What Is An Ultrabook… and Does It Matter?

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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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.

Samsung Series 7 Slate PC: First Look

In October, Samsung will be releasing their latest offering in the tablet/slate space, unaffected by legal wrangling. Samsung provided an evaluation unit of the upcoming Series 7 Slate PC for a few fun hours, and I walked away quite impressed with what they have been able to do with a Windows-based tablet.

Not just another tablet... The Series 7 Slate PC

With Ultrabooks being all the rage, Apple continuing to dominate the tablet market and Android-based tablets showing real innovation, this product definitely needs to have some stand-out features to cut through the noise from all the other computing offerings.

I think this slate device from Samsung not only competes nicely against the incumbents, but keeping in mind what Windows 8 has in store next year, sets the benchmark for a solid out-of-the-box Windows solution.

Series 7 Slate on dock.

The specifications actually sound very Ultrabook-ish. A low voltage Intel i5 processor, the same as the one used in some Ultrabooks, with 64GB or 128GB SSD capacity, 4GB of RAM and a choice between Premium and Professional operating systems. The local Australian versions haven’t been confirmed yet. Just like the Ultrabooks, there is no dedicated graphics, relying on the Intel HD Graphics to handle all the video processing requirements.

The screen is a bright (400 nit) 11.6” LCD with a 1366 x768 widescreen resolution. Wireless is naturally built-in, as is Bluetooth for connection to keyboards and other devices. There’s a front and back camera with 2MP and 3MP sizes respectively.

All in the box... Dock, keyboard and stylus come with the Series 7 Slate.

However, the specs are only one part of the story. This is easily the best looking, easy to carry Windows tablet I’ve played with so far. The metal finish across the entire body is striking and would stand out from existing tablets. Those who purchase with design and style in their criteria would be turning their heads in this slate’s direction. The capacitive screen is very responsive, presumably carrying on from Samsung’s experience in previous tablets and smartphones.

Light and thin come to mind as well, with the unit weighing only 860 grams and a tad under 13mm thick.

 

There’s enough connectivity to satisfy most users on the actual tablet, with Micro-SD card, micro-HDMI, full-size USB and headphone input all present along with the dock connector. Other buttons include power, volume and orientation-lock.

Series 7 profile showing USB flap, headphone input, volume, HDMI and power.

Windows 7 has never been a serious contender in the touch-based environment. Smartly, there is an active electromagnetic pen included, which makes much more sense for standard windows operation. The pen can be floated slightly above the screen and still be detected by the display.

 

If you want a more touch-friendly interface, Samsung does include a Touch Launcher program, which is essentially a skin for selected programs to be grouped within a one-touch, slide based environment. It’s a small but cool program that gives a degree of familiarity to those already using tablets.

Touch-based program launcher on t he Series 7 Slate.

On that topic, Samsung have deliberately called this a “slate”, with no mention of tablets, and it seems that its target market is not the app-based content consuming market – this is definitely a product you would create documents on first, and use as a casual touch screen device second.

Full PC performance when you need it.

The dock and Bluetooth keyboard are included in the box as well. The dock provides charging, Ethernet, USB 2.0, headphone and HDMI outputs, while the slim, metallic keyboard provides a very real notebook feel while the tablet is docked.

 

And this is the attraction – while docked, the Series 7 Slate offers a high performance PC, perhaps hooked up to a larger HD monitor. Out of the dock and on the road, it’s still capable of running all of the Windows applications you need but in a truly portable form factor. This is no netbook-level Windows tablet. The slate has a claimed 7 hours battery life but I didn’t have it long enough to confirm that.

Rear of the Series 7 Slate showing 3MP camera and dock connectivity.

From the short experience I had, it’s easily one of the best Windows 7 executions of a tablet form factor yet. The stylus may be anachronistic to some but makes total sense in a Windows environment, until Windows 8 arrives sometime next year.

An example of Series 7 Touch Launch programs - the Recipe app.

The Series 7 Slate will be priced at similar levels to some of its Ultrabook cousins, but if local sales of the Asus EP121 Windows Slate are any indication, there is a market for those who need to hold on to their Windows-based applications and this complete package may be just the ticket.

Would you consider the Slate as your next PC purchase? How would you be using it?