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Intel Ultrabook: Right Time, Wrong Product

By - Source: Tom's Hardware US | B 16 comments

Perhaps it is just me, but I find Intel's ultrabook pitch somewhat confusing. Is this an evolution of the notebook, is it a replacement for the netbook or is it a targeted alternative to tablets?

I have to admit that I am writing this article from a distance and I don't know much more than you do, if you have read those reports coming out of Computex in Taiwan. I am talking about ultrabooks, which are defined by Intel as a new mainstream notebook, but seems to be generally seen by media as a netbook replacement - or at least as a product category that is created to soften the fall of the netbook.

Intel says the ultrabook is a new class of a computer, which will be less than 0.8 inches thick and cost less than $1000. It may be a slight exaggeration to call a thinner notebook a new class of a computer, but there is some hardware horsepower behind these devices that will come out with Ivy Bridge in 2012 (the first ultrabooks may be unveiled with Sandy Bridge) and feature 22 nm processors as well as a chipset that will combine Thunderbolt and USB 3.0. The 2013 Haswell may enable notebook makers to actually build what Intel has in mind with the ultrabook and reduce the power consumption of today's notebooks by 50%.

The ultrabook certainly hits the core of the mobile computing market and Intel expects that 40% of all notebooks sold in 2012 will be ultrabooks. However, I can't help but be disappointed by the vision behind these devices. For as long as we have had a serious effort behind mainstream and performance notebooks, which really started in 1996 when Intel began putting Pentium MMX processors into ridiculously expensive and heavy notebooks, it has always been about thinner, lighter and more battery. As excited as Intel may be about this new name, I am wondering how excited the market can be, if it is told that there will be thinner notebooks for less than $1000?

The more I thought about "ultrabooks", the more I was convinced that Intel may be screwing itself with this new "category" name. I made a few phone calls and asked friends what computer they would envision if someone told them about the purchase of an ultrabook. There were two general answers - one that went in the direction into a subnotebook that is "much smaller than a netbook" and one that was going toward a luxury notebook with "super fast" performance. No answer was even close to Intel's definition and none suggested a "mainstream notebook class". It was particularly interesting to notice that those 10 people I called had no immediate idea what an ultrabook could be. The definition of "ultra", by the way, as given by, is: Going beyond what is usual or ordinary; excessive; extreme. You tell me what is extreme about a thin mainstream notebook.

Given the implications of the iPad, which I still believe is an Apple-specific product with little opportunity for a general tablet market, aren't we are ready for a much more risky product and a step that truly changes the way we interface with computers? Is a simply thinner notebook enough or should we think about those interface technologies that have been invented and matured over the past years? You can't tell me that touch screens do not work in an evolved notebook in some way and I just don't buy that the general form factor of a notebook, half keyboard and half screen, will stay with us forever. Is there any PC company that is willing to make a bold step forward? Granted, Intel has only limited influence on PC designs and Intel's own design effort have not been exactly successful, but where is the innovation that would lead us beyond the iPad - and to a true ultrabook? Do we have to wait for Apple to make that move?

Intel also showed prototype tablets and MeeGo netbooks based on its Atom processors and Atom SoCs. There is a considerable effort inside Intel to ramp up its presence especially in the tablet space, but it is not a secret that the general enthusiasm for netbooks is much more subdued than it was a few months ago and the flops of the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the Motorola Xoom and the Blackberry Playbook ("flops" would refer to a failure to achieve sales numbers that could be seen by Apple as threat to the iPad) have caused the PC industry to review its tablet approach. We may actually find that the future of the PC tablet is not an iPad copycat, but an evolutionary stage that combines traditional PC talents with the most recent progress made in interface technology. The ultrabook may be the right name for such a product, but what Intel describes as an ultrabook is not what I would be looking for in an ultrabook. If the ultrabook will be what Intel says it will be, then it will simply be another thin & light notebook and (sorry) a waste of a great name for the next generation of mobile computers.

Am I too harsh? Possibly. But I feel that we have had our fair share of netbook form factors that lacked actual innovation in the 7- to 10-inch segment and thinner and lighter notebooks is just what we expect anyway. If I was really mean, I could say that the Intel ultrabook class is already a step behind Apple's Macbook Air design, which undercuts the Intel reference idea with a maximum height of just 0.68 inches. In that view, the prefix "ultra" is generally used in the sense of implying a state well beyond what we perceive to be normal. The problem is that an ultrabook will be just a newer, but "normal" notebook. A sub-$1000 price point is also not too encouraging for these mainstream ultrabooks, as we would be truly looking for sub-$700 prices in this category.

