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Ultrabooks: Intel Knows What's Good For You

Author: Matt Smith
Subject: Editorial
Manufacturer:
Tagged: ultrabook, Intel, CES

Who Needs Ports? Displays Step Back

Who Needs Ports? (Answer: Consumers)

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Remember the days when PC geeks sat around and laughed at Apple fanboys for, among other reasons, the complete lack of ports? I mean, what are they thinking? Paying over a grand for a couple USB and a video connection no one uses? How stupid is that?

Savor those days, because if the ultrabook has its way, they’re coming to a close.

Connectivity on the first generation of ultrabooks is nothing to brag about. Most offer two or three USB ports, HDMI, Ethernet - and that’s about it. If you need to plug in more devices you’re going to need to buy all manner of splitters, adapters and other nonsense.

This is an important point because connectivity is important to the average laptop buyer looking to purchase one as their only machine. Such a person is likely to have an external mouse that runs off USB. Add an external hard drive and that’s it - you’ve already used all the USB connectivity that is offered on the Acer Aspire S3. And what if they’re using a USB printer? Uh-oh.

Here we see Intel stumbling because it’s buying into the idea of what a laptop should be, rather than what it actually is. At Intel’s CES press conference the company showed us pictures of happy, attractive, friendly people taking their laptops all around their home and outside. There was even a ridiculous picture that showed a young woman sitting in a beach chair that was so close to the ocean that the tide was beginning to sweep across the chair’s legs - and she was using an ultrabook. In this fantasy, laptops are hip and cool devices that are purchased primarily for their portability and design.

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Back in reality, many laptops are just desktop replacements - and even ultraportables don’t make it outside the home regularly. For a computer to work as a desktop replacement it needs to have enough connectivity to handle more than a couple peripherals. 

Veteran readers may note that I’ve praised things like wireless power because I see wired connectivity as something that is going to go away entirely. I still hold that view. But we’re at least several years away from the point where we can start to neglect wired connectivity entirely. Until we see the world’s first fully wireless laptop announced at CES or some other conference, connectivity will remain a boring but important detail. 

Displays Take Another Step Back 

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It’s no secret that laptop displays aren’t very good. The problem is so common that dealing with it is one of the challenges of regularly reviewing laptops. How can I say that the display is bad without sounding like a broken record? And is it fair to say a display is bad, if all the other displays offered by competitors are equally poor? 

Still, there have been some glimmers of hope recently. Most of the Sony Vaio and HP Envy laptops now offer decent or even great quality. Even the display on the tiny HP dm1z recently impressed me. But then I saw the new line of ultrabooks at CES - and my hopes were dashed.

Ultrabooks cause problems for displays from two angles. One is size. The strict limit on a laptop’s maximum thickness places strict limits on what will fit inside the laptop - including the display panel. 

Another issue is cost. At CES I asked a representative of a manufacturer that produces both laptops and tablets why they can squeeze such awesome displays into their tablets, but can’t do the same in their laptops. His response? The other components in a laptop are too expensive.

You could see the results of this on the show floor. Over at Samsung, for example, I checked out the new Series 5 and Series 9 ultrabooks. They were both nice. But I was struck by the Series 7 Chronos, a more conventional line of laptops. These laptops offer brilliant high-resolution displays that seemed to have much better viewing angles than the displays on Samsung’s ultrabooks. 

This is an issue not only because of other laptops, but also because of smartphones and tablets. While laptop display quality has been stalled for years these more portable devices have been making huge strides. Several 1080p tablets were shown at CES, while smartphones are dabbling in 720p. It’s also not uncommon to see tablets and smartphones use IPS display technology. 

Eventually, consumers are going to start wondering why they can view 1080p video on their $600 tablet but not on their $800 ultrabook. And as consumers notice this, they’ll start to more strongly prefer tablets to laptops for content consumption - which probably isn’t the result Intel is hoping for.

January 26, 2012 | 11:10 AM - Posted by Adam (not verified)

I agree that Ultrabooks are underpowered. I don;t mind my TV being thin because I never move it. But laptops are portable and they can break. I'm more interested in something that I can game on. And not am overpriced fancy netbook with an SSD. I need my ports and discreet graphics.

January 26, 2012 | 11:19 AM - Posted by Michael (not verified)

This article is nothing but a series of weak arguments.

