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The Ultrabook, Part 2: It's Not What You Think It Is

By - Source: Tom's Guide US | B 15 comments

I have to admit that that the only other new product category that I have found to be more puzzling than Intel's ultrabook idea has been Origami, commonly referred to as the UMPC, half a decade ago.

The UMPC was more marketing product than a flushed out mobile PC that made consumer sense. The ultrabook shows similar symptoms and there is a good chance that this term will fade away just like the UMPC or the MID did. So I spent some time with Intel to find out what the plan is. Here is part 2 of my quest of understanding what the ultrabook may be (read part 1 here).

If there is anything that I learned from my discussion with Intel's Greg Welch, director for ultrabook marketing, then it is that I can feel more confident that we aren't stuck with the conviction that the PC has to be dead just because Apple is selling millions of iPads.

The Purpose: Ditch The Compromise

Let's just be frank and admit that the ultrabook is a notebook with a dressed up name for now. It is supposed to be thinner than anything else you have seen in a notebook to date. It can't be as thin as a tablet, but it will deliver the utility of a traditional notebook and provide far more universal usability as well as battery life than today's notebooks.

While the form factor of the ultrabook clearly goes after the tablet and will attempt to claim some of the iPad excitement, those new notebooks will remain foremost content creation devices, which is a good thing, but this may also be a curse that will prevent Intel and ultrabook builders to shed the perception of being stuck in a stone age product strategy.

Tablets are generally considered as "lean-back" products as you are consuming content with them, while notebooks are described as "lean-forward" products that are far less convenient to use in a passive content consumption scenario, but are superior when you actively create content: The PC will always be the much more powerful and flexible tool when you want to engage in a digital activity and when you want to be creative. It is the single most critical advantage the PC has over the tablet and Intel is trying to convey this message.

The ultrabook is pitched as an outline and that will resemble the size of a tablet, but keep the talents of a PC. Will it be enough? No. And guess what? Intel knows it’s not enough.

PC versus tablet market

The question how big the tablet market really is has been by far the most interesting and controversial discussion areas I have experienced in my 15-year career. It is an almost surreal space you enter once you start discussing and questioning the tablet market. No one will deny today that there is doubt whether this market actually exists, yet every major IT company is going after it.

I could not resist asking Welch this question as well. It is clear that the question "is there a tablet market?" is a tricky one and you won't get a direct answer - not from a marketing director and not from a CEO. My impression is that the industry simply does not know the answer, and serious doubt has been infused by Android tablets that have failed one by one.

Welch told me that Intel is aware that general market forecast numbers for tablet sales have been off, but noted that Intel is still going after the notebook as well as the tablet market. There is little doubt about the existence of the notebook market, but Intel is not going after the tablet market because it has a opportunity right before its eyes: Intel is going after the tablet market, because it "can't afford to miss out" if the tablet in fact will take off. "Gladly Intel has the resources to develop products for both markets simultaneously," he said.

You can interpret this message in many ways. I feel that this "just in case" strategy already accepts potential failure of the tablet market and, from Intel's perspective, this may not be such a bad thing. Notebook processors are more expensive, more capable and provide more engineering space than a tablet chip: Plus, if the tablet generally failed, Intel could easily get rid of the pain in the rear ARM has turned out to be. There may even be the opportunity to convert Apple to adopt x86 tablet processors.

Intel's best shot is, no matter how excited we are about tablets, the reinvented notebook.

Relighting the fire

Interestingly, Welch agreed that the concerns that I expressed in the first article of this series were generally accurate. Thin and light is not enough. More performance isn't enough, especially since the perception of performance is actually shifting from top-end speed to acceleration: Consumers apparently refer to performance in a modern notebook and rally mean responsiveness. Consumers value an instant-on capability much more than ever before. Welch also noted that security concerns need to be addressed - and ultrabooks need features that allow its users to wipe data remotely, at will and when needed. These are all great ideas, but I don't believe that they will inject that kind of excitement that is compelling enough to make you wait in line for hours for the privilege to be the first user of an ultrabook. Yet it is this excitement Intel needs to relight the fire for the common notebook.

