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Ultrabook: Behind How Intel is Remaking Mobile Computing

Slimming Down: The Components Were Key

It comes back to the stack. Three years ago, a 9 mm hard drive and a 7 mm screen and a thick battery and so on inevitably added up to a 35 mm notebook. Intel had to examine each item in the stack and come up with a plan for how the manufacturers could downsize their designs such that the end result was a notebook that slipped in under 20 mm. (The original “Huron River” spec in 2011 called for 18 mm on units with 13.3” and smaller displays; the “Shark Bay” spec for 2013 raises this to 23 mm while mandating better battery life, I/O technologies, resume time, and so on.)

Thickness matters. Consumer taste trends on portable devices only go in one direction.

As an example, hard drives had to slim down to 7 mm and are now hitting 5 mm. Manufacturers already had 7 mm drives, but because of their lower volume, each drive added about $10 to the bill of materials (BOM), or about $20 after passing through all of the middlemen en route to the retail shelf. Ultimately, thin components would add roughly $200 to each Ultrabook’s sticker price. Intel had to convince each manufacturer involved to revamp its efforts, work to minimize all possible power draw, and trust that future rewards would justify the up-front investments.

“We just went from component guy to component guy to component guy, and then we held a symposium in Taiwan,” says DeLine. “We brought everybody together, right? And it’s powerful when you see a room filled with 200 folks. You go, ‘Oh, there’s my competitor! Oh, there’s the display guy and the hard drive and memory guys!’ We had our OEMs show up. It was a multi-day symposium where we said, ‘Hey, this is real. We’re serious about this. Look at the commitment we’re getting from all of you guys by getting you in a room together.’ We’ve now done that symposium a couple of times.”

Lo and behold, somehow, miraculously (or maybe not so miraculously when hundreds of millions of dollars are in the mix), the Ultrabook effort took root. In February 2013, industry analysis firm iSupply predicted that “shipments of Ultrabooks and ultrathins in 2013 will climb to a 28 percent share of the total mobile PC space, up from just 9 percent last year.” iSupply sees several factors fueling this trend. Prices are dropping from well over $1000 down into even the $600 range for entry-level models, thanks in part to falling NAND prices. Also, Ultrabooks are getting sexier as they increasingly gravitate to the convertible design paradigm. “In fact, all major PC vendors showed convertible PCs with tablet-like features at the CES booth of chipmaker Intel” last January, notes iSupply.

And now, of course, we have Intel’s latest CPU architecture, Haswell.