What Is An Ultrabook… and Does It Matter?


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Just like Cabbage Patch Kids of old, an unbranded Ultrabook waits for a home. (picture credit: Brooke Crothers, CNET)

Thin, light and powerful notebooks are coming to take over the world, and it appears it isn’t just Intel that will be promoting this form factor next year.

Since the launch of the first Ultrabooks – notebooks powered by low-voltage versions of the second generation of Intel Core processors – we’ve seen many different variations positioned to suit different customer segments.

All vendors take slight different riffs on the same ultimate goal – to provide a lightweight, slim, aesthetically pleasing notebook that can still provide similar computing experiences to the traditional notebooks that most end users own.

In the comments area for our YouTube segment featuring comparisons between three Ultrabooks from three major brands, one viewer, cowmonkey10, commented “Um…isn’t this just a laptop? What’s an ultrabook?”

That is the foundation for a lot of discussion going on in the IT manufacturing sector right now. Intel have set up a fund to provide marketing assistance to vendors who can make models that meet the criteria for Ultrabooks, which they hope will motivate the ramp up and customer acceptance of these new models.

I was chatting online to Steve Paine (aka “Chippy”) who runs the Ultrabook News website, and he pointed me to an article on CNET regarding Intel’s apparent focus on smaller companies to develop and produce Ultrabooks. This could be a good sign of competition in the new year, as the second-tier vendors will most likely release more competitively-priced versions of an Ultrabook and keep the larger brands in check.

Of course, Intel isn’t an island, and another article, this one on Tom’s Hardware, came out recently suggesting that AMD was readying itself to showcase their own versions of the “thin, light and powerful” category – possibly without stipulating dimensions and specifications. There’s some exciting possibilities there, and we hope to see some examples at the upcoming CES in Las Vegas.

So the question of “What is an ultrabook?” that I posed in the title is a reflection on the creation of a name to describe a new category – and whether this will impact and influence buyers of their next portable PC. I imagine this will depend on Ultrabooks living up to their promise of uncompromising performance in these sleek form factors.

What the term “Ultrabook” does achieve is provide some level of expectation in a potential buyer’s mind, and by forcing manufacturers to build to certain standards can ensure consistency in output. Even though each brand promotes their own offering in their unique way, a customer is educated to the general benefits and characteristics  of the category, in the same way the term “netbook” became accepted as a smaller mobile computing platform.

In the meantime, we thought we’d answer cowmonkey10′s question for our YouTube audience and share that with our readers here as well. There are plenty of sites, both official and non-official, that discuss the criteria in detail. Chippy’s page is a great reference for anyone that wants lots of information.

For those that want the lowdown in just one minute, here is our crash course in what is an Ultrabook:

 

For easy reference, here’s our comparison segment so you can see how different Ultrabooks can be, despite coming from the same general criteria:

 

Will the marketing activity of the term “Ultrabook” help sway you to purchase these a model that fits the definition, or will you buy simply on the merit of a notebook’s individual look, feel and performance?

Would love to hear your thoughts about how branding and classifying products affects your purchase decisions! See you all below.

Ultrabook Comparison – Acer S3, Toshiba Z830 & Asus UX31

Ever since Intel announced the new slim form factor that would take Windows-based notebooks into a new era of portability, lightness and cutting edge design, we’ve been covering many aspects of the Ultrabook build-up.

Our first Ultrabook article ran back in the beginning of September, discussing the details of what made an Ultrabook, and how it might add to the customer experience and value proposition.

ACER S3 Toshiba 7830 and ASUS UX21 Ultrabooks

Which do you want this Christmas? The slick and affordable ACER S3, the business person's dream machine in the Toshiba Z830, or the eye-catching performance and show-stopping looks of the ASUS UX21?

We’ve then been lucky enough to have some hands-on time with a slew of different models, including the Acer S3, Asus UX31, Toshiba Z830 and the HP DM3 Folio .

The beauty of competition is that even though Intel stipulated some minimum criteria benchmarks to determine what makes an Ultrabook, each manufacturer has come up with their own unique features that help set them apart from the pack – whether it be bang for buck, business-friendly features, or eye-catching design.

