With tablets courting both consumers and business users, Intel's lightweight but powerful Ultrabooks might need a touch-friendly makeover to survive in the post-PC era.
Until five years ago the "WinTel" platform was synonymous with personal computing – a portmanteau reflecting Microsoft Windows and Intel's dominance of the desktop and notebook PC markets. Yet the release of Asus' small and inexpensive Eee PC netbook triggered a new wave of mobile computing – cutting the WinTel giants out of the picture in favour of Linux running on low-powered ARM processors.
Microsoft and Intel managed to wrestle back the netbook market and thwart Linux's ambitions, but the damage was done. Having whet the public's appetite for cheap but versatile mobile computing devices, while rejecting the WinTel monopoly, netbooks paved the way for a tablet revival led by Apple's all-conquering iPad.
Rather than trying to cram the Windows experience onto a small screen, the iPad and its Android counterparts won over PC users by building on touch-friendly smartphone interfaces. With easy-to-use menus, extended battery lives and extensive ecosystems, this new generation of tablets was quickly embraced by consumers and also found acceptance in the business world. The tablet resurgence proved harder for Microsoft and Intel to quash than the netbook uprising, so the WinTel war machine went back to the drawing board to develop the Ultrabook.
An Intel trademark rather than a generic term, Ultrabooks address the tablet threat by combining the functionality and grunt of a notebook with the portability and extended battery life of a netbook. Ultrabooks are also a response to Apple's ultraportable MacBook Air, which in all honesty is an Ultrabook in everything but name.
Asus' petite ZenBook Prime is one of the most impressive offerings among the current crop of Ultrabooks. The Prime is available in 11.6 and 13.3-inch models, which tip the scales at 1.1 and 1.3kg respectively. They pack Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, while utilising an aluminium body, LED screen and solid state hard drive to keep down the weight and extend their battery life. The Prime forgoes an optical drive and some connectors in order to retain its slender 9mm profile which tapers off to 3mm.
At the other end of the scale, Samsung's beefy 15.6-inch Series 5 NP550P5C Ultrabook aims to be a full desktop replacement. Equipped with a Core i7 processor, it weighs in at 2.5kg and is 30mm thick. In return for the extra bulk you gain a Blu-ray optical drive as well as VGA, HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet and four USB ports. This model also features a 1 TB SATAII hard disk drive rather than a solid state drive, which curbs the battery life. This monster would seem to make a mockery of the Ultrabook tag, but Intel only specifies how thin and powerful Ultrabooks must be, not how small and light.
Meanwhile Apple's 11.6 and 13.3-inch MacBook Airs are also worthy contenders, weighing in at 1.08 and 1.35kg respectively. They boast Core i5 or i7 processors, with the underlying Intel architecture allowing them to run Microsoft Windows as well as Mac OS. As with the ZenBook Prime, the MacBook Air's aluminium body, LED screen and solid state drive keep down the weight and extend the battery life. The MacBook Air also forgoes an optical drive and limits connectors to merely Thunderbolt and two USB ports.
Intel's new Ivy Bridge chip architecture is offering the current crop of Windows 7 Ultrabooks and MacBook Airs more grunt while extending battery times. But the move to Windows 8 will bring greater change as Ultrabooks embrace touchscreen displays and mimic tablets.
It's clear both Microsoft and Apple are transforming their desktop operating systems to mimic the tablet user experience. Mac OS 10.8 "Mountain Lion" continues Apple's push to add iPad-style conventions to the desktop environment – to the delight of some Mac users and the frustration of others. Apple chief Tim Cook recently ruled out the addition of a touchscreen to the MacBook Air, but it wouldn't be the first time Apple has feigned disinterest in a technology.
For now Microsoft's Windows 8 is leading the touchscreen revolution on the desktop. Windows 8 introduces the touch-friendly Metro UI interface – borrowed from Windows Phone 7 – which aims to unite the Windows desktop, tablet and smartphone user experiences. As with Apple's changes to Mac OS, Metro UI has been met with a mixed response. The changes to both Windows and Mac OS seem more practical on touchscreen handheld gadgets than on desktop computers, but on a touchscreen Ultrabook they should offer the best of both worlds.
In a significant change of direction, Microsoft is producing its own Windows 8 tablets, in a move likely to strain its relationship with hardware partners. Even more controversial is the fact that the entry level Microsoft Surface will run the stripped-down Windows RT on an ARM processor. The more powerful and expensive Surface Pro will run a full version of Windows 8 on an Intel processor, but cracks are clearly appearing in the WinTel alliance.
Meanwhile Android offers hardware makers the flexibility to design a variety of hybrid devices on a range of underlying architectures. The Asus Transformer Prime tablet and Motorola Atrix smartphone are examples of Android devices with detachable or hideaway keyboards. Accessory makers such as Belkin and Logitech also offer a range of external keyboards for the iPad.
Ultrabooks and tablets appear to be on a collision course, but the popularity of Apple's iPad points to a future where the WinTel paradigm and the notebook-style form factor are relegated to the role of a specialist business tool. Adopting touchscreens might help Ultrabooks compete but, as tablets become more useful, people may find less need for both Ultrabooks and the tech giants which back them.
TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Will tablets kill the Ultrabook?
Tablet computers are gaining in popularity with both businesses and individual consumers. Can Intel's notebooks survive the touchscreen onslaught?
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