The best ultra-portable notebooks to get in 2021

The LG gram 14.
The LG gram 14.PHOTO: LG ELECTRONICS

SINGAPORE (HARDWAREZONE) - More people are turning to notebooks as they seek a machine that offers them the flexibility to do work or to learn whenever and wherever in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even though 75 per cent of workers have been able to return to their offices since April 5, flexible workplace hours are still encouraged.

Analysts say notebook shipments have grown 20 per cent to 30 per cent in the past year.

Advances in processor technologies and materials science mean ultra-portable notebooks are more powerful, more efficient and yet lighter than before.

We round up eight of the best ultra-portable notebooks money can buy.

Acer Swift 5


Acer Swift 5. PHOTO: ACER

The Acer Swift 5 has been with us in some form for a couple of years now. This year's model looks like it could be Acer's best yet.

The Swift 5 is a notebook that checks a lot of boxes. It is light, compact and has a nice bright display that is one of the better ones in this shootout.

It has great specifications, with a good amount of memory and a generous amount of storage, as well as a pleasant keyboard and trackpad.

One complaint is that it has only a single USB-C port. At $2,298, it is not cheap but at least it is reasonably priced.

Asus Zenbook 14 Ultralight


The Asus ZenBook 14 Ultralight. PHOTO: ASUS

This is the most complete ZenBook yet.

Asus really took a long hard look at its earlier notebooks and addressed almost all of their issues.

The ZenBook 14 Ultralight is compact and light, performs well, and has a long battery life and a good selection of ports.

The only knock against it is that it is pricier than its predecessors, which is a shame because ZenBooks used to be very affordable.

The new model's specifications are great too.

It is also the only notebook to have discrete graphics.

At $2,398, the ZenBook 14 Ultralight is one of the pricier models in this shootout, but it has impressive features and performance.

Dell XPS 13


The Dell XPS 13. PHOTO: DELL

The Dell XPS 13 has always been one of the most well-rounded ultra-portables.

The build is fantastic, the display is gorgeous (it has the best display in this shootout), and the keyboard, trackpad and speakers are all top-notch too.

The downside is that it feels a little dense and heavy.

Ports are a bit of an issue, with only two USB-C Thunderbolt 4 ports, for instance.

The XPS 13 is available in a variety of configurations. The version I reviewed costs $2,599, which makes it one of the pricier notebooks. But the premium is somewhat justified by its exceptional build quality and mega display.

Huawei Matebook 14 AMD


The Huawei MateBook 14 AMD. PHOTO: HUAWEI

The MateBook 14 AMD runs a mid-range Ryzen 5 processor but its build quality is very good and feels much better than its $1,298 price tag would suggest.

On paper, this notebook is irrefutably the one that is the most value-for-money option here.

Its screen is easily one of the better displays in this shootout despite being prone to glare and reflections.

One shortcoming is its weight.

At 1.49kg, it is easily the heaviest notebook here - over 50 per cent heavier than some competitors.

Another issue is ports - it has no Thunderbolt 3 or 4 ports.

Lenovo Yoga Slim 7i Carbon


The Lenovo Yoga Slim 7i Carbon. PHOTO: LENOVO

The Yoga Slim 7i Carbon is an appealing notebook, based on its design, features and respectable specifications for the $1,999 price tag.

Its build quality is good, the matte QHD display is sharp and the notebook is satisfying to use on all fronts - using the keyboard and trackpad is pleasant, for instance.

It is also the lightest notebook in this shootout at just 966g. Its top cover is made of carbon fibre, which makes it 40 per cent lighter while raising structural rigidity by 25 per cent.

The notebook is dust and temperature-resistant and can withstand drops from small heights.

The downside is that it has no USB-A or HDMI ports.

LG Gram 14


The LG gram 14. PHOTO: LG ELECTRONICS

LG's new gram 14 is its most refined ultra-portable notebook yet.

Its build quality has taken a positive step up, the specifications are respectable, and it has all, if not most, of the ports and features you would want from a portable everyday notebook.

It is also dust and temperature-resistant and can withstand drops from small heights, despite its 999g weight.

