In the era of ultralight and ultraportable mobile devices, with a processing power comparable to that of most computers from a few years ago, it's hard to give a good prognosis to anything that differs conceptually and in size from the general trend of miniaturisation. The swarm of thin, light ultraportable mobile phones and tablets, both of which enable the user to perform almost as many tasks as an average notebook could, has simply done a lot to make notebooks look unattractive and insufficiently appealing to end-users. Although the notebook category has been around a lot longer than its current competitors, with new subcategories springing up on a yearly basis, it's clear that room for further improvement and innovation has to be found. Intel was among the first to detect the latest pulsations of the market, announcing an entirely new category of light and energy-efficient devices just over a year ago, entitled simply (and effectively) "ultrabook". The goal, it seems, was to open a new chapter in the development of portable computers, with ultrabooks the first step towards a new future according to Intel.
Firstly, it's important to stress that ultrabooks as such are nothing truly revolutionary or new, just a new form of the already present evolutionary advancement of ultra-light and energy-efficient notebooks that use the so-called low-voltage CPUs. What's more, this category even had an assigned name, CULV or Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage", but Intel has obviously figured out how bad this had to sound to the marketing department and decided to change the entire name to the much more striking "ultrabook".
The idea of and general tendance of manufacturers towards thinner, lighter and more portable notebooks certainly predates ultrabooks by far, but it was Apple with its MacBook Air in 2010 that gave the first clear sign as to the future development. Yet it was Intel who rounded up the concept, gave it a clear definition, precised characteristics to the last bit and patented the Ultrabook brand name, which means that only Intel-approved devices can carry it; in other words, no AMD-based computer can ever be an Ultrabook, at least not in name.
So what's an Ultrabook?
Ultrabooks are essentially light and thin notebook computers that use solid-state storage memory and certain additional security solutions, all at a relatively accessible price. Of course, this definition is very general in nature; Intel has done a much more thorough job when deciding on actual specifications and requirements a PC has to meet in order to be called an Ultrabook. One of the basic requirements is, of course, the notebook's dimensions, primarily thickness, as "ultra-thin" is, after all, the first adjective that separates these devices from the lot. This value comes in at 20.32 mm. With such thinness, the total mass can't go through the roof either, which gives an end product that really raises the notion of portability to a whole new level, with the comfort of a hardware keyboard and CPU power far surpassing ARM-based solutions found in most tablets.
One of the main contributors to a PC's dimensions and mass is certainly the battery, and it's this particular segment that seeks the most research and innovation these days; all manufacturers are doing their best to redesign them and increase their compactness. In order to speed up the entire process and make available certain technologies to manufactuters, Intel has contributed major financial and human resources to this quest. Ultrabooks are the first fruition of the latter, as they use the so-called prismatic batteries, the cells of which enable much more compact forms and packagings, making them ideal for thin, flat enclosures. Of course, other key components have also undergone a thorough redesign, so Ultrabooks contain much smaller motherboards than typical notebooks, which unfortunately significantly reduces the number of available connectors and ports.
Since autonomy is an essential feature of a portable PC, the displays are now much more energy-efficient than before. For instance, owing to LG's own Shuriken panels, who are able to maintain displayed image without the constant need for refreshing the signal by the graphics card, power efficiency has been significantly reduced, and consequently the autonomy with a single battery charge.
The next feature that had to be accounted for is the "ultra-responsiveness". This refers to the use of SSD technology for both data storage and the so-called SSD caching. This makes data access much faster, while using NAND memory and Intel's Rapid Start technology reduced boot times to mere seconds. It's this very feature that generated such a huge gap between mobile phones/tablets and notebooks, as the latter need much more time to start up or wake from sleep mode than the former. With Rapid Start, Ultrabooks are able to boot an operating system in about five seconds, while the Smart Connect technology offers the ability to remain alert even in sleep mode (like mobiles), so that Wi-Fi remains on and you get all your notifications in good time. With the second generation of Ultrabooks, containing Intel's latest Ivy Bridge CPUs and slated for later this year, the startup and data access times are allegedly to be reduced even further.