As it stands, the ultrabook can be generally criticized as something we already have - a PC version of the Macbook Air. The fact is that hardware will take Intel and PC makers only so far. Welch agreed that PC makers will have to play a platform game to be successful and they may have to think outside the box to create what the name "ultrabook" suggests: Intel merely provides the shell PC makers can use to innovate in. Intel hopes that this shell is enough to inspire PC makers to take the notebook beyond what we believe a notebook can be today.

In some way, the ultrabook is similar to the 2006 UMPC story, and very different from the 2008 netbook pitch. There is a general idea what an ultrabook can be, but it is a very loose definition. The UMPC had a similarly blurry definition and quickly vanished. The netbook on the other hand had a very narrow definition and succeeded for some time, but eventually failed as the idea got old and there was virtually no innovation in this space. Common sense would suggest that Intel needs to exactly define the ultrabook and learn from the netbook experience: Give a clear guideline what an ultrabook has to be and keep evolving this idea inside Intel.

The spark for innovation needs to take place at the core and Intel needs to realize that it will need to take a much more active role in helping PC makers to reinvent the notebook.

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  • 3 Hide
    Onus , June 10, 2011 3:00 PM
    My suggestion: stop trying to invent a "solution" for which a well-defined problem does not already exist. The days of rampant consumerism, in which marketing departments can sell vast quantities of product merely by creating a perception of need or of obsolescence are coming to an end as economies melt down. Seek out dissatisfied customers, and find out exactly what needs aren't being met that is making them so unhappy. Instead of showing them what they could do, ask them what they need to do. Then create (or refine) a solution that makes economic sense.
  • -5 Hide
    zulutech , June 10, 2011 3:08 PM
    Man I still use Windows XP. It does everything, for me, flawlessly with some flaws. (And I find it much easier to code, and navigate the the disk than Windows 7) If only Microsoft would go back to Windows XP, and make it better, much better. That would be the day.
  • 8 Hide
    Anonymous , June 10, 2011 3:34 PM
    ^They did already, it's called Windows 7.
  • Display all 15 comments.
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , June 10, 2011 4:44 PM
    It's a market for small and fairly functional notebooks. Look at Lenovo's smallest, Sony's X-series, the latest 11" MacBook Air and similar models. IMO the the Sony X wit an 11" screen and a weight well below 1kg is the one to beat. It has an Atom processor and deservers something better while the weight may be low enough already to compete with iPads and similar for portability.
  • -2 Hide
    billj214 , June 10, 2011 4:51 PM
    I personally see cloud computing as the future where you can use your smart phone or tablet to access a powerful PC remotely and play games, watch Blu-ray movies etc.

    And for home replacing all of your home PC's with a little inexpensive box connected to a keyboard, monitor and Cat5 cable which has the power of your desktop PC processor and graphics, you wouldn't know the difference. You could also connect one to every TV in the house for streaming media or games on the big screen.
  • 3 Hide
    robisinho , June 10, 2011 5:27 PM
    @billj214 - I hope cloud computing never gets past the "value added" phase, to become the primary mode of computing. I can understand offering storage, offering server-side computation, offering even game rendering like.. I cant remember the name of it but that place that gives you 1080p on a 100mbps connection so you can game on any netbook class computer... those are all fine. but where I can't store data reasonably at home because no one makes parts for the individual anymore, when I cant run modern software offline, when I can't enforce privacy in computation .. that's where things go all Malthusian.
  • 0 Hide
    doive1231 , June 10, 2011 5:39 PM
    What about a module you could attach to these tablets and ultrabooks that would significantly increase performance such as graphics or processing at home or your normal desk/workplace. Then when you want mobility, the ultrabook/tablet would come into its own. The module would add to the CPU cores, memory, and so on. Some might say it's two computers but you could upgrade the module to keep it current.
  • 0 Hide
    doive1231 , June 10, 2011 5:42 PM
    Or use the cloud. Ahem.
  • 0 Hide
    billj214 , June 10, 2011 6:08 PM
    Robisinho > Yes I would prefer to have the cloud PC at my house using my hardware!

    Doive1231 > Wow some good ideas! How about a slot upgrade GPU? or CPU? Or being able to connect to your Home Server for some extra CPU/GPU horsepower!

