Computers have become incredibly versatile as time goes on. Most people carry a small one in their pocket every day without even thinking about it, but not every computer can do the same tricks. Laptops, for instance, were originally designed to bring the desktop computing environment on the go. It’s been a while since then and now manufacturers like HP, Dell, Asus, Acer, Microsoft, Lenovo, Samsung, and others offer a wide variety of task-specific portable computing devices.
Over time, the hardware that has been developed to make laptops possible has become much more diverse to fill specific needs. Processors split between high-power CPUs meant for heavy processing and function and low-battery usage CPUs that can easily do common tasks but also extend the battery cycle up to twenty-four hours or longer.
There’s more to it than just processor differences. Every part of a laptop can be and is customized by different manufacturers to fulfill customer requests. In this article, I will break down the build and hardware differences between lightweight ultrabooks and powerhouse tanks, gaming laptops.
Defining What Makes a Computer an Ultrabook or a Gaming Laptop
To truly understand what is meant by category branding terms like ultrabooks or gaming laptops, you must understand what it is that companies are trying to define. A simple way to think of it is that laptop categories are determined by the form factor and all the decisions needed to achieve that form.
Some features can be found in flagship devices meant to showcase innovations to user interfaces like touch screens and touchpads. There are even cross-overs between form factors like ultrabook made for gaming. These are exceptions to the norm and not the rule. Let’s start by looking at the form factor and hardware of ultrabooks.
The portable nature of laptops has always begged for the least amount of weight possible. The ability to bring powerful software anywhere it’s needed has always been among the main focuses a laptop tries to fill. In the modern technological era, this has been pushed tenfold as computers have been implemented into every aspect of daily life and our societal and economic structures.
The push for thinner, lighter, sleeker devices is what fuels the smartphone industry. It’s no different in the laptop environment especially as newer smaller devices are being made to compete in the handheld computing environment. While full operating systems haven’t had much luck in the mobile department yet, the laptop market is trying to close the gap with ultrabooks.
Ultrabook was originally an Intel trademark name for a specific set of form and hardware features. It refers to a laptop with an Intel CPU, a solid-state drive, and a unibody frame that does exceed a maximum height when the lid is closed. Like any successful brand name, ultrabook has also come to colloquially refer to any laptop that has an incredibly thin form and weighs under three pounds.
There’s a lot to love about small form factors especially in the age of 2-in-1 devices that also function as tablets. With the direct competition of iPads and Android tablets, PC ultrabooks have adopted as many features as possible to keep up. This has included writing styluses with Windows Ink, 10.1 touchscreens, 360-degree hinges, voice-activated digital assistants, higher webcam quality, detachability, better built-in audio, 4k resolutions, all-day battery life, and more.
Even though the term ultrabook was meant to symbolize a specific image, ultrabooks have changed. With devices like the Surface Pro lineup, HP Elitebook, Asus ZenBook, LG Gram, Samsung Galaxy Book, and more, pushing the limits of what lightweight means has become a title battle between laptop developers. For this reason, I am including the subclasses of ultrabooks as ultrabook models.
While I will not go into detail about each form factor in this article, just know that these categories are also subject to the technical limitations of an ultrabook:
- 2-in-1 Convertible
- Tablet and Folio
- Detachable Screen
These form factors can often be mixed by manufacturers to push the limits of their devices. These crossover features have combined hardware limitations.
To keep an ultrabook thin, the hardware inside it needs to be even thinner. This is a real complication when it comes to fitting hard drives and cooling systems for powerful CPUs. That is why lightweight laptops will almost always have a solid-state drive and a modified CPU lineup.
That’s not all there is to the hardware of an ultrabook. Let’s dig into the different aspects of an ultrabook’s technical specifications.
Laptops already have a class of processors on their own, but did you know that they are divided into even more subclasses? Intel has a massive offering of different series. In previous generations, the Y and U series of intel processors were the most commonly found in an ultrabook. These chips are multi-threaded dual-core processors with turbo clock capability. They are used for their low power consumption, the Y series being the most power-efficient. While the U series consumes more battery, it is a consistently higher base clock speed and is more capable.
Once the 11th generation came to be, Intel once again switched up its naming structure. Tiger Lake processors for ultrabooks are designated as UP4. Either way, these chips run between 7 and 15 W TDPs.
Thin chassis create a need to fill as little space as possible. RAM is no exception. Generally, an ultrabook will have a predetermined unchangeable amount of RAM. This means that ultrabooks, except for devices like the Dell XPS, will have to be purchased with an acceptable RAM size for your tasks. Luckily, 8GB and 16GB configurations are the standard.
