CES 2012: Ultrabook Ultimate FAQ

Ultrabooks will debut in force at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show this week. But what exactly are they and why might you want one?
CES 2012 Preview: 16 Hot Gadgets
CES 2012 Preview: 16 Hot Gadgets
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
It's the year of the ultrabook, if those selling ultrabooks are to be believed. Ultrabooks are widely expected to appear in force at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this week. But what exactly are they and why might you want one?

What's an ultrabook?
It's a lot like Apple's MacBook Air, but different. Acer, ASUS, HP, Lenovo, LG, Samsung, and Toshiba are already selling ultrabooks. There should be something like 60 ultrabook models on the market in 2012.

Ultrabook is an Intel trademark. The ultrabook device specification was introduced by Intel in June 2011 to define hardware that's somewhere between a laptop or notebook and a tablet or a netbook. But in dreaming up its laptop diet--shedding the hard disk drive and optical drive to get Hollywood thin--Intel probably thought a lot about the MacBook Air.

Here's Intel's explanation: "Ultrabook systems marry thin and light with the best in performance, responsiveness, security, and battery life--filling the gap between desktop/laptop and tablet. We are reinventing the PC again. An ultrabook device is ultra-responsive and ultra-sleek."

If you're still wondering about the difference between responsive and ultra-responsive, to say nothing about the difference between sleek and ultra-sleek, let it suffice to say that you should visit your vendor of choice and play around with whatever ultrabook is available to determine whether it meets your needs.

[ Find out what to expect at CES. Read CES 2012 Preview: Ultrabooks Everywhere. ]

If you already have a laptop, chances are you don't need an ultrabook, though you might still enjoy one in a specific set of circumstances. Say you're trying to work on a tiny airplane tray table when the seat of the passenger in the row ahead of you is fully reclined. Sure, you'd prefer to spread out in business class but you're stuck in economy, so perhaps an ultrabook would be preferable to a bulkier laptop. You could also feign illness by coughing repeatedly in the hope that your reclining neighbor might prophylactically raise his seat enough for you to park your encyclopedia-sized notebook. But an ultrabook would probably be a better bet.

Likewise, if you already have a tablet, which is to say an iPad, then you probably don't need an ultrabook either, though you'll be glad to have one if you're planning to type at a sustained speed for more than a few minutes and happen to dislike toting a Bluetooth keyboard, along with some means of screen support.

If you have a netbook, just call it an ultrabook and be happy while ignoring the performance limitations and the typos arising from a cramped keyboard. If you have a Chromebook--Google's portable browser wrapped in a Samsung or Acer case--you're welcome to call it an ultrabook, at least until there's no available wireless or cellular network. Then it becomes a brick, no matter how you flatter it.

Even inside the ultrabook camp there's some confusion about the term. Intel calls the Acer Aspire S3 an "ultrabook" while Acer sometimes uses the term "notebook" to describe its Aspire S Series. It's almost as if "ultrabook" and "notebook" refer to the same thing. What a scandal that would be if it were true. Can you imagine anyone being excited to find that 2012 is the year of the laptop? Thankfully, we have marketers to translate reality.

CES 2012 Preview: 16 Hot Gadgets
CES 2012 Preview: 16 Hot Gadgets
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
How big is an ultrabook?
Generally speaking, it should weigh between two and three pounds and its screen should be somewhere in the 11.6" to 13.3" range. It should be between 0.5" and 0.75" thick. Ultrabooks with 15" screens are expected shortly and you can be sure that a future version of the MacBook Pro will fit the ultrabook description.

The real test of an ultrabook is whether it can be used on your lap for several hours without discomfort or infertility. If you prop a 5.6 pound laptop on your lap for more than an hour at, say, a conference like CES, the weight becomes bothersome, to say nothing of the scent of smoldering trousers. Below three pounds, the time until discomfort is far greater.

Do ultrabooks have hard disk drives?
They shouldn't, but some do, because flash-based storage is expensive and hard drives are less so on a per-gigabyte basis. The Acer S series comes to mind. But you want solid state disk (SSD) storage too, if not exclusively, because rapid booting and awakening quickly from sleep mode are ultrabook aspirations and SSDs provide that. Trust me on this: Once you use a computer with SSD storage, you won't want to go back to a commodity 5400-RPM hard drive.

How long do ultrabook batteries last?
Not long enough, just like every portable computing device. In general, ultrabook batteries should last somewhere between five and nine hours, depending on the ultrabook model and how heavily you're taxing the processor inside. Setting your watch ahead an hour for every two that you work may make you feel more satisfied with your battery longevity. Not using your ultrabook should have a similar effect.

Can I use my ultrabook for gaming?
That depends on what you consider gaming. If Farmville is your idea of gaming, then sure, you should be fine with an ultrabook. But if you've ever measured your frame rate or used a command line to configure a game, you're probably not going to be impressed.

How much do ultrabooks cost?
In general, they range from about $800 to $1,300. As some analysts have pointed out, this could be a problem given that you can get a perfectly functional laptop (or iPad) for between $500 and $600. If price is your primary concern, you can have sleek, but not ultrasleek.

Aren't ultrabooks easy to steal?
Missing the peace-of-mind provided by a 40-pound Mac Pro already? Yes, ultrabooks are easy to steal, but at least they don't mark you to be victimized the way that white earbuds do. You can do a lot to reduce theft opportunities by not leaving your ultra-stealable ultrabook unattended when that venti mocha finally prompts you to get up from your table at Starbucks. And if heightened vigilance fails, Intel Anti-Theft Technology can be used to disable your ultrabook remotely.

Is the ultrabook just a cynical ploy to make me buy previously integrated peripherals separately, at greater expense?
That's one way to look at it, but at least the keyboard is included, which isn't the case when you buy a tablet. Really, the ultrabook is just Intel's attempt to keep laptops relevant in an era when people are opting for even lighter computing devices like tablets and smartphones. Ultrabooks borrow some of the characteristics that made tablets popular, most notably the ability to start immediately, while retaining design elements like keyboards for productivity and a hinged form factor for laptop use.

Ultimately, some company will figure out how to make an ultrabook with a detachable or a projectable keyboard that can double as a tablet (present tablet/notebook hybrids aren't quite there yet). Either that or tablets will become portable monitors that can be used equally well as touch-based devices or keyboard-and-controller devices. However it shakes out, ultrabooks and tablets are destined to converge under one of three flags: Android, iOS, and Windows 8 Metro (sorry, Chrome OS & Tizen).

But that story will have to wait until 2013, year of the ultramegamagnabook.

The Enterprise Connect conference program covers the full range of platforms, services, and applications that comprise modern communications and collaboration systems. It happens March 25-29 in Orlando, Fla. Find out more.

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