    UMPC = Thin, Light, with a "Turbo Boost Pack" which can be connected when extra horsepower is needed! :) 
  • 1 Hide
    Silmarunya , June 10, 2011 6:53 PM
    doive1231What about a module you could attach to these tablets and ultrabooks that would significantly increase performance such as graphics or processing at home or your normal desk/workplace. Then when you want mobility, the ultrabook/tablet would come into its own. The module would add to the CPU cores, memory, and so on. Some might say it's two computers but you could upgrade the module to keep it current.


    External GPU's have been possible for a long time. With Thunderbolt/Light Peak (PCI-E-based) it's now as easy as an e-SATA harddisk. External memory and CPU cores are hard and impossible atm respectively. External RAM's latency would be through the roof and dual CPU's are hard enough with two physical sockets already.

  • 0 Hide
    proxy711 , June 10, 2011 8:31 PM
    SilmarunyaExternal GPU's have been possible for a long time.

    You should be saying "External GPU's have been out for a long time" seeing as their are multiple products out there.
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , June 10, 2011 8:59 PM
    The solution is obvious. We need a lightweight Batman utility belt that holds all the cpu and gpu processing power, memory, and storage that syncs wirelessly to a brainless tablet. Done. Ok, maybe a belt clashes with your style so we can put into the lining of a fancy handbag or snazzy pair of shoes. Done. ok jus trying to be humorous but its not impossible.
  • 0 Hide
    dalethepcman , June 10, 2011 9:08 PM
    SilmarunyaExternal GPU's have been possible for a long time. With Thunderbolt/Light Peak (PCI-E-based) it's now as easy as an e-SATA harddisk. External memory and CPU cores are hard and impossible atm respectively. External RAM's latency would be through the roof and dual CPU's are hard enough with two physical sockets already.


    Actually this would be a very simple solution. You have a tablet, that contains a low end tablet CPU and GPU with limited memory. (EEE convertible) This device is primarily for consumption and casual gaming.

    You have a keyboard with a desktop class CPU, GPU, and disk drive built into it, that contains a dock for the tablet. (EEE keyboard+dock)

    When the tablet is in the dock it acts as a touchscreen, displaying the information relayed from the dock, charging its battery, and Syncing its data. (The user profile would be stored on the mobile system)
  • 0 Hide
    dalauder , June 14, 2011 4:29 AM
    dalethepcmanActually this would be a very simple solution. You have a tablet, that contains a low end tablet CPU and GPU with limited memory. (EEE convertible) This device is primarily for consumption and casual gaming.You have a keyboard with a desktop class CPU, GPU, and disk drive built into it, that contains a dock for the tablet. (EEE keyboard+dock)When the tablet is in the dock it acts as a touchscreen, displaying the information relayed from the dock, charging its battery, and Syncing its data. (The user profile would be stored on the mobile system)
    Sounds to me like a reinvention of the Commodore 64, which would be a great idea if the new one embodied the affordability of the original with all the horsepower you need (new C64 is an expensive Atom).
  • 0 Hide
    dalauder , June 14, 2011 5:05 AM
    Once all TVs have wireless input (3 years tops), your Desktop will be able to connect to them using your integrated wireless video adapter (5 years tops) and GPU. That'll kinda make laptops that connect to a powerful expansion pack useless. And it'll take that 3 years to develop and adopt anyways.

    Instead, they just need PC versions of Macbook Air's with the functionality people need (Mac users aren't as fixated on performance)--so they must be faster than Netbooks by about 4x. This will happen whether or not we call it an Ultrabook in the next two years, so I guess the only point of this whole thing is that they're relaunching Netbooks. And they're called Ultrabooks now because the name is soiled.

    There are two paths you can go by: Suprise people with your performance in something that doesn't look capable of much (smartphones) or build something with solid performance (laptop). You can't go between those until ultraportable can provide 4x Atom performance. At that point, the $500-$600 laptops will disappear and you'll get $300-$400 laptops that do everything you need (includes ultraportables) and $800 desktop replacments. But today, smartphones and functional laptops will be the only ones that are more than a fad.
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