Ultrabooks rely on the onboard graphics that pairs with the processor. These onboard GPUs are capable of smooth 4k resolutions and a secondary display for more basic tasks and media consumption. Sometimes, they are even capable of playing low spec requirement games and extremely well-optimized games like Minecraft or Doom. They can often not play higher than medium quality settings, but Intel’s competitor AMD offers the Ryzen APU that brings a little more power to smaller devices.
AMD’s Ryzen 7 chipset uses its Vega 8 onboard GPU. Vega 8 is GPU commonly found in top-rated gaming laptops for under $500. This integrated graphics card is incredibly capable. It can run just about every game up to newer releases like CyberPunk 2077 and long-running games like GTA V.
Being a thin device means keeping parts small. The hard drive has to fit as well. Solid-state drives are the puzzle piece that completes the picture. Not only are these drives the fastest any computer can get, but they are also incredibly small. M.2 SSD drives can be smaller than laptop RAM sticks.
Ultrabooks will almost always have only one drive and no extra slots. Sometimes, the manufacturer may have provided easy access to the drive slot for replacements and upgrades.
The monitor is the shining star of any ultrabook. They are mostly in the higher resolutions like 1440p or 4k. Higher-end displays will be OLED and have deep color contrast. With most ultrabooks being around 13 inches diagonal, they offset their size with a beautiful crisp, clear picture and even up to 120Hz refresh rate. This means ultrabooks are perfect laptops for drawing.
Increasingly, the thunderbolt USB-C port is being adopted to allow ultrabooks to use more demanding hardware like external GPUs and high-resolution pixel-dense displays.
Trackpad and Keyboard
Trackpads are becoming less important as touchscreens takeover, but they are still a must-have tool for tasks that require accuracy. Ultrabook designers have put a lot of thought into the size and use of their trackpads. Different brands will have different specializations, but they all have gesture controls and multi-touch sensitivity.
Keyboards are often reworked to fit the smaller form factor. The keys can have a good weight to them, but the spacing is usually not particularly ergonomic. For shorter writing periods, the tightly squeezed keyboard works fine. Long-term projects will warrant a traditionally spaced keyboard.
Charging and the Battery
This is a category that ultrabooks reign supreme in. They have incredible power management that allows for battery life to extend longer than 24 hours of light use and around 17 hours of consistent usage life. On top of the great battery life, they also typically have fast charging capability through a Thunderbolt USB Type-C charging capable of 45 to 90 Watts. In some cases, an ultrabook can reach full charge in one to two hours.
- Clear, crisp high-resolution displays
- Convertible form factors
- Fast charging
- Long battery life
- Small form factor
- Small storage capacity
- Can run hot during running software
- Less powerful processing, not good for AutoCAD, 3D modeling, SolidWorks
- Integrated graphics
- Less I/O ports
- Smaller keyboards
Who are Ultrabooks Designed for?
Ultrabooks are meant to be a high-quality all-purpose offering for computer users who need to complete ‘basic’ type tasks like data entry, research, media consumption, online communication, and other less demanding tasks. This is perfect for students, writers, entrepreneurs, home-use, and frequent travelers. The price range of a new laptop can be as low as $200 but also higher than $2000. There’s an option in this category for any budget.
Gaming laptops are a different kind of machine entirely. They are more like a portable gaming pc rather than a normal laptop. Most gaming laptops are bulkier and have much more internal space. This is because of the larger internal components, but maybe more importantly for a more efficient cooling system.
These beefy computers aren’t meant to be used on a lap. They are better placed on a flat surface with space for the fans to move air. Their short battery life will also have avid gamers practically attached to the nearest outlet.
The powerhouses in the gaming laptop category are more often larger devices than they are smaller. There are a few manufacturers like Razer who have made ultrabook gaming notebooks, but they suffer from overheating on the bottom and still need to be placed on a flat open surface.
The form factor isn’t often the main concern with gaming machines. Gamers want power. They ask for the best hardware that can be put into a portable case. That means high-performance CPUs, GPUs, sizeable RAM, expandable storage, and I/O ports for days. Gaming laptop makers always try to add a special flair to their casing with emblems, lighting, and curvature, but the rigs usually end up having a similar feel due to their size and weight.
Running the highest performance on new and old games is the primary function for a gaming computer of any kind. There is only one way to achieve optimal performance consistently as a PC gamer. A gamer’s rig has to have the hardware capable of running their favorite games at the highest settings. This means higher-powered CPUs, dedicated GPUs, excessive amounts of RAM, and multiple hard drives to supply the need to download everything.