Thin is flimsy - Yeah, if you use flimsy cheap materials and don't know how to construct a laptop. If an engineering team took time to think a design through and used strong enough materials, this is a non-issue.

Who needs ports? - Uh, you don't when you're travelling. If you have half a dozen things plugged into your laptop while you're on the move, you're doing something wrong. If you're worried about connectivity while at a desk, there are these things called 'port replicators' that usually hook into a single port on the laptop. As external connectors speed up (such as ThunderBolt at its PCIe x4 speeds), numerous external ports on a laptop will become an obsolete idea.

Performance penalty - Wait for it... (*cough*ivybridge*cough* *ahem*)... sorry, I meant to say Ivy Bridge.

Forcing change - This is not BTX. Functionally thin & light is where consumers want to go. You're just unaware considering your focus on the 1337 users. The other 98% of the world really wouldn't be bothered if their laptop shed a few pounds while maintaining speed.

Sincerely, an IT support specialist, using a MacBook Air 13", supporting 5 users with ThinkPad T420s laptops, a group that supports thousands of students and faculty members.

January 26, 2012 | 06:52 PM - Posted by Matt Smith

Most of the points you've made were already addressed in the editorial. Did you read it closely?

Thin and light is not necessarily where consumers want to go. They've been proving that for years by consistently buying more large laptops than small laptops. They overwhelmingly prefer 14" to 15.6" laptops and overwhelmingly prefer big, bulky models that are cheap and powerful.

You really have the entire situation reversed. It's the "1337" users - the tech journalists, the industry workers, the geeks - who want thin and light. Your average consumer thinks it is cool, but ultimately will go buy a $600 laptop with thunder thighs and a Core i5. Why? Because they really don't care if their laptop is thin and light. They just see it is a tool.

As I explained in my article, Intel's motivation here is the same as any other company. Profit. They can make more money if they sell ultrabooks. And Intel's sway is so massive that they might just manage to make ultrabooks a common item. But that doesn't mean there are screaming hoards of consumers just dying to buy one.

January 26, 2012 | 12:53 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I don't think most people buying these will notice its cpu downgrade over ssd perfomance. You mentioned cpu benchmarks differences but most people don't push performance its capabilities. Even in a gaming situation which is quite common among consumers they'll be bottlenecked by the low powered gpu. If a person needed the extra cpu performance they could simply buy a larger laptop. The major components they need to improve on to make this perfect for the average consumer is its graphics chip and display.

January 26, 2012 | 12:59 PM - Posted by Nilbog

Great article, but i have to address this confused individual.
Michael:
"Thin is flimsy - Yeah, if you use flimsy cheap materials and don't know how to construct a laptop. If an engineering team took time to think a design through and used strong enough materials, this is a non-issue."
When is the last time an engineering team actually took the time to think a design through and used strong enough materials? This IS a issue, if a company wants to save $ by cutting corners, they will, and they will slack on everything they can to save a couple bucks. Do you honestly believe that corp cares more about the customer, or selling a product?

"Who needs ports? - Uh, you don't when you're travelling. If you have half a dozen things plugged into your laptop while you're on the move, you're doing something wrong. If you're worried about connectivity while at a desk, there are these things called 'port replicators' that usually hook into a single port on the laptop. As external connectors speed up (such as ThunderBolt at its PCIe x4 speeds), numerous external ports on a laptop will become an obsolete idea."
The issue there is USB can only go so fast and can only use so much power, so if a port replicator can be avoided, it should be. Do you really want to have to buy a replicator just to plug in a mouse and keyboard, ect. every time? Or would you rather plug those peripherals directly into the laptop that has more than one USB port, as needed? Also if you don't have a Mac you don't have ThunderBolt, dumb ass.

"Performance penalty - Wait for it... (*cough*ivybridge*cough* *ahem*)... sorry, I meant to say Ivy Bridge."
Oh is Ivy Bridge here? last i checked it wasn't, and even when it does come out we have to wait 4+ months for it to be in a laptop, so the performance on EXISTING Ultrabooks (not Ivy Bridge) is a relevant issue. When Ivy Bridge is here and actually INSIDE Ultrabooks, we can have that discussion. Until then, were are talking about EXISTING Ultrabooks which are manufactured with Sandy Bridge processors NOW, not in 4+ months.