But the display left me with mixed feelings.

Its colours are vivid and accurate-looking but its unimpressive resolution of 1,920 x 1,200 pixels makes it less sharp than some of its rivals.

The version tested cost $2,199 but there is a cheaper version with a less powerful processor.

MSI Prestige 14 Evo


The MSI Prestige 14 Evo. PHOTO: MSI

The $2,349 Prestige 14 Evo makes a very good first impression.

Its specifications are good and it has a decent matte display, a good selection of ports and a very large trackpad.

At 15.9mm thick and weighing 1.29kg, the Prestige 14 Evo is not the slimmest or lightest.

The notebook can resist shocks, vibrations, humidity and dust, but does not feel quite as well put together as its rivals.

Its body has significant flex, which may be disconcerting.

It is the only notebook in this selection to be powered by Intel's top-of-the-line Tiger Lake processor, the Core i7-1185G7, which has slightly higher base clock speeds than the Core i7-1165G7 which most other notebooks use.

Razer Book 13


The Razer Book 13. PHOTO: RAZER

Based on looks alone, the Razer Book 13 would have been the winner. It achieves the rare feat of being a genuinely good-looking notebook.

This notebook's design and build quality are outstanding - it is built like a rock - and the specifications and feature set are good.

For instance, the ports on this notebook are great, while the glossy screen's sharpness is outstanding and the colours are vibrant.

But the top-of-the-line model tested is pricey at $3,299.

The notebook is also the heaviest here at 1.4kg, over 400g heavier than some of its rivals.

Notebook performance

With the exception of the Huawei MateBook 14 AMD, the rest of the notebooks in the shootout are powered by Intel's new Tiger Lake processor. And among them, the MSI Prestige 14 Evo is the only one that comes with the more powerful Core i7-1185G7 variant - the others have the standard Core i7-1165G7.

The notebooks were tested using the following benchmarks and applications: PCMark 10, Cinebench R23, Geekbench 5, WebXPRT 3, 3DMark, and the Tomb Raider game.

Despite most of these notebooks having very similar specifications, their performance numbers can vary quite wildly.

This is because manufacturers have the freedom to set thermal thresholds for their products.

What this means is that even when two notebooks have the same processor, one notebook might be quicker than the other if only because its maker decided to let it run hotter for longer.

This also explains why cooling solutions matter.

The standout performer was the Acer Swift 5. It came in first in most of the benchmarks and its all-round performance was very good.

Also commendable was the Lenovo Yoga Slim 7i Carbon, which was not far off.

What was remarkable about these two notebooks was how they were able to maintain consistent numbers even when taxed such as in the Tomb Raider test.

Also impressive was the Huawei MateBook 14 AMD. It may have only a Ryzen 5 processor, but its overall performance was mostly competitive, especially when you recall that it is the most affordable notebook here by a considerable margin.

Its graphics performance was lacking, however.

If any notebook's performance could be described as disappointing, then it would be the MSI Prestige 14 Evo. Maybe MSI was being conservative, but the notebook's performance was not commensurate with the fact that it is equipped with, what is on paper, the most powerful processor.

Battery life

Raw performance alone does not make a good ultra-portable notebook - battery life is important too.

Battery tests on the eight notebooks were conducted using PCMark 10's battery benchmark, with displays set to 100 per cent brightness.

The battery lives of the notebooks were generally quite good. Even with their displays at maximum brightness and the notebooks themselves running a multitude of tasks, most of them managed to last well over six hours.

The standout performers were the Acer Swift 5 and LG gram 14.

The Swift 5's long battery life is even more impressive when you consider the fact that it does not have the largest battery. It sips power at a remarkable rate.

The only other notebook that came close enough to matching this efficiency was the Lenovo Yoga Slim 7i Carbon. The Lenovo would have lasted longer if it had a larger battery - its 50Wh battery is the smallest of the bunch.

Another takeaway from the tests is how the display affects power efficiency. In the Modern Office battery tests, the most power-hungry notebooks were often those with high-resolution displays.

