The Argument For Ultrabooks

Posted on 31 October 2011 By


In this article I put a case forward for the Ultrabook. It follows a similar article in which I put forward an argument against the Ultrabook. You can’t say we’re not assessing all angles on Utrabooknews!

The Ultrabook project, a three-stage plan by Intel to change they way that laptops are designed and manufactured, is now producing its first products and already we’re seeing combinations of weight, price and power that have never been seen in the industry before; Truly ground-breaking notebooks. Early reviews have been very good and despite the expensive changes in design and manufacturing, the price points are competitive.

I’ll talk more about todays Ultrabook products further on in this article but first lets talk about why the Ultrabook project, over 3 years, is advantageous for everyone.

More important than the initial products is the massive change that is being asked of the laptop industry to move to ultra-efficient electronic designs [the battery companies are going to hate this part of the equation. Environmentalists will love it.], sealed unit and single board production by choosing and tightly integrating components and processes. As the change in the laptop continues the result will be advantages for all parts of the industry – a move towards solid state storage, smaller batteries, lower part counts and lower shipping weights. Windows 8 will combine to bring a scenario where the laptop covers a wider range of usage scenarios than ever before. Style included – Dont forget that very important style element for the mature markets.

Smartphones and tablets have simplified and added fun to the process of dealing with email. Apps have made the weather forecast a one-click process. Tablets have brought casual-gaming to a new level and left the netbook looking boring, old, heavy and slow. 60 seconds to boot, 10 seconds to fire-up the application and another 10 seconds to get the browser, email or twitter application up-to-date. The low-end casual laptop is dead for many in the advanced markets and its likely to die a quick death.

As mobile, always-on products and operating systems improve and as the developer community invests more time and money in creating quality apps, the need for a PC undeniably diminishes but the need for powerfull processing power and high-quality apps doesnt. The laptop needs to re-invent itself within the next 5 years to compete against maturing mobile operating systems and ARM based platforms and also the lower production cost of these low-power, single board, sealed systems.

Ultrabook, as a project, is the right thing for designers, manufacturers and customers, but do the first wave of devices compete against the existing mainstream devices that come in at cheaper levels. What customers should think about buying Ultrabooks today.

To understand what you really get in a 2011 Ultrabook you need to think about a perfect balance of power, weight, style and price for the mainstream laptop user. While a HP DM1 might look great value, once you add in the Ultrabook features, you’re up to the cost of a low-end Ultrabook and if you need more processing power, you can’t reach into Core i5 or Core i7 territory. Similarly when you look at lightweight Core i5 laptops, they may have a higher clocked mobile CPU but they are using computing platforms that can sap a 50Wh battery flat in a hot 2 hours. The weight and size cost is considerable too. You’ll be looking at  1lb of extra weight in nearly all cases for very little real-world processing or battery life gain.

The Ultrabook slots in just above the tablet and replaces the netbook and desktop with a device that takes style, efficiency, access speed into the design and adds high-end features that have never before appeared in laptops at this price. Yes, I mentioned desktop replacement. For a significant percentage of desktop users, the Ultrabook will be a satisfactory, and way more stylish and portable choice.

Ultrabook features (2011)

