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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.

It’s worth noting that Intel has almost certainly optimized its drivers for this specific demo and, in addition, we don’t know the details of the graphics settings used (though Intel says it used the same graphics settings on both systems). Still, this demo shows significant improvement over the current HD 4000 IGP.

There was another interesting video technology on display, though only briefly – Smart Frame. It is meant to address the fact that laptops and tablets work best with different bezel sizes. On a laptop a small bezel is desirable, but a moderate bezel is required on a tablet to provide a grip-able surface. Smart Frame resolves this by using driver trickery to automatically switch between a 13.3-inch and 11.6-inch effective display size. We suspect the technology simply under-scans the display and ignores touch at the display’s borders, but Intel has so far remained secretive about Smart Frame’s specifics.

Other features shown by the Haswell reference Ultrabook have less to do with technology than they do with business. Intel has mandated that 4th-generation Ultrabooks must have a touchscreen to earn the moniker – so it was no surprise to see that the reference design shown this year was a convertible rather than a clamshell. Also mandatory is Intel Wireless Display, an existing technology that lets users extend a laptop’s picture to a monitor or HDTV via an HDMI doggle.

Making this a requirement will encourage the development of convertibles and premium laptops but may also prevent prices from falling too far. Intel proudly stated that it wants touchscreen models to sell for $599, which is about $200 less than today’s cheapest touchscreen models – but not any less than today’s entry-level Ultrabooks.

Haswell won’t be out until mid-year. When it does arrive, however, we’ll see a wave of 4th-gen ultrabooks that expand on current strengths. Many models will be convertibles that offer thickness and battery life to rival ARM-powered tablets. Overall performance will improve, as well, mostly notable in graphics – an important extra. Intel HD4000 is adequate for many games, but only at 720p, and most ultrabooks are moving on to 1600×900 or 1080p displays. And while the Ultrabooks sold later this year may not be cheaper, they should offer more of everything for the same price.

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