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Intel waving cash around in search of Ultrabook developments

Intel, the big boss of chipmaking, dreams of a future in which consumers no longer have to deal with strained backs and battery anxiety from lugging their heavy laptops around all day.

The company hopes that the time of their dreams will arrive in the next few years, as it’s announced it will invest up to $300 million over that span in super-laptops it’s calling Ultrabooks. Intel plans on sending checks to hardware and software developers to help create Ultrabooks: thinner, lighter laptops that can run all day without recharging.

The $300 million fund is being managed by Intel Capital, the chip giant’s in-house development and investment arm.

Intel has already trademarked Ultrabook, which it described in a release as matching the performance of current laptops while having “tablet-like features.” While that’s relatively vague, it seems Intel wants its chips in notebooks that offer more power, more battery life and a break from the traditional clamshell design.

“Ultrabook devices are poised to be an important area for innovation in the $261 billion global computer industry,” Arvind Sodhani, president of Intel Capital, said in the release. “The Intel Capital Ultrabook fund will focus on investing in companies building technologies that will help revolutionize the computing experience and morph today’s mobile computers into the next ‘must have’ device.”

Intel said it will take three generations of chips to get to the size and power consumption levels it wants for the ideal Ultrabook. Things started this year with second-gen Core processors, which the company says allow for laptops that are only 0.8 inches thick. Power consumption will be addressed next year with Intel’s Ivy Bridge processors, which are supposed to be more efficient and better at handling graphics than current offerings. Finally, in 2013, Intel’s Haswell processors should cut power consumption by half of current processors, increasing battery life and allowing thinner devices because of decreased heat output.

So where does the $300 million come in? Because Intel has its processors in about 80 percent of the world’s computers, the company has a vested interested in making sure hardware and software companies can keep up developments at the pace Intel wants.

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Derek Mead
Former Digital Trends Contributor
The writing on the laptop: What Intel’s Haswell reference Ultrabook tells us about tomorrow

Intel only spent a few minutes talking about its upcoming GPU architecture, Haswell, at CES 2012. That's probably because the company didn't have anything new to say. Still, CES provides a once-a-year chance to check out everything a company is doing. We spent some time putting together the pieces of the Haswell puzzle by examining Intel's announcement, the reference Ultrabook, and the company's in-booth demos.
There's one number from the press conference on Monday that keeps coming back to us - 13. That's the battery life Intel claims a Haswell Ultrabook will provide. Claims like this are exaggerated as a rule, but adjusting for that still brings us to an estimated endurance of between eight to 10 hours. Current Ultrabooks and laptops based on 3rd-gen Intel Core processors (aka Ivy Bridge) usually last five to seven hours in our tests. It seems Haswell will offer a gigantic boost.

Efficiency improvements that increase endurance often allow for smaller, lighter systems. Haswell will be no exception. Intel's convertible Ultrabook reference design is 17mm thick with keyboard attach and shrinks to 10mm when the keyboard is removed. Also displayed was NEC's LaVie X, a conventional laptop powered by Haswell that's 12.8mm thin.
Graphics performance is a focus of the new architecture. It includes a revised integrated graphics component, code-named "GT3," which Intel claims is on par with current mid-range graphics. To prove this the company used a demo that pit a Haswell CPU with GT3 integrated graphics against an Nvidia GT 650M in Dirt 3: Showdown playing at 1080p. There's no easily discernible difference between them.

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Intel shows roadmap for 4th generation ultrabooks, makes touch mandatory

Taking full advantage of the fanfare surrounding CES, Intel has revealed its plan for the next generation of ultrabooks. The announcement includes two new requirements that will force hardware manufacturers to once again raise the bar on their designs.
The most important announcement is mandatory touch. Laptops with 4th-gen Core processors that lack touch will be ineligible for the ultrabook title. Intel's decision will likely increase the availability of touchscreens and drive down prices, as more and more manufacturers begin producing touchscreen technology.
Another, less significant must-have, is the inclusion of Intel Wireless Display. This makes it possible to stream a Windows desktop to a high-definition television - no HDMI needed. Some laptops have already shipped with this feature, but it will now be required of all ultrabooks.
All of the previous extras of course, including a solid state drive and a built-in security chip, will still be mandatory.
Intel also boasted that 4th-generation ultrabooks will offer significantly improved battery life. This was displayed with a reference design that included a battery in the lower chassis and the display. It can last as long as 13 hours with both components attached, or 10 hours as a tablet. Today's ultrabooks often struggle to provide more than seven hours away from a socket, and that is being generous.
These changes go into effect alongside the company's release of its 4th-generation Core parts, which are currently rumored to ship in May of this year.