  • Processing power rises to 10x the processing power found on a netbook (or high-end Android or iPad tablet) This isn’t high-end processing power but its a comfortable level for many people and with the addition of fast SSD storage the feel of the device is faster and smoother than higher power devices that don’t run on SSDs. The power of the SSD can not be understated so if you are comparing Ultrabook alternatives, factor in the cost of an SSD upgrade if needed.
  • Video decoding and encoding hardware is included. Granted you’ll find this on any Intel Core platform in 2011 but encoding is not something found on netbooks and on nearly all tablets. It allows for extremely fast, low-power video conversion (for handheld devices for example) and speedier video editing for the average customer.
  • Real-time video enhancement processing for enhanced on-screen or external screen viewing.
  • Turbo-boost overclocking by using fine-grain thermal management.
  • Low-power 800Mhz mode lowers the dynamic range of the Ultrabook to enhance battery life but retains ‘netbook plus’ performance. This mode is perfect for the traveler and writer.
  • On-die 3D graphics solution offers gaming experience.
  • Built-in security token hardware – exclusive to Ultrabooks. [Check models, web sites for evidence of support first though - we remain unconvinced that all models have this in 2011.]
  • Fast SSD storage dramatically increases boot, resume and application start-up time while lowering power, increasing ruggedness and lowering noise levels.
  • Intel Insider capability for trusted streaming of high-value video content. [Also blocking screen buffer captures we understand!]
Regarding battery life, be careful. The Ultrabook is a high-dynamic range machine that can run at anything between 2 and 8 hours depending on usage scenarios. Make sure you compare battery life in like-for-like scenarios. FOr the weight class, the Ultrabook is likely to deliver the best battery life per pound/kilo.

Optional features to look for in your Ultrabook comparisons

  • USB 3.0
  • Sleep and Charge powered USB ports when the Ultrabook is off.
  • Wireless display for 1080p and digital audio
  • Backlit, splashproof keyboard
  • Smart-connect
  • Thin-bezel, high brightness  and wide-viewing angle screens
  • Panel self-refresh (saves power)

Expect to see all the ports you need too. HDMI, a couple of USB ports, memory card slot and even full size VGA and ethernet ports on some. Take the Toshiba Z830 for example. A 13″ screen with full-size ports and a weight of 2.2lb. The pre-order price in Europe is just €999 (a pre tax price of about $1000-$1100 in the USA) is class beating. (And it’s the device that this author has his eye on.)

Don’t forget that very important design too. Ultrabooks are thin and stylish. After spending time with one, even the thinner notebooks look clunky and with weights going down to a netbook-beating 2.2lb / 1KG they are extremely light to carry. Even a 3lb device is noticeably heavier.

If you’re looking for an ultra-portable laptop now, start with the Ultrabooks because they get the balance right across a wide spectrum of requirements.

In mid-2012 you’ll see more

  • Big increase in 3D power and capability through a redesigned on-die graphics unit on the Ivy Bridge platform
  • Thunderbolt in many new designs and USB 3.0 in most designs
  • Anti-theft features
  • More sensor support (GPS or example)
  • Lower power consumption (estimated 20%, about an hour more battery life)
  • Lower platform cost
  • Alternative designs with touchscreens.
  • Windows 8 to further improve efficiency, improve user-interface dynamics and widen usage scenarios.

The 2012 Ultrabook is for those that can wait. Competition will be higher, prices lower and you’ll get more performance and features for less money.

In 2013

Performance and efficiency improvements with the Haswell platform could lead to…

  • Fan-off designs
  • Always-on
  • The possibility of Ultraslate tablets.
A note on the Apple MacBook Air: The MacBook Air is a great example of an Ultrabook-like design and is a valid option in this space. It led the way, to the Ultrabook [you can be sure that Intel helped with the design on the MBA and learnt a lot from it.] For those that are happy with OS X (which is very well optimised for the platform) we would recommend the MBA.

Over the next 3 years, $300 million will be invested in improving components in the Ultrabook ecosystem. Millions of dollars in marketing assistance will flow from Intel too. At the end of that period one can assume that Ultrabook design traits will have leaked into lower-cost segments and across to other silicon manufacturers customers products. Intel will hope that benefits of the Ultrabook project will have brought them in a position where they can start to fight on a level playing field with the new high-power ARM based devices running Windows 8

Related – A few years ago I wrote about lock-in elements of ARM-based smartbooks. The Ultrabook project is addressing many of these issues.

With Ultrabooks consumers can be confident they get the best possible power-speed-weight-cost ratio on the market and the thin and stylish design appeals in a totally different way to other notebooks. Prices are starting at $900 today which follows the excellent pricing set by the Mac Book Air this year and represents a huge discount on similar devices of just 12 months previous. Street prices and special offers should hit $800 by Christmas and starting prices for Ivy Bridge devices in 2012 will drop from that point down to $700 [our estimate.]

