Ultrabooks - Very Possibly the Next True Killer Mobile Devices

By Tony Rizzo, Editor in Chief — July 06, 2012

When the infamous shark from the original Jaws first made its appearance, the town in which the shark appeared was unable to comprehend what exactly the town was up against. A massive killer with amazing resilience is certainly an apt description - and one that Intel no doubt hopes will become an apt description as well for its new Ultrabook concept.

When it comes down to information technology hardware tools the enterprise world, at least as far as its collective workforce is concerned, has never had it so good. From an enormous range of BYOD smartphones to the iPad (and a collection of other much less deployed tablets), the enterprise workforce has had lots of smart mobile device choice become the norm for ways to drive a more mobile and more nimble way of working. The laptop, for the most part the one de facto and ubiquitous piece of enterprise-supplied hardware hasn’t, however, truly participated in this mobile-driven explosion of choices - and could conceivably become obsolete over time.

Laptops, for the most part, remain cumbersome devices - too big, too heavy, too difficult to lug around. And yet most of us have no choice but to do so if we function in roles that require heavy duty - or for that matter even moderate - use of spreadsheets, word processors, or other important enterprise software where a keyboard and more precise handling of pointing devices (i.e. the mouse) is a necessary part of the work day.

It’s true of course that Apple’s Macbook Air did much to suggest that the enterprise world doesn’t have to operate this way, but the machine is pricey, and hardly suitable for mass workforce consumption. Further, as nice as the Macbook Air is, it isn’t an out of the box Windows machine - and the enterprise, as much as Apple would like to change it, is a Windows world. That said, Apple’s ongoing assault on what has been the static nature of the last 20 years of enterprise hardware (that is, Intel and Microsoft driven laptops) has finally started to bear non-trivial results - enough so that both Microsoft and Intel have figured out that the enterprise hardware world has to change, and that both companies need to change with it.

Microsoft has seemed like a huge laggard on the mobility front - and in many ways it has been, but this is true for the most part on the consumer side of things. On the enterprise side it remains a laggard only in the sense that it is taking its sweet time to deliver Windows 8 and Windows 8 RT. But Microsoft has paid a great deal of attention to how mobility is going to play out in the enterprise over the next five years and is putting together a powerful foundation for it.

Intel has followed suit, by moving to drive hardware vendors to deliver new “mobile” laptops that pay attention to the specific desires of users: extreme light weight, really fast boot up and sleep/hibernation wake times, and machines that are able to deliver larger screen sizes in smaller overall laptop packages. Intel has gone so far as to create a specific set of requirements for this new class of mobile laptop, and it has gone several steps further in that it has created an actual class of laptop - the Ultrabook (with a capitalized letter U), a term that Intel has also trademarked.

Intel Inside, Intel Outside

Most people recall Intel’s highly successful “Intel Inside” marketing campaign and game plan - which drove a great deal of Intel’s business for many years. With the Ultrabook concept Intel is now seeking to reprise that success. For hardware vendor marketers, what this means is that by delivering laptops that meet Intel’s guidelines for what an Ultrabook is, they can place “Ultrabook Inspired” stickers on their machines, can call the machines Ultrabooks (with a capital U), and perhaps more importantly - depending on the vendor, can tap into Intel-provided marketing dollars.

The first true early crop of Ultrabooks appeared during the Consumer Electronics Show that took place in early January 2012. We would not go so far as to say these machines were particularly inspiring from a look and feel perspective, but they all met the Intel definition for an Ultrabook (we’ll get to that definition in short order). Meanwhile, the Ultrabooks we’ve provided profiles of in this article strongly suggest, we believe, the potential of Ultrabooks even at this early limited stage of their deployment.

Prior to the notion of Ultrabooks, vendors had been searching for ways to tackle Apple’s Macbook Air - machines such as Samsung’s earlier S series hardware, for example, tried to tap into more sophisticated external laptop shells - that in some cases came close to but never really managed to match the Macbook Air. As in all cases involving design, Apple simply dominated and continues to dominate.

Intel has jumped in here to provide not only an Ultrabook specification, but also the necessary chipsets - from new “mobile” i5 and i7 processors to specialized and optimized graphics and communications chips - for vendors to use that will allow ever decreasing weight and overall thickness - from which it hopes vendors will deliver inspired new designs that can match and, as improbable as it may seem, perhaps surpass Apple in design ingenuity. The external configurations of Ultrabooks are as important as what Intel supplies internally. It is a new symbiotic relationship that Intel is driving between internal capabilities and external appearances that become the keys to potential success.