While we have looked at each individual model and reflected on their attributes as single-standing Ultrabooks, we thought it would be fun to gather three of the units and have a look at them together, just to see what made each one tick, and to illustrate just how different each Ultrabook could be, even though the same Intel DNA is coursing through each of their slim bodies.

If you’ve read each of the previous Ultrabook articles, then you’d have a fair idea of what each one offers. So instead of another article, we thought we’d produce a short, snappy video in the same style that you’ve now seen from the Transformer Prime segments.

We chose one Ultrabook from each processor range: an i3 Acer, an i5 Toshiba and an i7 Asus. We’ve presented our thoughts on what each model might represent for different customers, and left it open for further discussion – each model could be successful in its own patch of the market if they attract the right profile of user.

Without further ado, please find below our Ultrabook comparison video:

 

Here’s where we would love to hear your thoughts on the Ultrabooks – which one would you choose, and why? Or if you’re not interested in making the investment, what’s holding you back? As always, we’ll join you for the discussion and provide further information if you need it.

Talk to you all soon!

Check out www.youtube.com/ritchiesroomtv for all our videos and subscribe if you want to keep up to date with our regular video releases!

First Look: Pics and Official Specs of Upcoming HP Ultrabooks

HP have kept extremely tight-lipped about their Ultrabook plans, but today the veil has lifted off their first offering, and thanks to HP Australia we have a sample to look at in detail, along with the specs. These 13.3” Ultrabooks are due in late December.

HP's first entry into the Ultrabook market... the DM3, also known as the Folio.

Using a slimmed-down DM3 chassis and following that series’ lines and design sensibilities, the HP Folio, as it is called, adopts a conservative aesthetic approach, maintaining its appeal to the commercial sector and HP loyalists. In fact, opening the lid and seeing the layout and colour scheme, you can see where HP have retained the overall look and feel while slimming down the overall dimensions.

The DM3 is due out just before the end of 2011.

HP will have two models on offer, with the only variation being a choice of a low voltage i3 at 1.4GHz, or an i5 at 1.6GHz turbo boosted up to 2.3GHz. Other than that, all other vital statistics are the same. 4GB of RAM is taken up by one Dimm slot, and the spec sheet says expandable to 8GB RAM, so this may be the first Ultrabook with user upgradable components – a big plus for those looking to boost their performance. Both models come with 128GB solid state drives.

I could be mistaken but that looks like an easily removable panel to insert more RAM goodness!

The HP DM3 Ultrabook is also the first to have a two-tone body, with brushed metal finish on the lid and keyboard area, and a black rubberised base. The feel of the base is quite nice, not slippery plastic but a softer, more textured surface that enables excellent gripping when transporting by hand.

The dimensions of the DM3 are 31.8cm wide, 22cm deep and 1.8cm thick, with a weight of 1.49kg, so HP weren’t setting out to break records in the lightest or thinnest departments. Rather, it feels like a sturdy unit with good connectivity in a comparatively lightweight and thin body. Based on some of the flowing lines that reach from the sides and wrap around the front of the unit, I do get the feeling that HP could have gone with a thinner, wedge-based front if they wanted to, but it would have opposed their design principles.

No wedgies here... The two tone design stands out from other Ultrabooks.

The lid is nicely refined, with the HP logo stamped on in outline, leaving the brushed metal to fill in the letters. A small strip at the top of the lid includes a small tab for thumb-opening to reveal the inside.

It's easier to see in real life, but there are some cool brushed metal effects on the lid and keyboard area.

The black rubber of the base reaches up to the sides of the DM3, where all the inputs and outputs live. On the left hand side, the power, Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI, USB 2.0 port and memory card slot line up neatly. All of these inputs are full-sized. Two subtle LEDs indicate hard drive use and power.

Full-size notebook connectivity in an Ultrabook.

There is nothing on the back except for the fan outlet and the two hinges which keep the monitor in place, which is notably stiff. A headphone/mic combo jack and USB 3.0 port are all that is on the right hand side.