The Ultrabook offers something for everyone from the device designer, the manufacturers, the retailer  and the end-user.  You can compare non-Ultrabook alternatives, but for this level of style and portability, there are very few real alternatives.

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  1. #1 by Chris on October 31, 2011 - 15:41

    I was unsure about what the whole Ultrabook business was about, but these two articles have opened my eyes and mind to the project.

    Personally I’ve recently re-found the Nokia Booklet 3G (just bare with me) and with a Linux OS it delivers a nice experience. I appreciate the internal SIM slot and the GPS sensor. Not much use for the latter, though, but one can dream.

    I wonder if Ultrabooks will re-launch the inclusion of SIM slots for 3G internet. :) Fingers crossed!

    • #2 by Chippy on October 31, 2011 - 16:22

      The Toshiba Z830 will come with an hsdpa option.

  2. #3 by Michael on October 31, 2011 - 15:57

    Chippy, come on, don’t exaggerate. I open my browser on my netbook in 1 second and my Office documents in no more than 2 seconds, definitely not the 10 seconds you claim.

    Btw, netbooks weigh about 1.25Kgs, that is the same weight or lighter than an ultrabook. So, why do you say its heavy?

    You say, “FOr the weight class, the Ultrabook is likely to deliver the best battery life per pound/kilo,” but my netbook gives me 8 hours ( with wifi on) and weighs 1.25Kgs. The Acer weighs 1.35Kgs and gives a pathetic 3 hours usage.

  3. #4 by Michael on October 31, 2011 - 16:04

    “Similarly when you look at lightweight Core i5 laptops, they may have a higher clocked mobile CPU but they are using computing platforms that can sap a 50Wh battery flat in a hot 2 hours”

    My $500 Samsung NP350 weighs 1.4Kgs, not more than a 1.35KG ultrabook, its less than 1 inch thick and unlike the sad ultrabooks which usually come with a 35Whr battery, my notebook comes with a 6 Cell 5,900mAh 11.3Vdc 66.67Wh Battery. So, I get much faster speeds with a full blown i3 or i5 and much longer battery hours (I get 7 hours with wifi on) and yet my machine looks sexy and weighs 1.4kgs

    Half the price for a better machine?

    • #5 by Chippy on October 31, 2011 - 16:21

      Theres one ultrabook that comes with a 35wh battery and it weighs 1.1kg. Im not saying that the Samsung is bad, its an excelent option, but you cant compare it to selected Ultrabook specs from different devices. Dont forget to add the cost of the SSD to bring speed levels up to the Ultrabook standard too.

      • #6 by Michael on October 31, 2011 - 17:27

        Does SSD really brings a significant improvement in performance compared to the good old faithful hard disk? Data figures are one thing but can one really see in your day to day tasks and increase in speeds.

        Is there really a substantial ROI (return on investment).

        I have tried both. For most people, there won’t be any substantial improvement in performance.

        At the end of the day, cpu is king. You have a good cpu, everything else has no relevance.

        The hype of SSD’s are like cars. A car manufacturer will come out with a new car saying it can do 0 to 60 in 4.3 seconds, beating the older model which can only do 4.4 seconds.

        When you drive a supercar, unless you are an enthusiast, you can’t really see any visible difference between 4.4 seconds or 4.3 seconds.

        The same with a HDD and SSD with an already fast CPU.

        • #7 by James on November 5, 2011 - 10:55

          It depends what you’re doing, not all tasks rely on the drive performance. So you’ll have to discount anything that runs from RAM for example.

          However, for those tasks that do rely on the main drive then the performance difference is a heck of a lot more than just a split second or two.

          SSD’s provide substantially faster boot and shutdown times, substantially faster seek times, substantially faster small read/write speeds, and the newer fast SSD’s are now offering SATA III (6 Gbps) range performance while hard drives are still stuck in the SATA I range.