Intel repeated in Taiwan its intention to accelerate the Atom processor roadmap. History shows that once Intel got its strategy in order and lined up its R&D armies, it became incredibly strong and eventually beat its competition. With its manufacturing power backing its processor development, we should be seeing a fierce processor war with ARM and strong innovation. Oak Trail certainly isn't the Atom chip that will win the championship for Intel and the upcoming Cedar Trail may only be a warning shot for ARM, while the 22 nm chip generation should reveal a much more competitive Intel and a strong case why Intel chips are an option for tablet makers, especially if Intel can merge the chip family with the Core family and share certain features between the two families. The resulting product category could have been an ultrabook - much more than the described ultrabook today.

Ultrabook sounds right for the time and an "ultra" book would be exactly what PC makers need to relight the passion for mobile PCs. I would envision ultrabooks to be affordable touch screen computers with typical PC characteristics such as a compact physical keyboard and a software ecosystem built around it. Back in 2007, when Intel heavily defended the future of the UMPC (ultra mobile PC) and I questioned the future not just of the UMPC, but also its hope to establish the MID (mobile Internet Device) as a mass market device, I wondered whether someone should ask Apple for help to design the MID. I would ask the same question today again. Should we ask Apple for help to create an ultrabook?

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  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , June 3, 2011 6:32 PM
    Do something with the power consumption :)  I want to us my ntbk whole day without recharging. Still have ntbk from Asus, and battery lastst only 1:30 hour.
  • 7 Hide
    clonazepam , June 3, 2011 6:33 PM
    Ultra to me suggests massive battery life above the current offerings, higher resolution, lighter in weight, more processing power and ram. Never does it invoke the thought of it being thinner.
  • 6 Hide
    aaronzz , June 3, 2011 6:45 PM
    To be considered an ultrabook, it needs to be very fast with a very good battery. Everybody knows that batteries are late for the party and it will need lots of research to catch the evolution of computers and tablets.
  • Display all 16 comments.
  • 2 Hide
    dapneym , June 3, 2011 7:08 PM
    Don't we essentially have this already in the form of the MacBook Air? It gets around seven hours of battery life and is 0.68 inches thick at its thickest. Granted it's not principally a Windows machine, but still, it's not like this is a new idea. The Windows PC manufacturers could already do this too if they tried. The only real difference between what the MacBook Air is and an ultrabook is price. Even there the Macbook Air technically falls under the category since it starts at $999 here in the US (granted if I were to get one, I'd probably want something larger than 13 inches). The point is, I just don't see anything particularly new or special about ultrabooks versus what is currently possible.

    zekkDo something with the power consumption I want to us my ntbk whole day without recharging. Still have ntbk from Asus, and battery lastst only 1:30 hour.

    I am curious, is it that hard to type out "netbook?"
  • 0 Hide
    wintermint , June 3, 2011 7:18 PM
    Intel's version of Macbook Air?
  • 1 Hide
    billj214 , June 3, 2011 7:22 PM
    I personally think the Asus Eee Pad transformer should be a new PC segment called Ultra Portable.
    You can use it like a tablet or with keyboard like a laptop and if they made a desk dock it will work more like a home PC connected to a full size keyboard and mouse.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , June 3, 2011 7:36 PM
    Thin as a tablet, deep as a PC. You forgot to mention about the new features of the ultrabook.

    New features, the ultra Books could start as a new subset of PCs, include Smart Connect and Rapid Start. Smart Connect, according to Intel is a new form of update to the web sites such as Twitter and Facebook and also works when the computer is idle. Rapid Start uses on-board flash memory to speed boot-up times to a few seconds. Even if the computer is off and no battery, it will remember the programs and data that are opened when it was switched off were.
  • 3 Hide
    td854 , June 3, 2011 7:55 PM
    dawaveRapid Start uses on-board flash memory to speed boot-up times to a few seconds. Even if the computer is off and no battery, it will remember the programs and data that are opened when it was switched off were.

