By the time HP unveiled its first Ultrabook, the Folio 13, other heavyweights like Acer, ASUS, Lenovo and Toshiba had already gotten a head start of up to several months. But being fashionably late to market may have worked in Hewlett-Packard's favor: the Folio 13 ($900 and up) is temptingly priced for what it is. Even the base model comes stocked with a 128GB SSD, backlit keyboard, HDMI port and Ethernet jack -- specs that undercut the ASUS Zenbook UX31 and 13-inch MacBook Air, and render the $900 Acer Aspire S3 nearly irrelevant. Not to mention, it brings business-friendly features like TPM that other Ultrabook makers have omitted from their 1.0 products. But surely HP cut some corners to get here, no? Is this really as sweet a deal as it seems? Funnily enough, the answer is "yes," on both counts.

HP Folio 13 review

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HP Folio 13

Pros

  • Long battery life
  • Comfortable keyboard
  • Fast boot time
  • Full suite of ports
  • Loud speakers

Cons

  • Stiff trackpad
  • Dim display with narrow viewing angles
Summary

The Folio 13 offers excellent value for $900, with a strong blend of long battery life, fast boot times, a good port selection and even loud speakers.


Look and feel


Considering how aggressively priced this thing is, HP made surprisingly few design compromises. Okay, the bottom is made of plastic, not aluminum, and the display offers narrow viewing angles, but other than that it's well-made and yes, tasteful, even. We'll wait a moment for all those folks who hate 1366 x 768 screens and things that aren't metal to leave the room. Are they gone? Good. We think the rest of you will agree that tried-and-true brushed metal lid was a safe design choice and also, a perfectly elegant one. Even better, those smooth metal surfaces continue onto the keyboard deck, stretching down to the palm rest. Particularly after reviewing split-personality machines like the Aspire S3, we appreciate that what's underneath the lid matches the exterior.

The keyboard is black, as are the nooks and crannies between the keys, but in this case we don't mind the color-blocking: since the trackpad, hinge, and bezel are also black, the effect feels balanced, not jarring. It also helps that there's just one button above the keyboard, which helps keep the design from feeling too busy. Even the bottom has a soft, rubbery finish that makes it that much more comfortable to grip in one hand. Despite all this, there's no pretending this has the same luxurious feel as the UX31, MacBook Air or Lenovo Ideapad U300s. Still, we can assure you of this: it's clean, understated and unlikely to embarrass you when you whip it out in public. And really, we don't ask for much more than that.

HP did in fact make an additional compromise, but this one had nothing to do with keeping the cost down. At 3.3 pounds (1.5kg), the Folio is the heaviest of all the 13-inch Ultrabooks we've seen so far, the rest of which have weighed in at three pounds or less. It just so happens that we have a two-and-a-half-pound laptop lying around, and next to that the Folio naturally seems big-boned. But unless you, too, have a notebook test lab set up in your living room, you most likely won't be able to appreciate the difference between 3.0 and 3.3 pounds.


If anything, the Folio's girth comes with some practical trade-offs. Though it's relatively thick at 18mm (0.71 inches) with a boxy profile, those sides make room for an Ethernet jack, something we've only seen on one other Ultrabook, the Toshiba Portege Z835. It also sports a full-sized HDMI port, which is more common, though absent on the Zenbook line. (Apple, of course, never adopted this standard.) In addition, you'll find requisite USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports, along with a combined headphone / mic port. All told, this is one of the best selections of ports you'll find on an Ultrabook today. Between that and the long battery life (spoiler!), we can think of two very good reasons to make do with the Folio's extra pudge.

As for that plastic bottom, it's here that HP installed a pair of vents. If you enjoy resting your laptop on your legs (guilty), gird your loins because those quadriceps are going to get nice and toasty. Although this makes use of HP's CoolSense technology, expect to feel some warm (but never scorching) air on your thighs, even if you're just surfing the web. Throughout our testing, we also noticed an incessant, but not-too-distracting whirring coming from the vents. After awhile, it registered as white noise, but it's worth noting that this sound doesn't go away, and is especially discernible if you're working in an otherwise quiet space.