An Ultrabook Is…

For a hardware vendor to be able to call a laptop an Ultrabook in today’s marketplace (and to be able to use the Ultrabook Inspired sticker and participate in Intel marketing programs) that laptop must be able to provide the following key characteristics:

  • Delivers light weight, typically below 3.5 lbs. and ideally below 3 lbs.
  • Offers a significantly slim profile - must be less than an inch thick, and with current models typically around .7” at its thickest point
  • Takes advantage of Intel’s newest 3rd generation mobile i5 and i7 processors
  • Delivers superfast boot up capability after initial configuration
  • Typically makes use of solid state drive (SSD) technology for fast mass storage access, with traditional hard drives taking a back seat
  • Is able to wake up from sleep, deep sleep and hibernation modes in under 8 seconds
  • Provide HD-quality viewing capabilities
  • Provides a multi-touch mouse pad with gesture support
  • Deliver exceptionally long battery life - at least 7 to 8 hours or more of sustained use and outstanding standby life

Intel has created technologies for vendors to use that drive these capabilities:
  • Intel Rapid Start Technology allows a machine to come back to life inside of 8 seconds - or less. Other classes of laptops can certainly use the technology, but in the case of Ultrabooks, it also delivers significant power savings
  • Intel Smart Response Technology delivers up to 2 times faster hard drive performance by automatically storing frequently used applications, games, and files/documents and delivering much faster access and startup times
  • Intel Smart Connect Technology continually and automatically updates email, social networks, and favorite apps that access the Internet when a system is asleep - so that a user is completely current at the point that user wakes the Ultrabook up (not all Ultrabooks support this feature, but it is not an absolute requirement in order to refer to a laptop as an Ultrabook)

This is all technology that is unique to the current crop of Ultrabooks (although much larger laptops also utilize some of this technology), but it is merely a starting point for where Intel wants to see the technology go. Two additional technologies that Intel is now beginning to bring to the game are:
  • Intel Anti-Theft Technology that will allow IT to lock down lost or stolen laptops, even if attempts are made to reimage the OS, change the boot order, or install a new hard drive
  • Intel Identity Protection Technology that provides for hardware-based two factor authentication

These security capabilities are important in today’s world of standard laptops, of course. But as Ultrabooks lead to a next generation of far more mobile devices that will see users take them wherever they go, security becomes an increasingly more important requirement.

Finally, it is highly worth noting that Intel is working to ensure that upcoming Ultrabook designs will provide touch screen capability, giving the user total control over input choice, depending on the applications being used, to make use of whichever input capability - keyboard, mouse, stylus, fingers - the user wants to use.

Ultrabooks are entirely new - but they represent, we believe, the likely future of enterprise hardware, especially as Windows 8 becomes available and Ultrabooks begin to take advantage of it. Much as tablets can serve a good chunk of the needs of mobile users, and as new tablet ideas such as those Microsoft has now presented with its recently announced Surface (refer to page 33 in this issue for details) put added pressure on laptop development, Ultrabooks begin to look like the happy successors to today’s laptops for meeting the preponderance of enterprise needs. And today is the day to begin investigating and planning scenarios for formal deployments.


PROUDCT REVIEWS:



Asus Taichi

The Asus Taichi is highly portable, and offers up a perhaps surprising feature - both the 11.6” and 13.3” models of the Taichi have a double-sided LED backlit display. With a touch screen on the outside of the lid, the Taichi conceivably opens up a host of new mobile possibilities as it plays the role of both an Ultrabook and a tablet. With the lid open, the Taichi looks and behaves pretty much like any laptop or Ultrabook, and comes complete with a full-size QWERTY backlit keyboard and track pad. But close the and the machine instantly morphs into a multi-touch tablet that includes support for a stylus.

The most interesting thing about the dual screen approach is that the two screens are completely independent of each other and can also be used simultaneously. This means the Taichi can be shared with two users. The first thing that comes to mind of course is the old “You Sunk my Battleship” game.

The Taichi (at least as far as the early show floor models go) includes Intel Ivy Bridge Core i7 processors, 4 GB of RAM, SSD storage, dual-band 802.11n WiFi, FHD/Super IPS+ displays and two cameras. Both models deliver high definition resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels on each side. The left side of the Taichi provides a power button, lock toggle, mini VGA connector, USB 3.0 and power ports, while the opposite panel includes a headphone jack, a second USB 3.0 port, micro DVI, a volume up/down switch and a rotation lock button. Pricing is still to be determined, and clearly the machine is targeted for Windows 8 and the Metro UI.