The monitor is a bright 1366 x 768 LED, with good side viewing angles and as mentioned before, looks pretty much bolted to the base from the two side hinges. A small unobtrusive webcam sits within the glass panel, along with a digital mic. The black framing of the screen is in line with the DM3 series DNA.

The touchpad is a one piece component that will pick up finger movements from corner to corner. The delineated click spaces work well, and right clicking in particular is quite accurate all the way to the middle of the wide “T”.

Integrated touchpad and clickpad on the HP DM3 does a good job of responding to gestures and presses.

The keyboard is nestled within a glossy black space that is sunken into the base to keep it flush with the rest of the brushed steel base. There is good tactile response to key pressing with a fair bit of depth and key separation. A small square on the touchpad can be double pressed and disables the touchpad to avoid palm-created inaccuracies with the cursor.

Familiar Pavilion design encases the keyboard in a glossy black finish.

There is a function button that activates and de-activates the backlit keyboard, the second Ultrabook to offer this added feature. In darkness the keys are bright and defined. Like its competitor, it’s a thoughtful add-on for those who might need it in low light or dark conditions.

The HP Ultrabook will keep you company all through the wee hours.

The Altec Lansing speakers that sit between the hinges are clear at higher volumes, but without much low end response. Perhaps HP could throw in a pair of Beats headphones to seal the deal from a portable entertainment sound point of view, given their brand association.

Detail showing speaker grill and sturdy hinge.

As it was stressed to me that this unit is a pre-production sample and does not fully represent performance benchmarks, the timings I recorded on wake up and boot up are not expected to be the final performance results. The 5 second wake up and 20 second boot up is a little slower than other Ultrabooks I’ve tested but this is sure to improve with the final production units.

The HP Folio is the most ruggedised Ultrabook I’ve come across so far. The rubberised base and sides where the connections are certainly give it a lot of grip and it doesn’t feel like a delicate unit. The stiff motion of the lid which encases the monitor reinforces that impression. In essence there are no surprises, and the build quality is first class.

A (literally) solid addition to the growing Ultrabook family.

Like the Toshiba we looked at a few days ago, the inclusion of the Ethernet jack hints at an enterprise and business customer. Its sturdiness should be a plus as it can be thrown around a little more if it is used on the road and places outside of an office environment. At under 1.5kgs it’s still way under most standard notebooks and just squeezes into the Ultrabook criteria.

After looking at a few Ultrabooks, there definitely appears to be a fork in the road where some brands like Acer and Asus have chosen to be more brash and thrilling in their form factor executions, to attract the purchaser whose notebook is an extension of their personality. Travelling down the other fork are brands like Toshiba and HP who have not deviated massively in style or design, but have taken advantage of new technology to offer a reason to upgrade to slimmer, lighter models that retain the reliability and sturdiness that businesses demand.

The Ultrabook category is the most exciting development for Windows-based portable PCs in many years. Out of their negative publicity and uncertainty, HP have stuck to their brand image and design approach and adapted the Ultrabook to their own blueprint. For a company that seemed to be on the cusp of an unfortunate fate not long ago, it’s a solid entry.

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Toshiba Satellite Z830 Ultrabook: First Look

Hot on the heels of the Ultrabook releases from Acer and Asus, Toshiba have launched their new Satellite Z830 Ultrabook, and we have the pleasure of detailing this sleek piece of machinery for our readers.

Toshiba's entrant into the newly-created Ultrabook category... the Z830.

I’ll start by touching briefly on the specs.  As with all newly released Ultrabooks this machine touts a low voltage version of the second generation Intel Core processor, in this case an i5 2467 with a 1.6GHz frequency that turbo boosts to 2.3Ghz, along with the on-die Intel HD graphics. It comes with 4GB RAM, which is fixed and not upgradeable, as well as a 128GB solid state drive. The battery is also non-replaceable, another defining descriptor for Ultrabooks thus far.

Less fashion, more function... The Toshiba Ultrabook will appeal to executives because of its business-oriented features.

Keeping with the Ultrabook philosophy, the Satellite Z830 is defined by its very slim form factor, and at 15.9mm, cuts a very thin figure with the lid opened or closed. In contrast to the Acer or Asus variants, the Z830 maintains a consistent thickness from the front to the back, eschewing the wedge design preferred by its competitors. It’s a clean-lined and professional looking machine.

