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Ultrabooks: Intel Knows What's Good For You

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Subject: Editorial
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Tagged: ultrabook, Intel, CES

Introduction, Thin Is Flimsy

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If there was anything that can be pointed to as “the” thing CES was about, it’s the ultrabook. These thin and portable laptops were presented by Intel with all the finesse of a sledgehammer. Intel’s message is clear. Ultrabooks are here, and you’re going to like them.

Such a highly coordinated effort on the part of Intel is unusual. Sure, they’ve pushed industry standards before. But the company’s efforts have usually been focused on a specific technology, like USB. The last time Intel put serious effort into trying to change how system builders constructed their systems was when Intel pushed for the BTX form factor. 

BTX was an attempt to address problems the company was having with its Pentium 4 processors, which tended to consume a lot of power and therefor run hot. The push for the ultrabook is also an attempt in address a (perceived) problem. In this case the issue at hand is portability, both in in terms physical system size and battery endurance. 

Intel announced some interesting new smartphone and tablet reference designs at CES 2012. These are signs that the company is making headway in this area. But the products based on those reference designs aren’t out yet, and it will probably take a few years for Intel to gain significant market share even if it does manage to offer x86 processors that can beat ARM in smartphones and tablets. In the meantime, Intel needs to provide slim, responsive and portable systems that can distract consumers from tablets.

So we have the ultrabook. 

Continue reading out editorial on Ultrabook and the pros and cons associated with their push into the market!!

There are certainly reasons to be excited about this newly invented category of laptops. I handled some interesting and capable products at CES including the HP Envy 14 Spectre, the Dell XPS 13 and the Samsung Series 5 and 9. These are laptops that, at least at first glance, seem to have sincerely closed the design gap between Windows computers and Apple’s MacBooks. And just as importantly, these are computers that are almost as easy to tote around as a tablet. The XPS 13 in particular stands out, as it’s not much larger in width and depth than most current 11.6” laptops. 

Yet there are also reasons to dislike the ultrabook. Let’s not forget that Intel isn’t a company that has much experience developing consumer-oriented products. Beyond the stickers placed on Intel powered computers and the ads the company runs prompting its products, Intel’s interaction with the consumer is minimal. It’s a bit strange that the company has suddenly decided to create specifications for consumer products - and the lack of experience shows. 

Thin Is Flimsy 

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The idea of making products thin seems admirable. Everyone likes thin. It’s more portable, it usually results in less weight, and it looks better. 

Yet not all products are thin. MacBook Pros are not particularly thin or light. ThinkPads are not thin, except for special (and expensive) niche models. Mainstream 15.6” laptops - the category that continues to be the most popular among consumers - seem to have stalled out in their reduction of thickness over the last two years. 

Why? The reason is simple. Making something thin means you have less material in the laptop. And if you have less material, you either have to spend money on material that’s much stronger, or you end up with a flimsy laptop.

There are plenty of modern examples of this basic engineering reality bringing down otherwise excellent products. The Sony Vaio S series laptops (current gen) are amazing laptops in almost every respect. They’re powerful, light and relatively affordable. But the focus on maintaining a slim profile has resulted in display lids that are so thin that they feel cheap, brittle and fragile. If Sony had added a few millimeters to these laptops in the lid they would have ended up with something that is thicker - and much better than the laptop that actually made its way to market. 

This problem has already translated into ultrabooks. The Toshiba Protege Z835 looks nice, but once you begin using it you’ll have difficulty ignoring the flimsy display that wobbles about while typing. The Acer Aspire S3 also suffers from this problem, albeit to a lesser degree. Some of the more expensive ultrabooks such as the UX31 largely conquer the problem but - well, they’re more expensive. 

The ultrabook push is an attempt by Intel to make manufacturers do what they weren’t doing on their own. Yet Intel doesn’t seem aware that it’s forcing companies to make some serious trade-offs when designing laptops.

These are trade-offs that consumers will notice. If Intel’s lucky, consumers will notice the trade-offs before they buy. If they don’t, ultrabook buyers will be wondering why they paid a premium for something that seems less robust than the 15.6” behemoth that cost them just $600. They probably won’t buy an ultrabook for their next laptop.

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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