Samsung Series 9

The S9 series starts at $1,299 - the same starting price as the Macbook Air. If Windows based machines still can’t quite catch up to the cachet of Apple designs, the Samsung Series 9 certainly was among the first - if not the first - Windows-based machines to at least come close. Apple hardware, of course, sets premium pricing as part of the Apple allure and cachet - we’re not sure Windows-based machines such as the Samsung can pull it off.

The most immediate thing that defines an S9 is its Duralumin body, which has twice the strength of aluminum but the same light weight. The Series 9 also includes a backlit keyboard, an LCD display screen with a high degree of brightness, and of course a large multi-touch clickpad. The Series 9 sports instant on capability (open the lid and the computer comes back to life in 3 seconds) and Fast Start.

The Series 9 provides a 13.3” widescreen, high definition (1920 x 1080) LED display, 4 GB of DDR3 system memory (with a maximum of 8 GB possible), a 128 GB solid state drive. An Intel HD Graphics 3000 CPU, a built-in 1.3 megapixel HD Webcam, Bluetooth v3.0, 802.11 b/g/n, a Micro HDMI connection, 2 USB 2.0 ports (1 of which is chargeable.  The S9 weighs in at 2.88 lbs with overall dimensions of 12.9” W x 8.9” D x 0.62” to 0.64” H). Samsung claims that battery life runs to at least 7 hours.



Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

Lenovo’s X1 Carbon is the announced successor to the company’s original X1 laptop. The original X1 screen has a resolution of 1366 x 768, while the new X1 Carbon pushes that to 1600 x 900.

The new X1 Carbon has managed to add that additional screen size while reducing other dimensions significantly - the new X1 is 3.0 lbs. and .71” thick, down from the original X1’s 3.7 lbs. and .84” thick dimensions. There is no secret as to why - the “carbon” reference of course points to the use of carbon fiber for the internal cage that holds the X1 Carbon’s components, which makes for the substantial weight difference. The X1 Carbon won’t be available until the summer (though it may be available by the time this issue hits), and as of this writing in late May 2012 price has not yet been determined.

The machine will be equipped with Intel’s latest Ivy family processors, as well as Intel integrated graphics and management services. Battery life - or rather claimed battery life - was not available at the time of this writing. The battery will not be swappable, but Lenovo claims the X1 Carbon will have the ability to come up to 80 percent of full charge in 30 minutes.



Fujitsu’s Ultrabook - Light Weight Makes a Difference!

As part of our cover article Fujitsu kindly sent us its entry level enterprise-targeted Lifebook U772 Ultrabook for review. The U772 has just gone into production and will be publically available as this issue goes to print.  

The key assessment we sought to make here was in determining if the Ultrabook package (as defined in the main article) actually offers advantages over traditional laptops. For comparison purposes, we usually lug around an older HP Pavilion Dv6 - a large screen, almost 1.5” thick, 7.2 lb. monster, as well as a heavy AC adaptor. Was there a difference? Did the Fujitsu leave us feeling unsatisfied or short changed in any way relative to the much larger HP? Well, we’ll admit one thing - we did slightly prefer the sound the HP generated on its speakers.

Did we miss the HP’s larger 15.6” display (with the same 1366 x 768 pixel resolution as the Fujitsu U772)? Not one bit - the Fujitsu’s bright, clear screen completely held its own and the HP’s extra 1.6 inches offered no advantage what so ever. Did we miss the HP’s 7.2 lb. weight? Hell no! Did we miss the HP’s slow startup time and occasional hiccups in waking up or shutting down (keeping in mind we are running Windows 7 Pro on it)? Absolutely not. The Fujitsu U772 proved itself to be a far more preferable and mobile device at every turn. Its light weight is nothing short of a Godsend. Having to return to lugging the HP around is not something we’re looking forward to the next time we hit the road. The difference is huge.

The U772 is a smooth operator. It isn’t what one would refer to as a slick and sexy machine in any form or fashion - the Samsung Series 9 and Dell XPS certainly have it beat on looks. But the U772 delivers on everything an enterprise user needs - and the Ultrabook refinements (fast startup and wakeup in particular), the far longer battery life (we went over six hours out in the field one day with lots of power left to spare), and of course the weight differential, come together in subtle ways - over time one appreciates the differences without necessarily thinking about them. That includes the weight differential - one immediately adopts and adapts to the light weight - it then becomes extraordinarily difficult to give it up.

We used the Fujitsu strictly on battery power to write this cover story. And we put it through its paces on spreadsheets and PowerPoint creations. Everything was simply easy to do. Keep in mind that part of the intrinsic value of Ultrabooks is that they are Windows machines. From that perspective there is a zero learning curve, whether from the perspective of an end user or that of an IT admin. It all simply works as one knows Windows enterprise software to work. We should note that the U772 is equipped with a fingerprint scanner, though we did not put it to use. Security is provided through  TPM, the fingerprint sensor and Intel Anti-theft technology.