Keyboard and trackpad


We had a feeling when we first got hands-on with the Folio that its relatively cushy keyboard would be an improvement over what all of the other early Ultrabooks have to offer. After all, laptops like the UX31 and Aspire S3 didn't exactly set the bar high: if the keys weren't too shallow, they were undersized, or failed to register the occasional press. Here, though, there's plenty of travel, and they're bouncy enough that you're not likely to suffer any dropped letters. HP also enlarged all of the major keys (Caps Lock, Shift, Enter and Backspace, etc.), thereby removing the last likely obstacle for touch typists. As is the case with other Ultrabooks, the arrow keys are quite miniature, though the right and left ones are at least wide enough to accommodate the pad of your finger; the up and down ones are more tightly packed, but we still think you won't have much trouble finding the one you want.

The keyboard is also backlit, a welcome feature on an Ultrabook this inexpensive. The backlighting's not enabled by default, though, so be sure to press F5 if you need (or just crave) that white glow. Which brings us to one other thing we like about the Folio: its brightness, volume and multimedia controls are built into the top row of keys, meaning you don't need the fn button to take advantage of them. This may or may not impress some of you, but we always appreciate the convenience of pausing songs with the push of a button, and would rather avoid a two-fingered keyboard shortcut.


Were you waiting for a "but"? Because there is one. While far from terrible, the trackpad isn't our favorite. Oddly, though, our complaints mark a reversal of what we usually have to say about touchpads with integrated touch buttons. This time, the problem is with the button mechanism itself: it's stiff, and not especially easy to press. It's ironic because HP succeeded where other laptop makers too often stumble: the drivers (courtesy of Synaptics) seem pretty fine-tuned! Cursor navigation feels precise, and multi-touch gestures such as pinch to zoom and two-fingered scrolling are easy to pull off. It's too bad, then, that HP can't loosen up the touch buttons through a mere software update.

In case any of you happen to have a disparate experience with the touchpad and find it flakier than we did, you can disable the pad by double-tapping the small icon drawn in the upper left corner of the trackpad. When it's turned off, a small LED light beneath the space bar will glow orange, and you'll hear a sound, confirming the touchpad has been disabled.

Display and sound


Since we warned you about the display, the fact that you've made it this far suggests a TN screen with 1366 x 768 resolution isn't necessarily a deal-breaker. And maybe it's a good thing you're so open-minded, since almost all the Ultrabooks we've seen (and know are coming) have the same pixel count, especially if they start in the $800 to $900 range. We haven't yet seen an Ultrabook rocking an IPS panel either, so for now, TN it is.

Starting with the good, the bezels here are quite narrow, though any benefit there is negated by the fact that the screen is ringed with a border of black pixels. And though the resolution will be a turn-off for some shoppers, it never got in our way. Yours truly wrote this entire review on this laptop, all while juggling seven or eight browser tabs for email, Twitter and YouTube. In the rare moments we did feel cramped (our Gmail labels pushing our Gchat list off the page, for instance), we just used pinch to zoom to expand our viewing area.

This really isn't a good display, even if you evaluate it with artificially lower standards.

That said, this really isn't a good display, even if you evaluate it with artificially lower standards. For starters, it's a dim one. The brightness is muted enough that if you're watching a movie in a room with lots of natural light pouring in, the maximum setting likely won't cut it. (It is sufficiently bright in darkened rooms, though we've yet to find a display that isn't.)

Aside from that, the viewing angles are about as narrow as you'd expect from a low-quality, TN panel. Whether you place the laptop on an airplane tray table or rest it on your legs, you'll want to fiddle with the screen and make sure the angle is just right before settling in to watch a movie. Dip it too far back and the contrast becomes severe; push it forward and the screen washes out. Viewing from the sides is also a wash, not just because of the loss in contrast, but because of the screen's reflective finish.