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Are Ultrabooks an epic failure?

A year ago, chipmaking giant Intel was touting Ultrabooks as the next wave of the PC revolution, boldly trumpeting forecasts that a new slim, sleek class of notebook computers — of course, powered by Intel's own Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge processors — would account for 40 percent of the notebook PC market by the end of 2012.
We're now halfway through 2012, and guess what? Market analysis firms like IDC and Gartner find that the global PC market remained essentially flat for the second quarter of 2012 — and that's the seventh straight quarter the PC market has experienced little to no growth. Gartner notes Ultrabook shipment volumes were "small" with little impact on the overall PC market, while IDC reached much the same conclusion. However, IDC analyst Jay Chou was willing to get a little more specific with Cnet: Chou indicated roughly half a million Ultrabook shipped during the first half of 2012, "nowhere near Intel's initial hope."
Why are Ultrabooks tanking? And is there any hope for them during the rest of 2012 and looking into 2013?
How bad are Ultrabook sales?
Computer manufacturers aren't (yet) in the habit of breaking out their Ultrabook sales from the rest of their notebooks, or even their overall PC sales, including things like all-in-ones and traditional desktops. The same is true for market analysis firms: getting Ultrabook numbers separate from notebook numbers — or even separate from overall PC numbers — is a little tricky. So all analysis of the Ultrabook market to date comes with a few grains of salt.
Nonetheless, there are some signs. IDC's Chou noted that about 500,000 Ultrabooks have been sold worldwide to date, and that number might hit a million by the end of 2012. Given that both IDC and Gartner expect to see about 220 to 230 million notebook computers shipped during 2012, that would mean Ultrabooks would account for less than one half of one percent of worldwide notebook PC shipments in 2012. Intel's persistent claims that Ultrabooks would account for 40 percent of notebook PC sales by the end of the year would therefore be wildly off; using the same math, Intel was thinking Ultrabooks would account for about 90 million unit sales in 2012.
Market analysis firm NPD remains more bullish on Ultrabooks, claiming they have helped "establish a market for more premium-priced Windows notebooks at retail." Although NPD doesn't offer overall sales figures, it recently claimed Ultrabooks accounted for 11 percent of sale of Windows notebooks priced at $700 or more in the U.S. market from January to May 2012. That's rather a lot of qualifiers, but NPD's point is that, at least in the United States, Ultrabooks are seeing their strongest adoption in the higher end of the notebook PC market.

Of course, put another way, that means 89 percent of high-end Windows notebook sales in the U.S. during the first five months of the year were not Ultrabooks — and basically no Ultrabooks were sold below the $700 price point.
NPD's findings also presaged NPD's and Gartner's latest figures: NPD found that overall market for Windows notebook computers in the United States shrank by 17 percent during the first five months of 2012.
So how could the computing industry have made such a giant miscalculation on Ultrabooks? There seem to be several factors — and which is most important depends on who you ask.
It's the economy!
It's no secret that the U.S. economy is still struggling to recover from recession, which means many consumers have little disposable income and put off major purchases — and that includes things like flashy new computers. Similarly, economic troubles in Europe — where Ireland may be emerging from an austerity program but Greece, Portugal, and Spain are all just getting started — puts a damper on consumer spending. Japan's economy has been struggling for years, and IDC found the broader Asia Pacific PC market (excluding Japan) was flat during the second quarter — the worst its done in years. In other words, many of the major markets for new computers around the world are facing economic pressures that dampen consumers' appetite for new computers.
Initial Ultrabook models likely failed chin-first into economic hard times simply by being expensive. In the United States, NPD's figures highlight the price discrepancy between a traditional Windows notebook and Ultrabooks: NPD found the average market price for a Windows notebook was $510, where the average selling price for Ultrabooks for the first five months of the year was $927. Although Ultrabook prices have dropped during 2012 — dipping to $885 in May — they still remain substantially higher priced than traditional notebook PCs. Someone with $900 to spend on a new computer might consider a new Ultrabook — or consider that they can get a new traditional notebook and an iPad 2 for the same money.
As Intel kicks up production on its latest Ivy Bridge processors, Ultrabook prices should being to fall, with market watchers expecting Ultrabooks to start dipping below the $700 threshold in time for the back-to-school buying season. However, that still represents a roughly 40 percent premium over the cost of a traditional Windows notebook — which might offer a larger, higher-resolution display, more storage, and niceties like an optical drive.
It's Apple!

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