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Opinion: Ultrabook first impressions: Thin is in, and finally practical

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I got my first Ultrabook in yesterday – an Asus Zenbook UX21E-DH71 (don’t get me started on naming). This is the 11.6-inch Intel Core i7 version, and Asus is putting itself on the map with two screen sizes (adding a 13.3-inch), two processors (the i5 and i7), and two SSD configurations (128GB and 256GB). That boils down to a whopping five model numbers. It sounds complex, but remember the iPod comes in two colors, three memory sizes, and two radio configurations, which should equal 12 configurations… but suddenly my head hurts.

The Ultrabook is Intel and Microsoft’s answer near term to the iPad, and it is also likely why Steve Jobs wasn’t a huge fan of Intel at the end. If you were to think that an Ultrabook is basically a MacBook Air running Windows, you’d be close. The hardware specs and prices are on top of each other, at least for these initial Asus products. The difference is, you get a Thunderbolt port on the Air (which can output to DisplayPort and then converted to HDMI Video) and a mini-HDMI port out of the Asus line, and ironically (given Apple’s music focus) the Asus has a better Bang and Olufsen sound system.

Of the Ultrabooks I’ve seen so far, the Asus line looks the closest to the MacBook Air line in terms of lines, but it differs a bit in finishes. In short, this is one of the thinnest and nicest Ultrabooks on the market, including the Air, but with prices ranging from just under $1,000 to $1,500 for the top-of-the-line version, it is also one of the most expensive. Upcoming products from others (which aren’t as well turned out) will start closer to $800. Typically, it is easier to price under Apple than on top.


I’ve only had this for a few hours as I write this, but as with all SSD-based products, boot and suspend time on this laptop are fast. The power supply on this product is very small, and weighs in around 6 ounces. But I’d prefer a version that had more battery life and a larger screen, suggesting I’d like the 13.3-inch version of this product a bit better (it has two more hours of better battery life, too). While the i7 in this product is nicer than an i5, given this is a very small product, it is likely more than adequate. Trading off the i7 down to an i5 while shifting to a larger screen with a larger battery drops the estimated price about $100.

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The advantage to an 11.6-inch product is that it will fit in many purses. Since I’m clearly (as far as I know) not in that demographic, this advantage had my wife drooling over this 11.6-inch product more than I did. Since I regularly travel with laptops, my preference is full-size video ports, because then I can use standard cables to connect to the TVs in hotel rooms. (Though, I must admit, on my last several trips I just watched Netflix off of the screen). The wireless TV options have all, so far, been more trouble to travel with than a cable, so the fact that none of the Ultrabooks has this as an option yet isn’t missed.

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I don’t miss the lack of an optical drive anymore either, and have one portable drive for the rare occasion that I have to load something from disk. Most everything is downloadable now. I’ve also noticed over this last year that even though the notebooks I carry are getting lighter, my backpack isn’t. This suggests the laptop isn’t my biggest weight problem, it is the tendency to put everything but the kitchen sink in my backpack. Now I’m looking for something smaller that will help me avoid that tendency.

Suggested improvements

I actually love (go figure) this new Ultrabook. But I can see some areas where improvement is needed. I don’t like to have to use dongles, and would prefer a full-sized HDMI port. While the power supply is tiny, it doesn’t have the same attention to quality as the rest of the product (not an uncommon problem with both Macs and Windows products) and likely could be much thinner and flatter. I’d also like to see about twice the battery life. I would even accept a higher carry weight and a bit more thickness to get it, that way I could leave the power supply in my room or in the office in the first place. Finally, I’d really love to see a screen that worked better outdoors, because a light laptop like this is more likely to go outside with me. The screens on virtually all shipping laptops (outside of those built for the military) wash out in the outdoors. As is, this product represents a strong alternative for those who like the Air but want Windows. With some small tweaks, it could actually be better than the Air, and I’ll bet we will see products shortly that are.

Ready for showtime

Other than that, thin is in. I’ll report on other products as they come to market. Asus is actually kicking a little butt here. The Zenbooks would form an impressive line from a tier one vendor, so they represent an outstanding line from a tier two.

The first generation of Ultrabooks also seems to avoid the growing pains that initially hobbled the Air. When the MacBook Air came out it was a crippled product, using a 1.6GHz processor that immediately throttled down to 800MHz to keep the product from melting or ironing your leg (initial products ran incredibly hot). This current generation (from all vendors including Apple), isn’t crippled anymore. That makes them an acceptable alternative to a larger notebook, particularly because they won’t burn your legs anymore.

And just like that, suddenly I’m an Ultrabook fan.

Guest contributor Rob Enderle is the founder and principal analyst for the Enderle Group, and one of the most frequently quoted tech pundits in the world. Opinion pieces denote the opinions of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Digital Trends.

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