With talk about the potential dilution of the Ultrabook brand one would almost think that Intel hasn’t set clear guidelines about what defines an Ultrabook. On the contrary, whether or not a laptop manufacturer calls a new product an Ultrabook tells me a whole lot about the product right away. PC Advisor has run a story claiming that “The truth is that there are few definitive specifications for an Ultrabook,” apparently not realizing that this is part of the strategy.
Intel hasn’t come right out and said it, but it seems pretty clear that the company realized that the ‘race to the bottom’ that was the netbook era was not conducive to growing an ecosystem of quality PC products. I’ve previously laid out why Ultrabooks are better for both consumers and PC manufacturers than netbooks — in short, the consumer gets a better product at a relatively equal price (over time) while PC makers aren’t competing for the bottom of the barrel. Furthermore Ultrabooks are a much better face for the industry than netbooks. Intel is actively raising the bar. Search trends seem to show that declining netbook interest has an inverse relationship with increasing Ultrabook interest:
“The truth is that there are few definitive specifications for an Ultrabook, so they vary widely in size, weight and capabilities.”
This is an entirely true statement from PC Advisor’s article titled What is an Ultrabook anyway?, but they are painting it as a bad thing. Er… what? Any experienced PC user knows that choice is the essential hallmark of the PC industry. Intel didn’t set out to have laptop manufacturers start churning out cookie-cutter Macbook Air wannabes.
So what is an Ultrabook… what does it tell you about the computer you are purchasing? A lot, actually. In fact, whether or not a manufacturer is calling its new product an Ultrabook makes a big difference. With any Ultrabook, regardless of whether it has an SSD or HHD, I know it will have wicked fast boot times — you’ll have to find a time other than during the morning PC boot-up to make your cup of coffee. Ultrabooks return from standby nearly instantly and connect to the internet as fast.
Then there’s size, battery life, and performance. In almost all cases, an Ultrabook will be sleeker, lighter, faster, and have better battery life than non-Ultrabooks in the same class. Why? Because Intel has specified that all Ultrabooks use the company’s top-notch ultramobile processors. On top of that, there are certain requirements that need to be met by a product for it to brandish the Ultrabook name. For screens 14″ or smaller, the device can be no thicker than 18mm. Although there is no explicit weight requirement, less bulk nearly always lends itself to Ultrabooks being lighter than other thicker computers. There are extreme examples too, like NEC’s Lavie Z which is the lightest computer in the 13″ class at an amazing 875 grams. For screens larger than 14″ Intel requires Ultrabooks to be no thicker than 21mm. Again, even big 15″ Ultrabooks tend to be quite light in the broad spectrum of PC possibilities.
Then there’s all the features guaranteed to come with an Ultrabook. I already mentioned Intel Rapid Start which enables blazing fast boots and resumes. There’s also Smart Response which intelligently and automatically caches important files and programs to make even Ultrabooks equipped with hybrid hard drives feel like they have SSDs inside. There’s more too, but I’ll leave you with this for now.
MacBook Air Alternatives Aplenty
PC Advisor goes on to say about Ultrabooks that, “None, yet, can truly claim to rival the MacBook Air.” This, I say, is a statement full of hot air.
The MacBook Air is a beautiful machine, but not only are there Ultrabooks to rival it, some might even surpass it.
Let’s look at the 13″ MacBook Air (2012):
For $1,199 you’ll get a 1440×900 resolution display, 128GB SSD, 4GB of RAM, Core i5 CPU, HD4000 integrated graphics, 2x USB 3.0 ports, a Thunderbolt port, and a full SD card slot. All of this in a 17mm thick package at 1.35kg.
Now let’s take a look at the Asus Zenbook UX32VD:
For $1,248 you get a stunning 1920×1080 IPS display, 500GB HHD, 4GB of RAM, Core i7 CPU, Nvidia GT620M graphics, 3x USB 3.0 ports, full HDMI, mini-VGA, and full SD. Thickness is 18mm and weight is 1.45kg.
So the Zenbook UX32VD bests the MacBook Air in screen resolution and quality (the IPS panels Asus is using are apparently quite good).
The 128GB SSD in the Macbook Air is traded off for a larger 500GB HHD which achieves the same boot performance as an SSD and achieves near-SSD speeds for application launching and other tasks thanks to Intel Smart Response (an Ultrabook feature).
RAM is the same between both while the UX32VD has a more powerful Core i7 CPU next to the MacBook Air’s Core i5.
The MacBook Air relies on Intel’s HD4000 graphics which, while not bad, doesn’t stand up to the UX32VD’s discrete Nvidia GT620M GPU. The UX32VD also wins out on ports with an extra USB port, mini-VGA, and full HDMI.
Thunderbolt on the MacBook Air? Unless you’ve got $1000 to drop on a Thunderbolt display or $399 for one of Belkin’s Thunderbolt docks, don’t plan to get much use out of Thunderbolt any time soon. And if you want to adapt that Thunderbolt port to anything useful, expect to pay Apple $30 a-pop for adapters.
The Beauty of Choice
And there’s something to be said here about choice in Ultrabook land. While we just compared two high-end machines, what if someone on a budget wants to get in on Ultrabook performance? This is where the market shines; second-generation Ultrabooks can be had starting at $599! Yes, the MacBook Air might be better than these cheaper devices, but it simply isn’t an option for some (dare I say, many). The Ultrabook market offers premium features at reasonable prices, and extends all the way up to great MacBook Air alternatives if you’ve got the budget — what’s not to like?
So, I think we can safely tuck away the ‘no MacBook Air rival’ argument. As for Ultrabooks — they are not meant to be cookie-cutter devices. Intel wants to maintain the choice that makes the PC market what it is. With the Ultrabook initiative they’ve found a way to retain that facet of the PC industry while simultaneously encouraging PC manufacturers to raise the bar of user experience with ultraportable PCs.
Intel isn’t done. They haven’t defined a single of rules and are now resting on their laurels. Instead, Intel sees that the Ultrabook brand is something that needs to change to continue to drive that bar upward to give consumers a great computing experience. Expect exciting developments in 2013 for Ultrabook form-factors with Haswell.