          So if you don’t notice a difference then you’re just not doing anything that really uses the SSD.

  4. #8 by Dan on October 31, 2011 - 17:43

    Great counter-article Chippy, thank you!

    I still find myself going back and forth between waiting until next gen, or buying one now. It’s encouraging to hear speculation of a price drop in the next two months for the Christmas season.

    The waiting game can last forever, before you know it, you’re waiting on 3rd generation, or 4th. I would love a touch screen and lower price, but I don’t want to wait another 6 months or more. I’ll give it another two months to see if there’s a price drop. If not, I may be plunking out $1200 for the i5 Lenovo. (really want the orange one, but $1600 is ridiculous).

  5. #9 by Everett on October 31, 2011 - 19:45

    Needed this. So you have done your due diligence and educated us Ultraboook Fanboys so that we can make educated decisions. THANK YOU! THANK YOU THANK YOU!

    Now my guess is, like the netbook, the form factor is a HUGE part of the equation. Many of us bought netbooks not because they were powerful, and certainly not because they were easy to type on. We bought them for portability and battery life and sacrificed on many other factors. We have a similar decision to make here.

    Except here we get an amazing form factor with respectable power and capability. BUT we may have to sacrifice some flexibility and battery life. Now this IS a tough call. So I get all the portability I could ask for along with amazing style and solid power, but I have to sacrifice in other areas.

    I think many of us thought the Ultrabook would be the ULTRA solution with all our favorite things in one great package and price. Well, I guess this will not be the panacea.

    So now I have to decide to buy Gen 1…or wait til Gen 2. Dang, I hate decisions like these!!!!

  6. #10 by yoyoblog on November 1, 2011 - 01:21

    I think your first article was more convincing.
    If I had the money for an ultrabook then I would get a MacBook Air, not a similar priced imitation.

    • #11 by Chippy on November 2, 2011 - 01:25

      Here’s a truth:
      The argument against Ultrabook products was easier to write than the argument for Ultrabooks which included a longer-term view about the Ultrabook ‘project.’

      The biggest issue right now is that the Ultrabook ‘project’ is literally game-changing but the first products are difficult to justify because of price. The process needs time to satisfy a larger percentage of potential laptop customers.

      The good news is that even if sales numbers are zero in 2011, Intel will still be continuing with the project. If you don’t like todays products, the next wave will be launching in 6 months time.

      • #12 by yoyoblog on November 3, 2011 - 07:57

        For me netbooks are too small and too slow and ultrabooks are too expensive.
        If I would need a ultraportable notebook right now I would look for the Lenovo X121e, which has great battery life and a choice of different processors. I could buy two or three of this for the price of one ultrabook.

        • #13 by Chippy on November 3, 2011 - 10:03

          But all the Lenovo x121e models that are cheap, use cpus in the netbook class. Move to core i3 on thr Lenovo, add the SSD and you are at Ultabook price.

    • #14 by James on November 5, 2011 - 11:21

      Imitation is not really accurate because Apple didn’t invent the Ultra Thin and Light laptop and not all Ultrabook makers will be making models that look like the MBA. While companies like Sony have been doing it far longer than Apple has.

      Intel is just creating a specification that helps promote themselves and attempts to turn what has traditionally been a niche market into a more mainstream market.

      Most likely because they want to start competing in the mobile market and need to establish a product category that will separate their mobile product offerings from their higher end offerings. So they’re in it for the long haul.

      While we’re mainly seeing models right now from companies that have never made Ultra Thin and Light systems before. So there’s a learning curve for them and a initial cost for establishing the manufacturing of these Ultrabooks that the first gen models will have to deal with.

      Something that Apple also went through, considering their first attempt at the MBA was a over priced and under performing failure and it’s only the second and third gen models that has been successful.

