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Intel: On Top In This Space, For Now

Second-Generation Ultrabooks: Faster And Cheaper With Ivy Bridge

Although Ivy Bridge is a "tick" in Intel's tick-tock manufacturing cadence, the company calls it a "tick-plus" due to the extreme changes that found their way into its HD Graphics 4000 engine, affecting the outcome of today's story more than we might have expected from a mere "tick" in the past. The performance of Core i5-3427U's x86 cores receive a small boost, sure, but it's really the integrated graphics engine that shines most brightly, particularly in the strict bounds of a 17 W thermal ceiling. The effectiveness of fixed-function logic means that Intel's Quick Sync feature is just as effective as what you'll find on the desktop, and HD Graphics 4000 makes it possible to see playable frame rates in mainstream titles like World of Warcraft.

Naturally, if you're in the market for a compact notebook, an Ivy Bridge-based Ultrabook has to be on your short list. An Apple MacBook Air with a third-gen Core i5 and 13-inch screen starts at $1200. Its 1440x900 panel boasts a higher resolution than some Ultrabooks, and a lower resolution than others. But we've seen some particularly impressively-equipped Ultrabooks with better specs at lower prices than Apple's best effort. We're not certain if Intel is right in its postulation that this year's Ultrabooks will go mainstream, but smart buyers will almost assuredly find cheaper solutions on the PC side.

Much of the Ultrabook initiative's success will, not surprisingly, come down to what Intel charges for its processors. The Core i5-2467M in our Acer S3-951 Ultrabook is listed at $250. Today, you can get that same CPU with a 240 GB SSD and a 13.3" LCD under the same Acer model name for less than $800. That's pretty compelling. 

Now, consider that the Core i5-3427U is listed for $225, cheaper than the -2467M. More performance and a lower price? Hopefully, this is evidence that Intel is trying to push the barrier to entry for its Ultrabooks lower than the prior generation.

I think it's clear that the real sweet spot for an Ultrabook, particularly given pressure from notably less expensive tablets, is under $1000. Maybe it's more like $700 or $800 where road warriors think to themselves that it's worth spending an extra few hundred dollars to get performance more similar to the desktop PC they use at home rather than the smartphone in their pocket. 

It's almost too easy to forget that Intel wins in any case. Buy Apple. Buy HP. Buy Dell. Buy Samsung. They all have Intel CPUs in them. According to the company's roadmap, Haswell will be the architecture that goes beyond mainstream to make Ultrabook the de facto definition of what it means to buy a notebook.

Of course, that's if AMD has nothing to say about Intel's blitzkrieg. Although the company has no Ultrabook-like challenger, its Trinity-based APUs debuted a couple of months back, and we've already seen evidence of a 17 W incarnation. We've seen higher-wattage mobile and desktop chips based on the Trinity design that obliterate Intel's graphics performance. Can the company scale down in the CULV space to do the same thing? All eyes are on AMD for some indication of when we might see retail configurations sporting its Piledriver/VLIW4-based single-chip solution.

Until then, Intel enjoys uncontested dominance in the space that its Ultrabooks target. Sure, it still has to stave off tablets underneath and more potent notebooks above. But as the Ivy Bridge architecture reaches across a broader market than Sandy Bridge, we expect Ultrabooks to put more pressure on both bounds of its $800-$1200 price band.

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