3 executive-class laptops: Beauty that's more than skin deep

The newest ultraslim Windows notebooks back up their good looks with power and affordability.

Dell Vostro V130 laptop

In the business world today, you're judged as much by the technology you carry as by the cut of your clothes. You'll impress no one by walking into a meeting with a clunky old-school laptop.

That's where super-slim "executive-class" notebooks come in. Once the domain of sleek but underpowered devices, this group now includes machines that add a healthy dose of substance to their style.

Small and light enough to go everywhere you go, these next-generation ultraportable notebooks squeeze everything into a case that's an inch thick or less. The idea is to make them as easy to take on a weeklong trip to Asia as to a meeting down the hall.

At the moment, the machine to beat is Apple's second-generation MacBook Air, a mobile piece of art with a gently sculpted aluminum case and just enough power to get the job done. At 0.7 in. thick, it costs $1,300 for a model with a 13.3-in. screen and $1,000 for one with an 11.6-in. screen.

But several new Windows-based ultrathin systems are aiming to to knock the Air off its throne with stylish designs, high performance and lower price tags. I tested three notebooks that demonstrate a range of strategies for squeezing a lot of muscle into a svelte case: the Asus U36JC, Dell Vostro V130 and Lenovo IdeaPad U260. They all weigh roughly half what a good budget system does while looking like the computer equivalent of a runway model.

They range in price from $808 to $999 for systems with either a 12.5- or 13.3-in. screen -- a bargain compared to the 13-in. MacBook Air and Samsung's new 9 Series ultraslim, which will cost a cool $1,599 when it becomes available in the coming weeks. The machines I tested don't quite match the Air in terms of lightness and slimness, but they also don't skimp on components. Each comes with an Intel Core i3 or i5 processor, 4GB of memory and either a 320GB or 500GB hard drive.

These laptops do make some sacrifices to achieve a thin waistline. First, none has a built-in DVD drive, although two offer external USB-connected optical drives.

Second, stealing a page from the Air design book, the bottoms of the IdeaPad and Vostro machines are sleek and unencumbered by hatches or a removable battery. As a result, the user can neither upgrade memory nor swap the battery, which can be a handy option on the road. In contrast, the Asus U36JC has a removable battery and access to memory chips.

While the Air's design is unmatched, its competitors are no ugly ducklings -- they show off inviting finishes, splashes of color and touches of design brilliance, such as the IdeaPad's unusual padded wrist rest. I'm drawn to the Vostro V130's lustrous case, while the IdeaPad U260 looks like a snazzy leather portfolio and the Asus U36JC has a more traditional angular design.

In other words, these executive-class systems can not only get the job done on the road but look good doing it.

(Next page: Asus U36JC review)

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