Finally, from the perspective of someone who necessarily needs to make heavy use of a keyboard, there is no comparison between the Fujitsu and a tablet (such as the HTC Jetstream or even the iPad). There is no way a tablet can replace a laptop under that circumstance - although we’ll need to reserve full judgment on this until we can give the new Microsoft Surface a real spin.

The production U772 we evaluated - Fujitsu’s entry level commercial model - starts at $1,149. The commercial model starts at $1,299 for its basic commercial configuration - which is upgradable in a number of ways.

The U772 measures 12.87” wide, 8.85” deep and 0.61” high (0.69” with feet). With an SSD drive, the U772 weighs in at 3.15 lbs. and is slightly heavier at 3.18 lbs. with a hard drive in place. Processor options include both Intel Core i5 and i7 processors; 4 GB of main memory is standard but upgradable to 8 GB (only through Fujitsu service); and an 86-key full-size, spill-resistant keyboard with integrated large touchpad pointing device is provided (the touchpad will be finicky and requires careful initial adjustment for individual user preferences - we doubt it will provide comfortable use directly out of the box.) Mass storage options include 128 GB SSD, 256 GB SSD or128 GB TCG Opals Compliant Self-encrypted Drive (SED) SSD; hard drive options include support for 320 GB or 500 GB SATA with 32GB SSD cache. Hard drives are protected by Fujitsu Shock sensor technology. Power is supplied by a non-user replaceable Lithium ion 4-cell battery that delivers up to up to 7 hours of power.

The U772 offers an LCD 14” Crystal View Widescreen HD LED backlit display with 1366 x 768 resolution (anti-glare is an available optional and the U772 will also support an external monitor with up to 1920 x 1200 resolution), Intel HD Graphics 4000 with up to 1.7 GB of video memory. An HD Webcam with 1280 x 800 pixels and a digital microphone complete the audiovisuals.

It will be extraordinarily hard to return the U772!



Dell XPS 13

With a machined aluminum top and a carbon fiber base, and edge to edge Gorilla glass highlighting a13.3” screen that pushes out to the edges of available space, the XPS13 delivers performance and speed. But Dell has now also added a strong dose of sleek to its laptop lineup, with the recently-released Dell XPS 13. The XPS provides a backlit, spill resistant keyboard and a cool, glass touchpad with gesture support. The Dell XPS13 works hard to fit a 13.3” laptop into what would nominally be an 11” laptop form factor typically seen in Dell’s 11 inch screen models - more screen, less laptop.

Starting at a weight of 2.99 lbs. the XPS has a slight wedge shape, with the thickest part of the machine at .71” and the thinnest .24”. The XPS has a width: 12.4” and a depth of 8.1” - overall the dimensions, coupled with the edge to edge screen display give Dell a machine that is far sleeker than any that “your father’s Dell” has ever been able to deliver.

Prices, depending on processor and solid state storage configuration, range from $999.99 (Intel I5 processor and 128 GB drive) to $1,499.99 (Intel I7 processor and 256 GB drive). All in all, the XPS is a significant step. It will be interesting to see how Dell further steps up its game once Windows 8 becomes available.



Hewlett-Packard Folio 13

The Hewlett-Packard Folio 13 is HP’s newest entry among its evolving Ultrabook machines . The Folio 13 is.70-inch thick, 8.67” wide and 12.54” deep, and weighs in at 3.3 lbs. in its lightest configuration.

The Folio provides Intel HD Graphics 3000 capability, a 13.3” HD BrightView LED backlit display with 1366 x 768 resolution, Intel Wireless Display support, HP TrueVision HD webcam, dual integrated microphones with Dolby AdvancedAudio, and a backlit keyboard with a TouchPad that provides scrolling and gesture support. HP claims that the Folio13’s 6-cell Li-Ion battery delivers power for up to 9 hours.

With Intel Rapid Start Technology, the Folio automatically stores most frequently used files and applications on the compact SSD, for Ultrabook-required fast startup and recovery. As with other Ultrabooks, the Folio currently ships with Windows 7 (the Folio specifically ships with the Windows Pro 64-bit operating system). The HP Folio 13 also provides a TPM 1.2 Embedded Security Chip configuration to provide an additional level of data security.

Pricing for the Folio 13 - there are at the time of this writing no additional configuration options - is $999.00 (and can be reduced by $100.00 depending on current special deals directly through HP).

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