      So should wait to see what the more experienced manufacturers can offer and/or wait for the 2nd gen models to come out for these inexperienced companies to start getting it right.

      At the very least, introduction of Ivy Bridge should start making it easier for them to keep cost down and start providing better run times.

  7. #15 by bearforce1 on November 1, 2011 - 17:59

    The argument against ultrabooks was far more compelling.

    I think that the manufacturers and Intel have missed the biggest single issue that would get people to buy an Ultrabook and that is battery life. As someone above commented people who have netbooks sacrifice performance for portability and battery life. Consumers who use laptops at home don’t care about thin and light and don’t care about battery cause they are at home. It is the mobile user that will upgrade and the mobile user can only upgrade if the battery life is equivalent of netbooks or better.

    • #16 by Chippy on November 2, 2011 - 01:15

      Personally I think the home user is more influenced by style (in the target markets for 2011/2012 Ultrabooks) than we might imagine and I think that will become an important market for Ultrabooks in 2012.
      For mobility, yes, we want more battery life but the tradeoff is harsh. Size and weight increases.
      We have to remember that this platform is incredibly efficient but the only way to improve battery life without slowing down the speed of the devices [like netbooks] is bigger batteries. Cost, weight, size.

      • #17 by fireice2 on June 7, 2012 - 17:27

        I was planning of replacing my old travelmate 6291 by 2012 since it still provides decent computing power for my office and web browsing needs. However, my car got flooded and my laptop drowned. (car survived, albeit expensive repairs)

        I needed a fully capable laptop that will weigh no more than 1.7kg and smaller than 14″. I needed a light weight device because my bag will get heavy quickly with case files and other documents I carry on a regular basis.

        Thankfully Acer already released its S3 line, and I needed a replacement badly. No other laptop met my requirements at the time of purchase. Only Acer was available that time but I never regretted to be an early adopter in this case.

        The timing was perfect, I totaled my laptop and I needed a replacement quick. If I need high-end gaming computing power, I have my custom-built water-cooled gaming rig for that. :)

        I do not believe that there is one size fit all device. Each device has their purpose. :) I don’t mind owning multiple devices. :)

  8. #18 by Andrew on November 2, 2011 - 05:53

    I am in the market for a new laptop and have been tossing up between the Ultrabook and a thin & light conventional laptop. I have always bought large heavy powerful laptops which were always plugged in and not moved all that much. I am now more mobile and sick of lugging these around. If I am honest with myself 99% of my usage is pretty lightweight and on the occasions I need processing power I could wait a few extra seconds without creating any drama. I am looking forward to the the added value of a laptop that can always be with me in every meeting or journey, just like my notepad (or an iPad) silent and relatively discrete. The quoted battery life of Ultrabooks is very high (6-8 hours) if it is used lightly which will be fine for me. I think every gram and every mm tips the scales in favour of leaving the device on the desk; so I think that the portability will add utility that the simply thin and light category does not achieve. If I get an Ultrabook, I intend to take it with me (almost) everywhere like I take my smartphone. Windows 8 and sliding screen form factors and touch screens that make the Ultrabook more tablet like will only further enhance this utility.

  9. #19 by Chris V on November 2, 2011 - 07:10

    I have had a samsung 900x3a with W7Pro (had to upgrade the silly default OS) for 2 weeks and have never been so productive. I know I jumped early especailly considering the prices downunder where I had to pay $2300 and I am annoyed at not being told about the connectors being required and unavailable but all that fades when I look at the value. I now consume and communicate with my ipad and produce with the first “laptop” that I enjoy carrying and using. The size and speed and using W7 with VPN makes it fit my corporate life perfectly. Gone are my samsung netbook and my HP laptop.
    Word to the wise though there is a issue with HDMI not working past 1.5m range.
    To add context to my usage I am CEO of 80 person company that travels at least twice a month

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  11. #21 by Dan on March 8, 2012 - 22:59

    Well, I guess comment spam shows that this site is reaching the masses! Keep up the good work Chippy!

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