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Intel Leads the Charge
Sometimes the creation of new terms is somewhat organic. The term “netbook" was one adopted by the press without a lot of pushing an prodding, and other terms like laptop and notebook are used interchangeably.
Ultrabook, however, is being pushed by a very specific and important backer: Intel. The company first started pushing the ultrabook term in 2011 by way of press release. The company intends for the early entries into this new class of laptop to be available before the end of this year. ASUS has already shown a working example, called the UX21, which should be one of the first models on the market.
Pricing is targeted at under $1000, which says a lot about the intended market of these laptops. Intel is not as interested in trying to sell as many laptops as possible at the lowest prices possible, because that pressures manufacturers to ask for lower prices on the company’s parts. However, as production becomes more refined it’s projected that ultrabooks will eventually hit a price point of around $600.
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Going Tablet Thin
The inspiration for this new class of laptop is a combination of the netbook and the tablet. Small, mobile devices like the iPad have clearly shown that there is a class of useful mobility beyond that of an ultraportable laptop, and while it’s unlikely that tablets could ever vanquish laptops entirely, they could do damage to the market if left unanswered.
Ultrabooks respond by drastically cutting the size and weight of laptops. Intel’s specifications call for ultrabooks to be no thicker than 20mm, or .8 inches. Although there are no specifics about a barrier on weight, the ASUS UX21 weighs in at 2.4 pounds.
Although Intel was not so blatant, it’s clear the company is hoping that it can dissuade consumers from buying tablets by offering a class of laptop that’s close to them in size and weight. The thought is that consumers do not buy tablets because they despise keyboards or even Windows, but because they want a sexy, thin, light device.
Intel also wants to match tablets on battery life, as shown in a slide from Intel that calls for life of over 10 hours or better. This slide does note, however, that this is a projection for products sold in 2013, and not a target Intel is looking to meet immediately.
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Cramming 10 hours of battery life into such a small laptop is no easy task. A smaller chassis leaves less room for batteries, which in turn means less life. Apple’s MacBook Air 11 is the perfect example – it loses battery life compared to its 13" sibling.
You might think Atom would be the proposed solution, but it’s not. You see, Intel has never much liked Atom’s popularity. It’s an inexpensive part, which means there isn’t much profit to be made off it. In addition to this, it’s slow. Intel doesn’t want consumers to buy Intel powered products and feel as if the performance is lackluster.
These new laptops will instead be powered by the company’s Ivy Bridge processors, which are the next revision of the Sandy Bridge architecture, die-shrunk to 22mm. Slated for release in late 2011, these new processors are not only a die-shrink but also will be taking advantage of Intel’s new 3D transistor technology, which in theory will drastically reduce power consumption.
What this means is that ultrabooks, despite their small size, won’t be giving up a great deal of performance. Make no mistake – compared to their Ivy Bridge relatives, the low-voltage versions that will end up in laptops like the UX21 are going to be substantially slower. However, Intel’s mainstream microarchitectures have become so quick that they’ll still blow away older Intel products and, most likely, anything AMD can offer by the end of the year.
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The Big Picture
In the short term, it is unlikely that this new class of mobile PC will be able to keep up with tablets when it comes to size and weight. Obviously the ASUS UX21, despite being tiny by PC standards, is over twice as thick and about twice as heavy as an iPad 2. Consumers will notice that difference.
However, there’s obviously a lower bound to the size and weight of tablets. A device can’t weigh less than nothing or have negative girth. As Intel develops its processors it will be possible to make smaller devices, thus placing them closer to tablets in size and weight.
Predicting how well these ultrabooks will sell compared to tablets is difficult, as it depends on developments in the fields of processor, battery and display technology. Still, this seems to be a decent gamble by Intel, and one that will at the very least result in some thin, attractive and functional laptops.
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All images are from Intel press materials