Thin and streamlined no matter which end you look at.

Toshiba hasn’t compromised on the outputs despite the tighter real estate. On the left hand side is the full size SD card slot, headphone jack and external microphone input. On the right hand side is a high speed USB 3.0 port, easily identifiable with its blue connector, and a Kensington lock.

A welcome addition... high speed transfers coming your way courtesy of USB 3.0.

The back panel is where the majority of the port action is, with Ethernet, two USB 2.0, HDMI, and VGA ports – all full-sized. Toshiba have clearly thought about usage in the business sector. Where the Asus and Acer models rely on wireless connection or a USB-to-Ethernet adapter, the no-fuss Ethernet connection makes it an easy choice for travellers that use hotel rooms regularly.

Full sized inputs in a thin-sized notebook.

Similarly, the VGA output, although seemingly outdated with the inclusion of the HDMI output, makes sense for anyone that travels from location to location and uses projectors for their presentations or videos. It is still the standard connector for anyone who needs a quick connection to someone else’s monitor or projector.

Venting has been approached quite differently from each Ultrabook vendor we’ve seen so far. On the Acer S3, the back panel air vent dissipates the heat, and on the Asus Zenbooks the vents are at the top of the keyboard just underneath the screen. The Z830’s fan has small slots in the base of the unit, with the main vents on the left hand side of the back panel next to the Ethernet port.

Full sized Ethernet port for travellers, and rear vents for power users.

At 1.1kg, the Z830 is light, in fact deceptively light. You do get a sense that a PC of these dimensions should weigh a bit more. I passed the Z830 to a couple of colleagues to see their reaction and they thought it was missing its battery. It’s hard to describe the lightness without actually experiencing it for yourself.

I found myself holding the Z830 in ways that I wouldn’t other notebooks, simply because it wouldn’t normally be possible. I can hold this Ultrabook open from the left hand corner with no other support. It’s not a huge thing, but just knowing it is both light and stiff when moving it from point to point means less preoccupation with how to pick it up – any edge will do.

I wouldn't dare do this for long with my current notebook, lest I risk injury to me or my machine.

There is a downside to this lack of weight: it sets up expectations for how all notebooks should feel when picked up and used around the house or on the road. Even a typical 10” netbook weighs more. How am I supposed to go back to my wretched heavyweight notebook after this?

Opening the lid presents a rather angular design rather than the more curved and striking designs seen in other Ultrabooks. It really looks like it belongs on the uncluttered desk of a business executive, more so than out in the café crowds. The Z830 is definitely more understated in its look, and that will appeal to many in the enterprise or small business space.

With the Toshiba Ultrabook, it's definitely hip to be square.

A few design features pop out immediately upon opening the unit. The first is the touchpad, with the distinguishable left and right click buttons. On other Ultrabooks, this has been integrated into the touchpad to great effect, but here Toshiba have taken a more practical route with defined areas for the touchpad and left/right click buttons. As with many other Toshiba notebooks, a dedicated button for disabling the touchpad lives just below the space bar.

The space directly below the touchpad buttons have been utilised with miniature status indicators for drive use, power/charging, wireless connection, etc. This benefits the overall design aesthetic of the Z830 with no other distracting LEDs on the surface of the horizontal base.

A more traditional touchpad set up, but is that a bad thing?

Further up the Ultrabook’s body, there is a noticeable valley where the keyboard exists. Due to this dip, the island keys are actually flush with the rest of the surface and adds to the streamlined visual signature – subtle but effective.

A nice design flourish to keep the keyboard in line with the rest of the landscape.

A very visible feature is part of the keyboard itself – all keys are backlit. This means no issues typing in lowlight environments, and the characters light up in a bright white display. This may not be a feature that will be used every day, but as a blogger that works all kinds of hours, I can see the benefit immediately. You may not always want external lighting while you’re working, either out of respect for others or other reasons, and the backlit keyboard just gives that extra flexibility.

This is what your Toshiba Ultrabook looks like at night.