These devices often find innovative ways to incorporate more customization as they develop further. Thunderbolt technology is often used now to offer the ability to connect to an external GPU or attach the fastest read/write external hard drives available.
Gaming notebooks are very different from almost all other laptops on the consumer market. They are equipped with full-sized desktop CPUs. As the 11th generation Intel processors are trying to do this across the market, their gaming CPUs operate at a higher TDP. However, the newer 11th generation is made of quad-core processor sets. Many gaming laptops are equipped with eight-core i7s, i9s, or Ryzen CPUs.
This gives these laptops the power to run demanding software like AutoCAD, MAYA, Video Editing Software, and sound production like Ableton. Though this is a side effect of achieving the power needed for a high-quality gaming experience.
RAM is essential for loading assets in a large program quickly to avoid stuttering and loading times. Gaming machines often come with a higher amount of RAM, like 16GB at purchase. Manufacturers often include RAM expansion slots as well, usually up to four slots. Using 16GB RAM sticks, these machines can handle up to 64GB of DDR4 RAM.
Even though a gaming laptop usually has a more powerful processor than other laptops, the dedicated GPU is where they shine. NVIDIA and AMD have long been in a run for the best GPU on the market, and both have powerful options available in gaming laptops to get the job done. This is the essential hardware component that enables running modern games at high frame rates. Nearly all of a game’s high spec requirements will depend on the quality of a gaming rig’s graphics card.
In 2021, these GPUs are the same build used in their desktop counterparts. The only true difference is in the availability of power. The performance differences between a desktop feed GPU and one in a laptop are still noticeable, but it is a massive advantage over previous gaming laptop performance.
Storage is often expandable in current models. It is common to find a gaming laptop that has an SSD boot drive and a traditional hard drive with around 1TB or 2TB capacity. In some cases, they will also have extra slots for additional drives in the future.
Gaming laptop monitors are more likely not to have a touchscreen. Instead, they aim for 1080p resolutions and a high refresh rate, with some gaming laptops boasting a 240Hz screen. They are usually matte-covered and not glossy like the glass finish over a touchscreen laptop. The biggest difference is that most gaming laptops are 15 inches to 17 inches, making them behemoths compared to an ultrabook.
Trackpad and Keyboard
Gaming laptop keyboards vary across the market but they almost always have RGB. The larger screen size also allows for a full-sized keyboard that some manufacturers even go as far as adding mechanical keyboards. The trackpads on these rigs are usually just as capable as ultrabooks but are focused on media purposes as games are better played with a mouse or gamepad.
Charging and the Battery
The battery life of the gaming rig is almost non-existent. Even the best gaming laptops usually last around two and a half to three hours playing an AAA game. This has not been overlooked. They are designed to run on high-wattage power supplies to meet the energy demands of the machine. This usually leads to gamers staying near an outlet.
- Powerful Processing
- Dedicated GPU
- Larger Screen
- Fast Refresh Rates
- High-Performance Gaming
- More Storage
- Heavy chassis
- Short battery life
- Produces a lot of heat
- Possibly loud cooling system
- Requires larger space
Who are Gaming Laptops Designed for?
These machines are made specifically to appeal to the hard-core gaming crowd. They also happen to be good machines for 3D designers due to their hardware capability.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are ultrabooks good for gaming?
Current ultrabooks can be good for light gaming. It won’t support the highest settings for most games but will run them at a level similar to a console experience. Other services help these devices to play games set at a better quality like Game Pass. AMD’s Ryzen chipsets have an advantage with their integrated graphics and have proven to be capable of running popular games like GTA V, Destiny 2, and CyberPunk 2077.
Are ultrabooks better than gaming laptops?
Better is subjective. For most people, the experience of a more portable device that can fit anywhere without taking much space is going to fit better in their lifestyle.
Can a gaming laptop be used as an ultrabook?
Ultrabook is a form factor. A few products mix the ultrabook factor with gaming capabilities, but for the most part, a gaming laptop is not an ultrabook. They are too bulky and don’t have the battery life to compete with the portability of an ultrabook.
Are ultrabooks more expensive than gaming laptops?
The PC market has form factors in every price range nowadays. For the best performance, the highest end of ultrabooks and gaming laptops can reach above $3000. They can also both be inexpensive at around $500. With computers, you get what you pay for. Always compare the hardware and features to make sure the price trade-off works for you.
What’s the average price of an ultrabook laptop
On average, most ultrabooks are priced between $700 to $1200.