What's striking about the Folio's audio is that it isn't powered by Beats. For this -- a business-grade product, as far as HP is concerned -- the company went with Dolby Advanced Audio. As you might expect, then, it's missing the exaggerated bass notes you'd find on HP's consumer laptops, but that speaker built into the hinge is at least loud. Not booming enough for your next house party, mind you, but loud enough that even with the volume set to 24 out of 100, you should be able to hear a song playing across an apartment, even with the laptop sitting in a different room.

Performance

PCMark Vantage
3DMark06
HP Folio 13 (1.6 GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 6,701 1,824 3,387
Toshiba Portege Z835 (1.4 GHz Core i3-2367M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 5,894 3,601
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s (1.8 GHz Core i7-2677M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 9,939 3,651
ASUS Zenbook UX31 (1.7 GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 10,508 4,209
Acer Aspire S3 (1.6 GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 5,367 3,221
13-inch, 2011 MacBook Air (1.7 GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 9,484 4,223
Samsung Series 9 (1.7 GHz Core i5-2537M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 7,582 2,240
Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.

The Folio 13 should be evidence that it's not always wise to size up a laptop's performance based on benchmark scores alone. The numbers tell a believable enough story: as configured with a Core i5-2467M processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, it's faster than the Aspire S3, which has a hybrid 5,400RPM drive. It also edges out the Portege Z835, which has an SSD, but a slower Core i3 CPU. Still, it doesn't come close to matching the MacBook Air, IdeaPad U300s or Zenbook UX31, all of which have an SSD and Core i5 CPU.

In the real world, though, the gap feels smaller. For starters, the Folio 13 boots in 18 seconds, matching the U300s and other machines with nearly five-digit PCMark scores. And, according to the disk benchmark ATTO, its Samsung SSD reaches top read speeds of 236 MB/s and max writes of 192 MB/s. That's not that far off the U300s, whose read / write speeds peaked at 250 MB/s and 200 MB/s, respectively. (The Zenbook UX31 is in a league of its own with 550 MB/s reads and 500 MB/s writes, but every Ultrabook, not just the Folio, has failed to replicate that.)

Speaking more anecdotally, the Folio 13 succeeds as a primary PC. Not only did we write this entire review on it, but during our testing period we used it as our only PC for email, Twitter, YouTube and Grooveshark. As an everyday machine, it's as capable as the rest -- a fact that could easily get lost in a table full of benchmark scores.

Update: We re-ran 3DMark06 and the average score jumped from 1,824 to 3,387, which falls in line with what we've seen from other Ultrabooks with Intel's HD 3000 card. Naturally, we've updated the table above as well.

Battery life

Laptop
Battery Life
HP Folio 13 6:08
Toshiba Portege Z835 5:49
ASUS Zenbook UX31 5:41
13-inch, 2011 MacBook Air 5:32 (Mac OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 5:08
Samsung Series 9 4:20
Acer Aspire S3 4:11

The Folio's six-cell battery is rated for up to nine hours of use and though we haven't figured out how to achieve that kind of runtime, you should easily enjoy about eight hours of juice if you use Windows' Power Saver battery profile and are just doing things in the browser. As for our admittedly taxing battery test, which involves looping a movie off the local disk with WiFi on and the brightness fixed at 65 percent, the Folio managed six hours and eight minutes, supplanting the Portege Z835 as the longest-running Ultrabook we've seen.

Software


In an uncommon move, HP is selling the Folio through both its consumer and business channels, and the software load will vary slightly depending on where you buy it. Our review laptop was one a consumer would have bought, and came stocked with staples such as Skype 5.5, Windows Live Essentials 2011, Evernote, Blio, CyberLink's YouCam camera software and trials of Microsoft Office and Norton Internet Security. The brunt of the pre-installed software comes courtesy of HP, though. This package includes utilities such as Security Assistant, Setup Manager, Support Assistant and Power Manager, along with the aptly named MovieStore. If you nab this through one of the business channels, you'll also get HP Protect Tools, a suite of utilities that cover things like encryption and backup.

