically rugged laptops. But Lenovo claims they’ve been designed to withstand shock, extreme temperatures, humidity, and other unpleasant realities of life on the road.


3. Sony VAIO VPC-Z116GX/S

Online price: $2,100 and up.


Pros: Zippy performance; switchable discrete graphics system; backlit keyboard; internal optical drive with an option for Blu-ray; supports dual SSD drives; excellent resolution and navigation.


Cons: Did you see the price tag?; so-so battery life; no cellular broadband modem (though there is an ExpressCard 34 slot for an external 3G modem).


Worth quoting: “(The) price tag can buy you at least four netbooks, but it still earns an Editors' Choice (in the ultraportable category) for being such a powerful, feature-packed ultraportable.” – PC Magazine (4 stars)


“It's still amazing that this featherweight includes an internal optical drive… Ultraportables like the Dell Studio 14z and ASUS UL30A-A1…opted to do without an optical drive and still weigh more.” – PC Magazine


Worth noting: This VAIO model comes only with SSDs instead of hard drives.


4. Lenovo ThinkPad Edge

Online price: $519 and up.


Pros: Superior keyboard and touchpad; bright display; compact body; multiple connectivity options; great battery life.


Cons: Chassis could have accommodated an optical drive but doesn’t; low-voltage processor hampers performance; no keyboard backlighting.


Worth quoting: “The ThinkPad Edge is a very successful updating of a staid notebook line that has been in desperate need of it for years. We found a few minor complaints (not enough status lights, for hard-drive access and Wi-Fi, for example), but the Edge still hits all the important notes—everything you love about ThinkPads is here, including a great keyboard (despite the switch to Chiclet-style keys). With a few minor tweaks, we'd love to see this new design proliferate through the rest of the ThinkPad line.” – PC World (3.5 stars)


Worth noting: The Edge’s keyboard is a departure from the traditional (and much beloved) ThinkPad keyboard, and thus might be a turnoff for some. The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg wrote in his review that “the new keyboard has compromises….The Delete key was too small and insufficiently prominent…the Home, End, Page Up and Page Down keys are far apart, and the latter two are tiny and hard to press. The Num Lock key and virtual numeric keyboard are gone.”


On the other hand, PC World’s reviewer says this is “easily the best Chiclet keyboard we've ever used. The keys have a slightly scalloped curve to them, lots of travel, and a good ‘clicky’ feel, rather than the mushy, rubbery one of most Chiclet keyboards.”


5. Toshiba Satellite T135 Series

Online prices: $500 and up.


Pros: Good performance for the price; lightweight; some models have strong battery life.


Cons: Weak speakers; design could use a refresh; mouse buttons leave something to be desired.


Worth quoting:For a budget Windows 7 thin-and-light that won't need to recharge often, you could do a lot worse than the Toshiba Satellite T135-S1309.” – CNET (3.5 stars)


Worth noting: The Satellite T135 series has a slightly confusing number of models. Here are some links to reviews of four different models in the series: 


Toshiba Satellite T135-S1305WH review, PC Mag (3.5 stars)


Toshiba Satellite T135-S1300 review, PC Mag (3.5 stars)


Toshiba Satellite T135D-S1324 review, CNET (3.5 stars)


Toshiba Satellite T135-S1309 review, CNET (3.5 stars)




James A. Martin has covered mobile technology since the mid 90s. He’s the coauthor of Getting Organized in the Google Era.




mobile, laptop, hardware, laptop review, mobile computing