Onto the screen, and the single long centre hinge and the brutally squared-off corners of the monitor make this machine even more corporate-looking. Where the Acer S3 have two side hinges and the Asus Zenbook places the screen slightly behind the keyboard, the monitor here actually rises out of the keyboard base, with deliberate gaps on the left and right sides to enhance the effect. It’s a sparse screen too, with only a subtle screen print of the branding below and the webcam and mic above the LED.

Another cool design feature, but it may have its drawbacks.

Cold booting from complete shutdown is impressive. I booted up three times in a row to make sure, and each time I was onto the desktop within 18 seconds. That’s right, not from hibernation or sleep… from shut down mode. I then tried from sleep mode, and the wake up time was less than 3 seconds.

When probing into the Toshiba utility programs, there is an application called Hi Speed Start. This will quicken the boot-up time but will bypass any required Windows updating in preference to starting up lightning fast.

When you have these kinds of boot-up and wake-up times, you can see where Intel, along with their manufacturing partners, is addressing the tablet experience by offering such quick response times. Those that use tablets are used to instant access, and Ultrabooks gives a pretty close experience, but with a keyboard and all the Windows software that goes with it.

The resolution of the screen is 1366 x 768, the same as the Acer S3 but lower than the Asus UX31. One thing I did notice was the amount of bend that could be applied to the lid/screen, due to the extreme thinness of the frame. I’d say that would be in part due to the single hinge not travelling all the way to the bottom corners. While it doesn’t have an impact on everyday usability, I would still caution against applying too much pressure to opposite ends of the LED screen.

Toshiba have taken the concept of "thin" to the extreme on the lid/display frame.

There are two small vents below the palm rests on the keyboard, which pump out surprisingly clear and loud sound given how small the slots are. The main target audience for this Ultrabook may not be for home entertainment or gaming enthusiasts, but it’s good to see that downtime activities like movies and music playback will still look and sound solid on this machine.

The two small slots on either side of the Ultrabook deliver some pretty decent audio. Note the fan outlet on the top left as discussed.

As a first impression, it’s a great example of an Ultrabook trying not to compromise on functions that traditional business-minded customers would expect, such as VGA and Ethernet connectivity. On the other hand the sharp corners, single hinge design and impressively  light weight (best in industry, in fact)  shows a commitment to the Ultrabook quest for thinner, lighter products backed up by performance.

The Z830 may not have the flair of some of its counterparts, but its cool-corporate design and full suite of input/outputs will still place it on the shopping list for those looking to upgrade their notebook to the newest generation of portable computing devices.

What are your thoughts on this latest Ultrabook release? As with my other articles on this emerging category , feel free to ask me any questions about the Toshiba Ultrabook and I’ll be more than happy to respond.

Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabooks Hit Stores, We Produce an Unboxing Video

 

ACER Aspire S3 Ultrabook side on

ACER Aspire S3 Ultrabook only 13mm thick very impressive.

After all the hype, the teasing, and the anticipation, the first Ultrabooks have arrived in store, and it’s Acer that have scored the launch coup once again with their Aspire S3 Ultrabook debuting before any other supplier.

Acer are starting to make this a habit, being the first to introduce Honeycomb 10 inch tablets into retail, and then the first 7 inch tablets with the Honeycomb operating system.

The first model to land is the entry model, which has a retail price of $1,199 and comes with an Intel Core i3 processor, a 320GB hard drive and a 20GB SSD for OS and caching, which helps it achieve the fast wake up that Ultrabooks have so spectacularly demonstrated. Three more models are expected shortly – an i5 with hard drive/SSD combo like the i3, and two SSD-only models in i5 and i7 configurations.

Intel will be very happy to see these finally make the light of day, as this form factor and performance benchmark is expected to make a large contribution to their mix of products over the coming months, and with good reason. These Ultrabooks place more emphasis on design and user-focused appeal than on pure specification-driven models, and present themselves in sleek, thin packages that are very pleasing on the eye.

More brands are expected to release their own offers soon, but in the meantime feast your eyes on this unboxing video that we’ve produced for Bing Lee.

 

Will you be heading in to see an Ultrabook in the flesh for yourself? Feel free to leave your personal impressions below.