The Razer Book 13, which has a bright 4K display, consumed battery at a rate that was easily double those of other notebooks with full-HD displays.

Meanwhile, credit must be given to the Dell XPS 13 for keeping power consumption reasonable even though it also has a 4K display.

The Lenovo Yoga Slim 7i Carbon also deserves a mention. It has a QHD resolution display but it was still one of the most power-efficient notebooks.

Verdict

The ultra-portable notebooks in this shootout are very competent machines. Performance and battery life were generally quite good across the board, although there were some standouts.

It is also nice to see that nearly all of them support the new and faster Thunderbolt 4 standard. This is significant as it opens up a wide range of peripherals that you can enhance your machines with.

Most crucially, it means you can dock these notebooks to an external graphics processing unit and have a truly competent gaming machine.

Best overall notebook: Lenovo Yoga Slim 7i Carbon

The Lenovo Yoga Slim 7i Carbon is our winner because it checks the most boxes.

At just 966g, it is the lightest of the bunch. Coupled with its svelte body, it easily slips into bags and notebook sleeves.

And despite being so thin and light, it sacrifices little in the way of performance. In performance tests, it ranked consistently among the top.

And, even though this model had the smallest battery, it lasted well over nine hours and was one of the more power-efficient notebooks.

This is even more remarkable when you consider that it has a higher-resolution QHD display and not a full-HD display like some of its rivals.

To round it up, it has no fewer than three USB-C ports, support for Wi-Fi 6, a very pleasant keyboard and a large touchpad.

And there is the price.

The Yoga Slim 7i Carbon is the second-most affordable notebook in this shootout. It offers just about everything you would want from an ultra-portable notebook.

Best value: Huawei Matebook 14 AMD

It is hard to argue against the Huawei MateBook 14 AMD when you look at the price tags of these machines. At $1,298, it is $701 less than the next most affordable notebook.

Sure, we can nitpick its performance and feature set, but it counters with class-leading build quality and that gorgeous high-resolution display with a 3:2 aspect ratio.

If you are looking to get the most out of your hard-earned dollars, the MateBook 14 AMD is the undisputed winner.

The rest

Acer Swift 5

It offers unrivalled performance and battery life, and is also impressively light and compact. However, its full-HD display is looking dated and it has only a single USB-C port. Overall, it is an excellent notebook but not quite as refined and modern as our winner.

Asus Zenbook 14 Ultralight

It has impressive specifications. It is very thin and light, has discrete graphics and is one of only two notebooks to come with a 1TB solid state drive.

Sadly, its performance was not quite as good as we hoped - throttling was quite severe during heavy workload tests. The full-HD display also looks quite dated and the notebook is quite pricey.

Dell XPS 13

It looks and feels expensive. The display is fantastic, with super-thin bezels, razor-sharp visuals and vibrant colours. The only knocks against it are its so-so performance and high price tag. But if you have a fat wallet and you value visual quality over outright performance, this is still a good choice.

LG Gram 14

This is the company's most polished ultra-portable notebook yet. The gram 14 has always distinguished itself for its light weight and long battery life and this new model continues the tradition. Performance used to be a weak point but that is no longer the case. This model performs quite admirably, although throttling is a bit of an issue. It also has the best selection of ports. Its standing would have been elevated if only it had a better display and a more attractive price. Nevertheless, this is a very solid option especially if you are looking for a notebook that has every port you will ever need, is super light and has great endurance.

MSI Prestige 14 Evo

It was disappointing mainly because of its performance. Despite having the most powerful processor, it was unable to put the power down and distinguish itself in our benchmark tests. It goes to show that specifications on paper are not everything. And when you consider its price and everything else it offers, it is clear that there are better options out there.

Razer Book 13

If these notebooks were judged on looks alone, this model would have probably won. Its design is as attractive as it is distinctive, and it feels well put together. The 4K touchscreen display is also stunning. Sadly, its performance was not very strong and neither was its battery life. Furthermore, it is the most expensive notebook by a huge margin. When you put it all together, regardless of how good it looks, it just does not represent good value for money.