    This is pretty much just Hibernate with flash memory, and we all know how long Hibernate has been around, it's not really anything new.
  • 0 Hide
    alidan , June 3, 2011 8:10 PM
    half keyboard half screen?

    what? you want the keyboard on screen?

    qualify that, tell us what would be the next step in evolving what it possibly the best design?
  • 1 Hide
    AMD_pitbull , June 4, 2011 12:28 AM
    Sorry, but, there's nothing revolutionary here. I applaud them for thinking that a name change is a completely different category, but, Call a Dodge Charger with a lighter body a Dodge Mega Capacitor, and it's still a Charger. As previously commented, I'd love to see battery life extended in laptops. THAT would be something worth getting. And, no, I don't mean surfing the web, basic word processing, I mean a gaming style laptop that could last a good 6-8 hours while gaming. I know the video card companies have to step-up Power efficiency, but, AMD's already on it's way. Intel: Give me a laptop that has a decent quad-core power, and 5770 Graphics (atleast) with an average of 7hrs+ battery life while being used, and you'll have a great product. Until then, just like in the graphics category, you're just playing catch-up.
  • 0 Hide
    eddieroolz , June 4, 2011 5:15 AM
    There was a time I considered slimming down, even though I used a tiny (by consumer standards) laptop measuring 14.1". For me it was mostly centered on weight savings as well as battery life - while offering an experience not too different from a usual laptop (read: not netbook). Indeed, carrying a 15.6" one makes me wish that I could have this power in a 11" or 12" form factor.

    So I don't think that it's a wrong time for this. It's leaps and bounds better than netbooks. They feature a laptop-grade processor, more RAM and better experience overall than netbooks.

    However, the only thing that can strike this concept down is the price. Less than $1000 sounds acceptable, but for many university students the price needs to be closer to $500.
  • 1 Hide
    JOSHSKORN , June 4, 2011 5:35 AM
    As far as I'm concerned, "Ultra-notebook" should be lightweight, thinner, and yes, it should play Crysis. Additionally, battery life should be much, much better. That is, be able to last at LEAST an entire day without being plugged in AND/OR find an alternative power source. Whatever that is, solar, artificial light, whatever. This would be great for students that take their "ultra-notebooks" to class and have to use them all day without the availability of an outlet.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , June 5, 2011 6:04 AM
    I like the concept of ultrabooks. The first ones based on Sandy Bridge will be around $1000, but price should come down with Ivy Bridge, then further with Haswell as battery life and SSD increases too. Intel VP Sean Maloney expects ultrabooks to be under $600 in 2013 with Haswell. Battery life should be around 10 hours by then. It's the SSD that is a big factor in the price right now for the Asus UX21. Yes, Macbook Airs have been around awhile, and yes Ultrabooks are basically a copy, but the name is more for marketing and to create a set of expectations and attributes to set this product apart from others (e.g. Centrino was a great marketing tool; same with netbooks). I expect all Ultrabooks to have SSD, and they "should" have touch screen interfaces as well as the other features mentioned (rapid start, higher security, always on, best in class graphics and performance, multiple OSes and seemless interconnectivity between devices USB 3, etc and probably thunderbolt) that are mentioned in the slides David Perlmutter showed at the Investment presentation a couple of weeks ago. I think Intel has Windows 8 in mind for them also, which seem to be a faster and smoother touch friendly GUI. Ultrabooks are not supposed to be netbooks replacements, since obviously, Intel is putting a lot of effort into ramping Atom chip evolution. We will still see netbooks (unless sales continue to tank), desktop replacements (probably with HDD+SSD Smart Response Technology caching in the future) and budget laptops (with HDD only) alongside ultrabooks. Hopefully, Intel will kill off CULV and avoid putting these overpriced/underpowered chips in ultrabooks.
  • 0 Hide
    fir_ser , June 6, 2011 11:09 PM
    Good article Wolfgang Gruener and the ideas that you have discussed are interesting.
    I’m interested to see were the Ultrabook will be in 2012 with Ivy Bridge and in 2013 with Haswell.
  • 0 Hide
    fir_ser , June 6, 2011 11:15 PM
    I believe for the current generation of Ultrabooks Intel intends ULV Sandy Bridge processors.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , October 24, 2011 2:08 PM
    I think you have it all wrong. The notion of a laptop was that it is portable, which none of the previous gen laptops were. They were all bulky, heavy and thick. I haven't used my DVD drve which comes with the laptop along, for more than one year.
    These requirements need to be revisited. This is the future. Plug in whatever device you want or carry them extra. But the basic laptop to be carrie to a bar or just around the house or on travel needs to be light. 1 KG is will come. 1.3 is already good.
    You seem to have taken for granted our present definition of laptops and defined ultraoboks on that. The present day laptops need to be destroyed completely.