"Forcing change - This is not BTX. Functionally thin & light is where consumers want to go. You're just unaware considering your focus on the 1337 users. The other 98% of the world really wouldn't be bothered if their laptop shed a few pounds while maintaining speed."
If you actually read the article you would have noticed that one of the issues is that they are not maintaining speed, they are low power (therefor lower speed) versions of the counterparts. Just because is says i5, i7, DOES NOT mean is is comparable to the real part, even the high end mobile parts are nowhere near the desktop parts. Why don't you look up some benchmarks on the i7 line, performance is drastically different between the desktop and mobile parts, the title "i7" does not mean it is a good part. As mentioned in the article and ur comments, the 98% of customers are going to be wondering why they can play games on their tablet and phone, but cant play games on the 1000$+ laptop (that doesn't sound strange to you?). Normal consumers don't understand that Intel graphics are a joke and cant play games. Have you ever tried to play on Intels graphics? Not only are the drivers a joke, but very few games actually take advantage of Intel graphics, like the Source engine for example, does NOT use Intel graphics, it tries to run off the processor by its self.

Also using a MacBook shows that you dont know much about computer hardware (since you cant even change the battery) if you knew about hardware you would know that Apple rips you off for the same hardware that is available for any Win/Linux system(and is not any different). You got robbed.

January 27, 2012 | 09:47 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

This.

January 26, 2012 | 03:36 PM - Posted by Annoyingmouse (not verified)

Thin and light seems the most probable future. I think Intel is just trying to force too much too soon. Right now the 'form' tax is too high, and the function sacrifice is too much (for example: no discreet graphics, minimal port space), but if the form factor becomes normalized, things will improve over time.

January 27, 2012 | 07:54 AM - Posted by John H (not verified)

So I agree with the article overall -- ultrabooks do come with limitations..

However, I'm really hoping (optimistic) that we'll see that 'variable TDP' in use later this year with a 17W ultrabook that docks with a dock providing additional cooling -- giving us the full 35W performance...

January 27, 2012 | 10:04 AM - Posted by Larry (not verified)

Obviously there will be conflicting opinions on the Ultrabook; it's a new concept outside of the Mac world that simply doesn't address everyone's needs (I'm looking at you, gamers). As an industry veteran who travels for business regularly, as well as an avid gamer with a 4-way GTX580 running a heavily OC'd 3960X, I am here to tell you the Ultrabook concept is not perfect in its current form, but it's impressive nonetheless. I own an Asus UX31 and I love it. I've owned Thinkpads and gaming notebooks in the past, and I certainly do not miss them while walking through an airport with my entire computer bag weighing a mere few pounds. Do I miss gaming on it? Absolutely, but the screen is gorgeous, the design is elegant yet feels solid, and the keyboard works well for typing. The thing is blazing fast for everything BUT gaming, and since I'm traveling for business that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make for this Ultrabook. Whereas a beefy gaming notebook may be a desktop replacement for a gamer, it's not the norm, and I'll do my gaming when I get home. (Besides, it's tough to be taken seriously in a meeting with a painted lid on a bulky gaming rig.)

For the first iteration of a design the Ultrabook is fantastic. I've seen a ton of trends come and go but this is no flash-in-the-pan netbook -- the Ultrabook is here to stay and will evolve into a platform capable of mainstream gaming in the future. Once Ivy Bridge does arrive in the Ultrabook I'll be first in line for one.

January 28, 2012 | 10:31 AM - Posted by CPU/Pro (not verified)

What's your problem with Ultrabooks its just one of many form factors that are available with Intel Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge. Intel developed Metro Laptop back in May of 2007, Apple made billions from the Idea and you say its flimsy, why don't you buy a bigger bulkier behemoth laptop then, its not like Ultrabooks are the only way to enjoy a Sandy/Ivy Bridge mobile solution.

Intel’s Metro Laptop is the Thinnest Ever

May 24, 2007, The World's Thinnest Notebook
If it catches on, Intel's sleek laptop could be a game changer for PCs

http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/may2007/tc20070523_272039...

http://blog.jr.com/intels-metro-laptop-is-the-thinnest-ever/

January 30, 2012 | 02:05 AM - Posted by thomas (not verified)

people are willing to spend 1200 + on a apple
i dont think they realize no one will spend that on a PC laptop
if they can make it for 700 then they have a chance

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