Security is one of the main concerns in the world of portable devices, so Intel has paid particular attention to this segment too. The company has implemented their Anti-Theft and Identity Protection technologies, both of which work on the hardware level owing to Sandy Bridge CPUs which are specially optimised for them. Again, the second generation of Ivy Bridge-based Ultrabooks will bring further enhancements to security, and some plans have even been announced for the third generation, based on Haswell chips and currently only barely visible on the horizon.
Finally, all technology is bound to end up with a price tag, and the latter is forbidden from crossing the 1000 USD mark. Yet this is more of Intel's desire than an enforced rule and therefore doesn't have much to do with reality; most Ultrabooks are well over the said limit at the moment, most obviously HP, ASUS and Samsung models. Interestingly enough, the manufacturers say that it's Intel itself that's to blame for this state of affairs, and that price cuts will only be possible when Intel reduces the prices of the chips they're selling.
Of course, the entire concept wouldn't be very feasible if there wasn't for high energy efficiency of the new (and upcoming) Intel CPUs, which bring forth not only a low TDP, but also an integrated graphics chip, which eliminates the need for an additional discreet graphics solution, thereby reducing consumption even further. The current consumption of ULV Sandy Bridge E chips is 17 W, while the new 22 nm Ivy Bridge CPUs are expected to knock these values down by a few additional watts; finally, the entirely new Haswell architecture, expected in 2013, will allegedly reduce this value to merely 10 W, at least as far as the mobile gamma goes.
One of the main extra functionalities expected in further generations of Ultrabooks are touch-sensitive displays. This would cover more of the ground currently held by tablets, making the margin between the two worlds even dimmer. Furthermore, touch-sensitive displays are slated to appear on Ultrabooks around the same time as Windows 8 hits the market, the interface of which is specially optimised for this very purpose, but also for the CPU peculiarities invented by companies since the dawn of Windows 7. Finally, price reductions are expected to be the key contributors to the popularity of this platform, so we should be seeing Ultrabooks priced at around 700 USD by the end of this year already (or at least the US market should).
As the Ultrabook concept is Intel's registered brand name, it's clear that only Intel's CPUs will fit the bill, which means that AMD will have to come up with its own concept if they're to join the race. The main problem in this respect is coming up with a CPU which would have a sufficiently low TDP, something the said company still hasn't mastered, but things are prone to change very soon, it seems. According to the latest gossip, AMD should present their "Ultrathin" platform as a response to Ultrabooks by the end of the summer. The platform should be based on AMD's Trinity solutions and their low-voltage 17 W chips. The main factor in AMD's policy is (expectedly) a lower final price, expected to be 10-20% lower compared to Intel's current pricing. However, there will be around 20 models in the Ultrathin platform by the end of the year, compared to Intel's 75, so it'll be a tough battle for AMD.
Ultrabook computers are a logical step forward for notebooks and something that we expected to happen sooner or later. With their exceptionally small dimensions and mass, low consumption and more than adequate performance, we can freely say that you'll be seeing more and more of them in the near future. Of course, price remains the key factor for the adoption of this (and any other) technology, to the point where the entire distribution percentage depends on the final price of the products. The fact that Intel has reserved 300 million dollars only for the Ultrabook platform says enough about the intentions of the company towards further development of this platform and its expectations from it, but also announces an all-new racing field for the two majors.
However, although Ultrabooks are quite apt in terms of performance, for something so small and light, some users still need more power and flexibility, which can only be found on larger notebooks if you insist on sticking to the portable segment. This is exactly why certain manufacturers have started to wander away from Intel's strict specifications in order to accommodate for the needs of this user niche, so we've been seeing more and more of full-voltage CPUs, standard HDDs, batteries, optical drives and even graphics cards crammed into Ultrabook enclosures. Toshiba's Portege R835 and Acer's Timeline M3 Ultra are excellent examples thereof, which only belong to the Ultrabook category in name, but with dimensions and mass far from what Intel would like to see. Where models such as these will significantly impact further development of the entire concept remains to be seen in the upcoming months.