As with other laptops it's launched this year, HP included its so-called Launch Box software, which are really just pre-programmed folders that live inside the Start Menu and organize all of the apps HP has helpfully installed for you. Skype, for instance, can be found under "Communication and Chat." You can, if you like, throw your own apps inside those folders -- or, you know, create your own folders, or pin programs or carry on with whatever organizational system you already had in place.

Configuration options and the competition

Though our tester unit rings in at $1,049, the Folio is available starting at a more palatable $900. In fact, the key specs (Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD remain the same); the only difference is that the model we reviewed ran Windows 7 Professional (despite not having Protect Tools installed), whereas the $900 model runs Home Premium.

If you've been wondering whether you should buy the HP Folio 13, the answer is probably yes.

We touched on this briefly earlier, but the Folio 13 really does undercut many of the other Ultrabooks out there. Let's start with the one that isn't technically an Ultrabook, but that all of the Ultrabooks have been aping. The 13-inch MacBook Air starts at $1,299 with a slightly faster 1.7 GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, Intel GMA graphics and a 128GB SSD. For the money, you also get fewer ports: two USB 2.0 sockets, an SD slot, separate headphone and mic ports and Thunderbolt. As we've seen, its battery life is shorter than the Folio 13's, though its performance might be faster. Above all, what it still has over the Folio and other Ultrabooks is the combination of a smooth, easy-to-press trackpad and a comfortable keyboard. None of the contenders we've seen have both a keyboard and touchpad that's as comfy, though some, such as the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s, have come close, while others, such as the Folio, have succeeded in one area but not the other.

We can also see where you'd choose the Folio 13 over the UX31, which starts at about $1,100 with a Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, but no backlit keyboard. Its battery life is long, but not as long as the Folio's, and it's missing an HDMI socket. Before we simplify this comparison too much, though, it has a 1600 x 900 panel, and its performance remains unbeatable. Still, its keyboard is so shallow that it often fails to register key presses. The UX31 has a lot going for it, but now that the Folio's on the scene with a lower price, longer battery life and better keyboard, it would seem to be the more tempting buy.

It's a similar story with the IdeaPad U300s, which is going for $1,200-plus with similar specs, minus a backlit keyboard and SD slot. (For what it's worth, its keyboard and trackpad are among the more comfortable we've seen on an Ultrabook to date.) All told, the Folio 13 meets its stiffest competition in the Toshiba Portege Z835, which also starts at $900 and has a backlit keyboard, 128GB SSD, long-lasting battery and Kensington lock slot (if that matters to you). And despite having a robust selection of ports, it weighs just 2.47 pounds, which gives the Folio 13 less of an excuse for being as hefty as it is. Ultimately, both offer excellent value and performance for the money, along with long battery life. It's up to you which is more important: the Portege's extraordinarily light design, or the Folio's business-friendly software, spacious keyboard and elegant aesthetics.

One thing we know for sure: there's no reason to reject the Folio 13 in favor of the $800 Acer Aspire S3: it's slower, doesn't last as long on a charge and has an uglier design, including a shallower keyboard.

Wrap-up

If you've been wondering whether you should buy the HP Folio 13, the answer is probably yes. (After all, we're guessing people who want a higher-res display and lighter build have already moved on.) There's just so much to love in this $900 machine: it boots quickly, includes a robust selection of ports, can be configured with helpful business features and offers a refreshingly comfortable typing experience. The biggest things we'd change are the stiff trackpad and the dim, glossy display, which frankly, we expected to find in a machine this inexpensive anyway. We also wish it managed to be as light as the Toshiba Portege Z835, though this is hardly a deal-breaker. If you can adjust to the touchpad and aren't picky about screen quality, we think you'll be as pleased as we were, though it might still be worth holding off and waiting to see what CES brings next week.

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