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Ultrabook: Behind How Intel is Remaking Mobile Computing

Hello, Metro

In 2007, buzz was already building around the forthcoming MacBook Air, but Intel had some plans of its own, just as a means of goosing the industry into motion. In May of that year, the company showed off a proof of concept design called Mobile Metro. The notebook measured only 17 mm thick—less than today’s Ultrabook spec—and weighed 2.25 lbs. Done up in a champagne-toned magnesium alloy with LG-like dark chocolate interior, the Metro was a sexy machine and decidedly un-Intel.

One of Metro’s biggest conversation points was its magnetically-attached folder, presaging the Microsoft Surface by—what? Four years? Five? The folder contained a color E-ink display and charged from the laptop through the magnetic connection. Tech-minded ladies could have their pick of colors and attach a strap to carry the Metro like a purse. In hindsight, this was one of many “wearable computing” concepts that was either woefully misguided or terribly premature, depending on your viewpoint, but it still illustrated that ultra-thin computing could be and perhaps should be stylish.

The Mobile Metro never went into production, so we’ll never know if it would have lived up to its claims of supporting EV-DO, WiMax, NAND flash storage (as the Air would months later), and 14 hours of battery runtime, which now seems ridiculously optimistic. But the point of Metro and everything Intel had pushing behind it was never to sell a product. It was meant to inspire.

So...was anyone (besides Apple) inspired? Perhaps. More likely, they were impressed by the splash made by the MacBook Air. By CeBIT 2009 (February), Asus and MSI were among the first PC OEMs to announce ultrathin designs based on Intel’s “CULV” (consumer ultra-low voltage) platform, followed by Acer, HP, and others later in the year. All told, Intel boasted of having about 20 CULV designs. Few of these actually made it to the U.S. MSI’s X-Slim X320 was based on the Intel Atom Z520—the same Atom series that famously bombed in netbooks due to underwhelming performance.

Arguably the best of these early 2009 models was Dell’s Adamo. The Adamo measured a mere 0.65-inch thick. The Adamo XPS that followed in September 2009 slimmed down to an almost unbelievable 0.39-inch and featured a very significant departure in its hinge design. The keyboard embedded within the display’s bezel when folded up. This was the first CULV-based tweaking of the traditional clamshell. With a 1.4 GHz Core 2 Duo ULV processor, the unit was advertised as achieving more than five hours of battery life, and, in a time before the touch revolution, the keyboard latch released through capacitive touch. Remember that the iPad wouldn’t arrive until 2010, leaving the “convertible” concept still well in the future.

The Dell Adamo XPS.

Great as these CULV models looked and felt, though, no one was buying them. The Adamo XPS retailed for a crippling $1800. Dell killed off the line in March 2010, revived it briefly (and inexplicably), then killed it off again later in the year. By this time, the enthusiasm for netbooks was already waning as people figured out just how cramped and underpowered they really were.

Intel’s efforts at a mobility revolution were bleeding and on the ropes.