Should You Buy an Ultrabook?

Not exactly a laptop or tablet, these sleek devices bring the best of both worlds.
Freelance Writer, Self-employed
January 20, 2012

No doubt about it: Tablets and smartphones have been the focus of mobile computing for the last couple of years. But now a new category of notebook computers, called ultrabooks, is jostling for attention. And, with their sleek looks, expanded portability, quick start-up times and business-capable power, they may give the newcomers a run for their money.

That, at least, is the hope of Intel, which named and spurred the new variety of portable computer last year, as well as a slew of heavyweight PC makers that introduced dozens of new ultrabooks at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, with the promise of more to come. Intel has forecast that ultrabooks will represent 40 percent of all notebook shipments in a few years. Although other forecasters are more modest, all industry participants are observing ultrabooks’ debut with interest and palpable excitement.

“An ultrabook is what mobile computing should be, in our view,” according to Brian Marshall, an analyst at San Francisco technology research firm ISI. Before knowing whether you agree, it’s necessarily to explain what an ultrabook is. Generally speaking, it’s a laptop that’s thinner, lighter, quicker to start and easier on batteries than conventional laptops.

To be more specific, Intel says an ultrabook is less than 21 millimeters or slightly over three-quarters of an inch thick, able to start up in just several seconds from sleep, runs no less than five hours on a charge and has BIOS-enabled security features. Ultrabooks typically have screens of 13 inches or so, weigh less than 3 lbs. and employ solid-state memory instead of spinning hard drives to store data and programs.

If this sounds familiar to Apple users, it should. Intel’s inspiration is the Macbook Air, a popular similarly proportioned laptop that has been out for four years but hasn’t until recently had significant Wintel competition. Compared to Macbook Air, ultrabooks are supposed to be less costly than the $1,299 Apple, and also easier to integrate into the Wintel-dominated business computing world.

Just another tablet?

Ultrabooks also are compared to tablets and netbooks, the small portable computers that largely failed to satisfy users when introduced a few years ago. An ultrabook with built-in physical keyboard is more capable at creating content, such as documents and spreadsheets, than a tablet. “It’s a great displaying device but, for creating content, it’s pretty horrible,” Marshall says of the tablet.

Compared to netbooks, ultrabooks offer more power. Using Intel’s twin-core processors and Turboboost technology, ultrabooks are closer to conventional notebooks than under-powered netbooks, says Kelcey Kinjo, product manager for business laptops at Toshiba, “It’s pretty much equal now, compared to before there was a huge difference,” Kinjo says.

Toshiba Portégé Z830

Toshiba recently introduced its own ultrabook, the Portégé Z830. With a 13.3-inch screen, the new Toshiba barely tips the scales at 2.5 lbs. It’s just 15 millimeters thick, less than two-thirds of an inch. The second-generation Intel Core processor and 128 gigabyte solid-state drive—much faster than a comparable rotating hard drive—do indeed give the Portégé Z830 performance closer to a conventional notebook than an under-achieving netbook.

Toshiba’s suggested price, starting at $999, is higher than most notebooks, but less than a Macbook Air. Against other ultrabooks, Kinjo says the Portégé Z830 is distinguished by business-friendly features including a built-in RJ-45 Ethernet port and enhanced management features that permit IT departments to more easily configure and manage the notebook.

HP Folio 13

The largest PC maker, Hewlett-Packard, entered the ultrabook fray with the HP Folio 13, with features including a 13-inch screen, 128-gigabyte solid state drive, second-generation Intel Core processor and 4 gigabytes of system memory. The standard commercial configuration for the new ultrabook is priced at $1,049, according to Kyle Thompson, HP’s business notebook category manager. The 3.3-lb., 18-millimeter Folio 13 has battery life of up to more than nine hours, HP says, which places it in the range of conventional notebooks businesses use.

“The target market for the Folio 13 is small and medium-sized business,” Thompson says. “We also have a lot of interest from corporate and enterprise customers, especially among upper management where they like to carry very thin, sleek leading-edge devices and cost is not as sensitive to them.”

Honorable mentions

Other big PC makers are also in the mix. Lenovo’s IdeaPad U300s is premium-priced for the category at $1,199 but its aluminum case is just six-tenths of an inch thick with a 13.3-inch HD display, and weighs only 2.9 lbs. Acer’s Aspire S3 Ultrabook occupies the low end of the price range at $899 suggested retail. Its 13.3-inch screen is similar to other models but it is just barely over one-half inch thick, weighing slightly less than 3 lbs. It has a hybrid storage system with a small 20 gigabyte solid-state drive coupled with a 320-gigabyte conventional rotating drive.

What's on the horizon?

Look for dozens more ultrabooks to be introduced in the coming year. Among expected features are improvement management tools to help businesses integrate the machines into existing IT infrastructure, more power and lower prices. Marshall says ultrabooks need to be priced 30 percent below Apple’s Macbook Air to compete effectively, a standard few meet at the moment.

Meanwhile, the pricing compared to conventional Wintel notebooks, required by the use of costlier components like solid state drives, is one reason manufacturers aren’t all endorsing Intel’s forecast of ultrabooks accounting for 40 percent of notebook sales. “There is a cost premium to this type of product,” Thompson notes. “You could get a well-configured 14-inch or 13-inch notebook for two-thirds of the cost. That may put a lot of pause into the decision process.”

Marshall suspects ultrabooks may amount to 10 percent or 15 percent of the overall laptop market in a year or two. Kinjo says Toshiba is even more restrained in projecting market share of the new laptop category. “We expect to see the normal 5 or 10 percent,” he says.

What the ultrabook ultimately becomes is unknown. But already it’s provided much-needed excitement to a space that had become overshadowed by the runaway successes of tablets and smartphones. Suddenly, Marshall notes, that battered notebook you've been carrying for years begins to look a little tired, even if it's still trusty. “These new ultrabooks,” he says, “are definitely going to be a reason for people to start refreshing their laptops.”

Photo credit: Courtesy HP