The quest for the perfect laptop is almost as old as portable computing itself. Could the latest contender, Intel's Ultrabook, spell the end of the search?
Ask most users what they would like from a portable PC, and the list will probably look something like this: desktop PC performance; a large, bright screen; lightweight, probably a kilogram or less; a full-size keyboard and all-day battery life. Oh, and not too expensive.
To date, that has been an impossible combination, so the nature of portable computing has been one of compromise. More specifically, trying different permutations of compromise until you found'one that worked, at least until some technological advance rendered it moot.
For instance, the first portable computers'were luggables, similar in size and weight to portable sewing machines (the'old cast-iron kind, not today's plastic-cased variety), but they seemed amazing - until the 1980s brought the first clamshell laptops, that is.
Assuming that you want a physical keyboard, that is pretty much where the state of the art has remained - a 3-4kg clamshell, with the power of maybe a low-end desktop PC and a couple of hours battery life.
Still, there have been plenty of attempts to create smaller, lighter, and longer-lived laptops. We have had subnotebooks, tablet PCs, netbooks, ultra-mobile PCs, pocket PCs, ultraportables, and more. Now you can add the Intel-defined Ultrabook specification to that list.
Some of those earlier types were popular with niche groups of users - subnotebooks with frequent travellers and netbooks with students, say - but none had mass appeal. What changed all that was the launch of Apple's Macbook Air in January 2008: at long last, all the technologies needed to create a lightweight and long-lived yet reasonably-priced laptop had come together.
What the Macbook Air told us, in case we hadn't noticed, was that a lot of the stuff we worried about in a portable computer was redundant. Hardly anyone connects a laptop to a wired network; it is all wireless. Similarly, in these days of USB sticks and Internet downloads a CD-ROM drive is as out of date as a floppy drive. For the odd occasions when a DVD is needed, an external drive can be used. And several models featured a Flash-based solid-state drive (SSD) instead of a hard-disk, allowing for a much faster start-up.
Taking market share
Now, with its Ultrabook project, Intel is hoping both to do the same for the PC market, and to discomfort rival chipmaker AMD. Indeed, at the Ultrabook launch in May 2011, Intel EVP Sean Moloney predicted that 40'per cent of the consumer laptop market would be Ultrabooks by the end of 2012, a claim that looks a tad ambitious now.
In order to use the term Ultrabook and take advantage of the associated Intel marketing and development largesse, a laptop must meet strict limits for size, weight and battery life, have tablet-like features such as instant-on functionality, and use an Intel low-power processor with integrated graphics. Touchscreens are optional, but people are becoming more familiar with them and they will be supported in Windows'8, so they are likely to become commonplace on Ultrabooks.
Daniel Ashdown, an analyst with Juniper Research, suggests that Intel introduced the Ultrabook spec because, left to itself, the laptop market was being too timid and needed a kick - especially with tablets starting to take market share. "Models were being refreshed with slightly better specs, without really fundamentally changing the form-factor," he says. "Apple obviously got there first with the Macbook Air because it had the price point to shake things up a bit - more and make changes within a less constrained budget."
He adds: "The challenge remains how these devices reach a price point where they maintain the step-change and are affordable to the mass market? If you look at the typical laptop user, many will be looking at tablets and thinking, 'This does everything I need, but is thinner, much lighter and much faster to boot-up for the same price or less'. There are some really interesting products coming out like the Lenovo four-way design and others with beautiful designs, but it needs to capture the imagination the same way the tablet has."
The Ultrabook specification also has knock-on effects, for example the maximum thickness of 21mm and the demand for all-day battery life pretty much mandate the use of a unibody chassis with a non-removable battery. The thinness of the device also leaves no room for VGA, DVI or Ethernet ports, although miniature versions could perhaps be included.
On top of all this, affordability means that an Ultrabook should sell for under $999 - the starting price for a Macbook Air - and ideally for $699 ('450) or less. That is a tall order - thin and light laptops are nothing new, but they have previously relied on expensive miniaturised componentry and heavy investments in engineering. Intel Capital (the company's venture capital divison) has therefore formed a $300m investment fund to help drive down the cost of the necessary technology.
Keeping the cost down
Even so, a big part of the problem is that the processor chip mandated by the Ultrabook specification - and you cannot use the brand-name in your marketing if you do not meet that spec - is over $200, and a decent-sized SSD is at least as expensive. That doesn't leave a lot to pay for all the other goodies needed, not to mention the engineering required to make such a thin device safely rigid.
So costs have to be cut. Entry-level models might have hybrid hard-drives instead of SSDs, even though they might not start as fast. It also means Intel engineers working on cheaper packaging technology, borrowing engineering methodologies from the automotive and aerospace industries to enable existing plastics to provide the rigidity that would otherwise require a die-cast and machined metal casing.
Alternatively, you could build a cheaper and otherwise-identical laptop without using Intel parts, but then you can't call it an Ultrabook because Ultrabook is an Intel-owned brand. Still, Hewlett-Packard has done exactly that by offering members of its Envy ultraportable family with AMD processors: it calls them Sleekbooks instead. Rather amusingly, only its AMD models come in under that $699 price point - substituting an Intel processor and adding a 32GB SSD cache drive to provide that instant-on capability increases the price by $200. Nobody is even suggesting that Intel's motives are not self-serving. *