Jonathan Takiff: Next big thing: Ultrabooks

The Acer Aspire S3 goes for a slightly wedge-shaped look, mimicking the MacBook Air.
The Acer Aspire S3 goes for a slightly wedge-shaped look, mimicking the MacBook Air.

They're going up against notebooks

Posted: September 07, 2011

THE GIZMO: Multiple makers of notebook computers are singing the same sweet song at the big Germany electronics show IFA - hailing the arrival of the "Ultrabook." Coming "soon" to these shores, too, the Ultrabook is a new class of ultrathin, fast and efficient Windows 7 laptops, all built around a reference design developed by Intel and thus having many features in common.

WHAT'S THE POINT?: Tablet (a/k/a "slate") computers, especially the iPad, are eating laptop makers' lunch. Spoiling you from using anything else, these slim units pack light, run all day on a battery charge and boot up almost instantly. That's all possible because tablets load the operating system and run programs off a solid-state drive (SSD), rather than from an inefficient (spinning) hard disk drive.

Oh, and for productivity animals who demand a full keyboard (not just a tablet's touchscreen), Apple also offers its $999-and-up MacBook Air, an ultraslim laptop computer likewise built around an SSD and now even more iPad-ish with the new Lion operating system and Mac App Store.

To date, those $999-and-up Airs haven't gotten nearly the mass attention or sales traction as the $500-plus iPads. But when die-hard laptop users next go shopping for a replacement, Airs will surely grab more of their attention.

So here come the Ultrabooks, representing a logical and still timely response from the "Wintel" (Microsoft/Intel) community, aimed to head off said defectors at the pass.

Intel has challenged (and is helping) makers to produce 13.3-inch Ultrabooks starting at $800, with fancier versions selling in the $999-$1,200 range. By comparison, a 13.3-inch MacBook Air with 128GB SSD goes for $1,299.

WHAT'S IN COMMON: The newly introduced (in Europe) Lenovo IdeaPad U300S, Acer Aspire S3 and Toshiba Portege Z835 all boast a 13.3-inch screen and full-size keyboard, packed into a lightweight and sturdy metal (aluminum and magnesium) case and frame. Weight is kept under 3 pounds and the profile to less than 0.6 of an inch thick. The Acer and Lenovo go for a slightly wedge-shaped look, mimicking the Mac Air; the Toshiba has a uniform "booklike" design.

All Ultrabooks use Intel's second-generation Core processors and Advance Cooling Technology. A "breathable keyboard" allows air to flow in through the keyboard and out the sides and rear hinge, eliminating vents on the bottom. So these notebooks can rest comfortably on the user's lap. Also, components that heat up have been positioned away from the palm rest and touch-pad area.

All three examples also boast 1.3-megapixel webcams, an integrated battery (not user replaceable) that's good for seven to eight hours of use between recharging, plus a big bunch of ports - USB 3.0 and 2.0, HDMI, RGB, SD card slot and Ethernet. Lenovo also boasts of having SRS Premium Surround Sound and Intel's WiDi technology for wireless video transfers from a laptop to TV. Acer touts the S3's Dolby Home Theater v4 sound enhancement.

JUMP START MY HEART: Of course, all three Ultrabooks get kick-started with SSD technology. Lenovo calls its SSD "Rapid Drive" and claims a start-up time of 10 seconds with the 256-gigabyte version. The basic Aspire A3 announced for Europe with a 240 GB SSD boasts an instant-on time of two seconds from "Sleep" mode (off for less than 30 minutes) and a six-second start-up from "Deep Sleep." The latter is a barely alive mode, making possible up to 50 days of battery standby.

THE BILLION $ QUESTION: What happens to these super-speedy Ultrabooks when you load on an Internet security program like Norton 360? Although Apple customers believe (wrongly) that their devices are immune to interlopers, most Windows OS computer users won't go anywhere on the Web without a security blanket warmed up and scanning for bugs. And making that final safety check before takeoff does take time. How much, on an Ultrabook, remains to be seen.


For more about technology, go to www.philly.com/gizmoguy for Jonathan Takiff's blog.

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