Backwards Compatible: Ultrabooks vs. Laptops vs. Tablets Smackdown 2012

Will Podlewski, Columnist

As a college student and journalist, my laptop is my life. From pulling up dry art history readings to booting up the latest bargain-bin games for “Insert Coin,” almost everything I do in some way relates to my trusty, if chunky, Hewlett-Packard – or so I used to think.

Although I highly doubt the laptop will be phased out as the most indispensable weapon in the college student’s arsenal any time soon, the increasing proliferation of iPads in lecture halls and the recent flood of new Windows 8-optimized ultrabooks and tablet-hybrids to the market must mean something for the future of the traditional laptop. Will the classroom of 20 years from now be dominated by the touchscreen, or will the clacky din of keyboards still be a constant undertone? There’s no way to say for certain, but pitting the laptop, the ultrabook and the tablet against one another right now might give some insight as to which will become the next big pre-freshman year purchase (or Black Friday purchase, if you’re into the whole stampeding for $5 off a Furby thing).

I’m going to take a look at the pros and cons of all three, and then decide which one I think is going to be the next big thing. So sit back and grab your popcorn, because I have a feeling it’s going to be a good, long fight.

The Laptop

Top Contenders: Apple 15-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display, $2199; HP Envy 17, $1,485

From dinky entry-level computers to technological juggernauts that can run the latest graphically intensive games without a hitch (save for some overheating), the traditional laptop is versatile and, on the upper end, ridiculously powerful. While they can be on the heavy side, laptops also have the size advantage, with roomy screens upward of 17 inches, full keyboards and touchpads.

Pros: Many models and companies to choose from, durable, versatile, generally affordable, comfortably big.

Cons: Can become prohibitively expensive (especially Apple models), prone to overheating, many uncomfortably heavy.

The Ultrabook

Top Contenders: Asus Zenbook Prime, $1,299; Apple 11-inch MacBook Air; $999

Extremely light and thin compared to laptops, ultrabooks retain the powerful computing punch of their larger cousins in a drastically smaller and lighter package. Storage space can be at a premium, however, and ultrabooks lose many of the features that make laptops the most versatile contender, including physical CD readers and additional USB ports.

Pros: Small footprint, powerful processors, extremely lightweight, can do most everything a laptop can.

Cons: Fragile construction, cramped physical inputs, lacking CD drives and additional device ports.

The Tablet

Top Contenders: Apple iPad with Retina Display 32 GB, $599; Google Nexus 7, $199

Although the tablet was around before the advent of the iPad, it was Apple’s device that really catapulted this laptop-smartphone in-betweener into the spotlight. Refined touchscreen technology made the tablet input a viable alternative to the traditional keyboard, and a wealth of specially-designed apps provided a unique computing experience. The biggest advantage of the tablet comes in through physical size — little more than a screen, a tablet can be slipped into a backpack or purse with room to spare for easy access to casual computing.

Pros: Competitive pricing, refined touchscreen controls, ease of use, small device footprint, apps.

Cons: Weak computing power, lack of storage space, inability to run CPU-intense programs.

The Winner: The Ultrabook

I know. I was surprised, too.

The ultrabook came out on top for one simple reason — the environment is right for it. The absence of a CD drive doesn’t matter because most media, whether movies or TV shows or games, is streamed nowadays anyway. The lack of large storage capacities can be mitigated by online storage solutions like Dropbox or Google Drive. Even the cramped keyboards just take a little getting used to, and can be avoided entirely with the addition of a different keyboard peripheral. In short, all the ultrabook’s cons can be easily and cheaply solved, while issues with the laptop and tablet are more ingrained.

Additionally, the ultrabook’s size and profile make it ideal for the average college student’s on-the-go lifestyle, providing the powerful computing of a full-size laptop with the sleekness and ease-of-use of a tablet. Ultrabooks essentially bridge the gap between the two, and this compromise works to their advantage across almost every category.

I can see the ultrabook beginning to creep onto campus, primarily through the attractive pricing of the Macbook Air. As prices begin to drop and the technology is more refined, I would be very surprised if the ultrabook didn’t overtake the traditional laptop in the next 10 or 15 years. Though to be fair, we’ll all probably be using chips in our brains by then anyway.