Ultrathin showdown: Apple MacBook Air vs. Lenovo ThinkPad X300 vs. Toshiba Portege R500

Which is really the best ultrathin notebook? We put the three best-known models through rigorous usability testing to find out.

When it comes to laptops, ultrathin is in -- particularly since the launch of Apple's MacBook Air earlier this year. As might be expected, though, the Air isn't the only game in town -- skinny laptops are available from a variety of other vendors.

However, stylish doesn't always mean functional. You needn't look further than the latest style in women's shoes to know that what looks good isn't necessarily comfortable. Is the MacBook Air with its ultrasvelte shape actually as comfortable to use as larger, more traditionally shaped laptops? And, come to that, what about its competitors? How easy are they to use?

Note that we're not talking about the low-cost ultraportable laptops like the Asus Eee and Everex CloudBook. These laptops are larger and more full-featured. For instance, that new breed of ultraportables has, at most, 10-in. displays, while the smallest display in this group was 12.1 inches. However, they also contain a number of compromises (such as tweaked keyboards or less ports) that could affect the user experience.

To find out how these thin notebooks really rate, we asked the usability experts at Perceptive Sciences, an Austin user experience testing firm, to run the Air and two Windows-based ultrathin laptops -- the Lenovo ThinkPad X300 and the Toshiba Portege R500-S5002-- through a gamut of hands-on tests with 20 independent users.

So how does the much-ballyhooed MacBook Air stack up against its competitors? Here's what we learned.

Air and its competitors

Before we get to the results, a few words are in order about the laptops themselves and how we tested them.

Apple's MacBook Air has garnered a lot of publicity since its introduction in January, largely because of how thin it is -- at its thickest point it's a scant 0.76 inches thick. Weighing in at three pounds, the Air might be easy to carry, but it is comparatively powerful, with a 13.3-in. display and an Intel 1.6-GHz Core 2 Duo processor and an 80GB hard drive.

MacBook Air

Apple MacBook Air

Price of test unit: $1,799

Size: 12.8 by 8.94 by 0.76 inches

Weight: 3 pounds

Display size: 13.3 inches

Click to view larger image

Although they haven't received the level of attention that the MacBook has, the skinny offerings from Toshiba and Lenovo have been well reviewed as well. The Lenovo ThinkPad X300, which was introduced in February 2008, is slightly lighter but also slightly thicker than Apple's offering and has the same size display as the Air. The review unit had a 1.2-GHz Core 2 Duo processor and, uniquely for this group, a 64GB solid-state drive.

Toshiba's Portege R500-S5002 has a particular emphasis on lightness. At 2.4 pounds, the company has been claiming it is the world's lightest full laptop. The trade-off is in screen size; at 12.1 inches, the R500 has the smallest display in this group. Like the Lenovo, this laptop came with a 1.2-GHz Core 2 Duo processor. It also had a standard 120GB hard drive. (We were told after testing began that the Portege R500-S5002 has been discontinued; however, a Toshiba representative assured us that the size of the current model, the Portege R500-S5006V, which comes with a 160GB hard drive and a 1.33-GHz processor, is the same.)

Lenovo ThinkPad

Lenovo ThinkPad X300

Price of test unit: $2,992

Size: 12.5 by 9.1 by .92 inches

Weight: 2.93 pounds

Display size: 13.3 inches

Click to view larger image

How we tested

Our tests were not the performance-related analyses typically found in product reviews. We weren't interested in aspects such as processor speed or battery life.

Rather, Tom Thornton, senior research scientist at Perceptive Sciences, and his team focused on the usability of the hardware. Perceptive Sciences developed nine tasks for these ultrathin laptops and then examined how quickly and easily the testers completed those tasks. A total of 20 people were recruited to participate in the tests -- 11 men and nine women. Of those, half were students and half were business users who travel anywhere from once a month to once a week.

Usability testing is part science, part art. That's why the results are a combination of the objective -- the time it took to complete specific tasks and the success rate at completing those tasks -- and the subjective impressions of the testers.

Portege R500

Toshiba Portege R500

Price of test unit: $2,149

Size: 11.1 by 8.5 by 1.0 inches

Weight: 2.4 pounds

Display size: 12.1 inches

Click to view larger image

For each given task, each participant tested two of the devices while observed by a Perceptive Sciences staffer. Half of the time, they tested one of the two laptops first; the other half of the time they started with the other laptop. The purpose of this approach was to negate any advantage or disadvantage of the order in which the devices were tested. After the tests were done, the researchers interviewed each of the testers to get their more subjective reactions.

The testers were mixed in terms of which operating systems they used in their everyday life: Eleven were PC-only users, seven used both PCs and Macs, and two were Mac-only users. None of the users were familiar with the specific laptops they were testing.

In fact, the tests were designed to keep the operating system out of the mix as much as possible, although Thornton acknowledged that it was impossible to avoid that issue entirely. Mac users were bound to feel more comfortable with the Mac OS, and PC users would tend to be more comfortable with Windows. The MacBook Air came with the latest version of the Mac OS X, dubbed Leopard, while both the Lenovo X300 and the Toshiba Portege R500 were equipped with Windows Vista Business.

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