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Do Ultrabooks stand a chance, or are they destined for failure?

Is your notebook computer dragging you down? Chipmaker Intel is betting heavily that consumers will embrace the company’s so-called “Ultrabook” platform: very thin, very light notebook computers that offer the portability of netbooks without the hefty dive in performance. However, unlike mainstream performance notebooks, Intel promises Ultrabooks won’t cost much, with prices routinely falling under $1,000.

Intel is so confident in the Ultrabook platforms that its betting Ultrabooks will account for 40 percent of consumer notebook sales by the end of next year—that’s up from, well, zero percent right now, so some industry watchers think that’s a bit pie-in-the-sky. As the first Ultrabooks begin to hit the streets, what exactly is an Ultrabook, and is Intel’s vision of Ultrabooks everywhere a little too optimistic?

What is an Ultrabook?

The definition of an “Ultrabook” is slightly hazy: After all, Intel isn’t making these computers, it’s just providing some of the key technology that will enable OEM computer makers — like Asus, Acer, Samsung, Toshiba, and others, initially — to design and build their own. Ultrabooks offered by different PC makers will have different features and capabilities, making Ultrabooks more of a general notebook category like netbooks or ultraportables.

Basic Requirements: Intel has some specs in mind. Ultrabooks should feature designs no more than 21mm (0.83 inches) thick, run on an Intel Core low-voltage processor, offer at least five hours of battery life, and implement Intel “Rapid Start” technology—basically, flash memory embedded on the notebook motherboard to let the computers boot up and wake from hibernation faster than their traditional counterparts. Ultrabooks will also have hardware support for security and anti-theft technologies, including two-factor, hardware-based authentication (although manufacturers will have discretion about implementing those features). Ideally, Intel wants Ultrabooks to cost under $1,000; the company believes that’s the sweet spot for “no-compromise” notebook pricing.

That’s about it: Intel hasn’t laid out any requirements for display size or type (full HD? touch screens?), peripherals and I/O (USB 3.0? Thunderbolt?), storage (SSDs? Traditional hard drives? Both?), media support (SD cards?), expansion, or optical drives (but at 21mm thickness or less…don’t bet on them). Connectivity is also omitted, although it’s a good bet any Ultrabook will offer 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth at least as an option. Given Ultrabooks’ physical constraints, Intel is telling people to expect they shouldn’t expect to be able to remove and replace the notebooks’ batteries, which may be a distinct downside for long-haul travelers.

Intel-UltrabooksUltrabooks in 2011: Intel is initially envisioning three phases of Ultrabooks. The first generation will be based on ultra-low voltage versions of its second-generation Intel Core processors, formerly codenamed Sandy Bridge. Those processors are available to computer makers now, and with the exception of high-end portable workstations and gaming notebooks, are the same chips powering other notebooks with second-generation Intel Core processors.

Ultrabooks in 2012: The second generation of Ultrabooks will be based on Intel’s forthcoming “Ivy Bridge” processors. Ivy Bridge chips will be built using Intel’s 22nm process technology and, hence, consume even less power than their Sandy Bridge forerunners. Intel also expects Ivy Bridge will enable computer makers to roll in high-performance connectivity like USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt into Ultrabooks. Ivy Bridge chips should be available to computer makers in first half of 2012.

At some point, Intel envisions Ultrabooks sporting touchscreens, making the devices capable of tablet-like experiences—particularly if they feature pivotable screens like today’s convertible tablet notebooks. Industry watchers generally expect the first touchscreen-enabled Ultrabooks will launch about the same time Microsoft launched Windows 8—with it’s slick new multitouch-enabled Metro interface. Microsoft hasn’t announced a release date for Windows 8, but industry watchers expect it in the second half of 2012.

Ultrabooks in 2013: The third generation of Ultrabooks will be based on yet-another iteration of Intel’s low-voltage processors, currently codenamed Haswell. Haswell CPUs will use the 22nm process and consume less power (10 to 20 watts rather than the 35 watts of Ivy Bridge) and will enable computer makers to create “insanely sleek” systems. Haswell processors are expected to be launched roughly a year after Ivy Bridge, so third-generation Ultrabooks might start reaching consumers by mid-2013. Eventually, Intel will shrink the Haswell CPUs from 22nm to a 14nm process — those chips will be dubbed Broadwell. That might happen by the end of 2013.

Aren’t there already super-thin notebooks?

There are already super-thin notebooks on the market, most notably the MacBook Air, which Apple launched all the way back in early 2008 — yes, almost four years ago. Other PC makers have tried to compete with the MacBook Air’s form factor, but have largely failed: Dell’s ultrathin Adamos and HP’s Envy 13 didn’t stand up, although everyone from Sony to Samsung to Lenovo to Acer are also in the mix.

macbook-air-13-3-display-angleApple let the original MacBook Air stagnate a bit, but has repeatedly refreshed the platform: MacBook Air’s now feature Intel “Sandy Bridge” ULV processors, Thunderbolt, and Bluetooth 4.0. They’re 17mm at their thickest point, and start out under $1,000. Aren’t those Ultrabooks?

Not according to Intel, since current MacBook Airs don’t implement Rapid Start technology. Similarly, current super-slim PC notebooks like the Samsung Series 9, and the (discontinued) Toshiba Satellite T235-S1350 and HP Pavilion dm3t don’t qualify either, either because they omit Rapid Start, use the wrong processors, are are just too dang expensive.

The potential value of Ultrabooks

Intel believes Ultrabooks will resonate with consumers because they will offer an ideal mix of portability and computing power. Ultrabooks will defeat netbooks because they’ll offer greater computing power, letting users run modern applications at full speed. Similarly, Intel is betting Ultrabooks will defeat tablet computers because they are full-fledged computers: users will be able to run their expected desktop applications — word processors, spreadsheets, Web browsers, games, and whatnot — without the compromises of tablets. Plus, Ultrabooks will likely offer more screen resolution, a real keyboard, and more options than tablets. Ultrabooks may not be able to stand up to dedicated gaming rigs, but the DirectX10.1 support built into Intel HD graphics will let ultrabook users at least get a good taste of most games, plus handle into high-definition video. And, of course, almost all notebook users value lightweight designs.

However, the key success point for Ultrabooks may be responsiveness: Rapid Start technology combined with second-generation Intel Core processors ought to make Ultrabooks feel considerably snappier than traditional notebooks. Done right, Ultrabooks will wake from sleep and be ready to go almost instantly, enabling users to check email, connect to the Web, transfer data, or make key changes to documents without having to wait for the system to get its house in order. That can be a huge advantage, particular for users who’s computer use isn’t easy to predict.