Ultrabooks: Thin and light, but not harbingers of a 'New Era'
REVIEW: Intel touts Ultrabooks as 'A New Era in Computing.' The thin, swift laptops are probably the best thing right now for getting work done on the go, but they'll be eclipsed by the iPad and other tablets before too long.
Perched on my lap is a surprisingly svelte machine. The ASUS Zenbook's aluminum chassis tapers to a whisper-thin edge. The brushed-metal lid gleams with class. The whole thing weighs just under three pounds: I can throw it in my backpack and barely notice the change. It runs coolly and almost silently, even when I'm looping YouTube videos or flipping between multiple programs. In short, it's got a lot to commend.Skip to next paragraph
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This Zenbook is one of the flagship "Ultrabooks," a term Intel coined last year to describe thin-and-light PC laptops similar to the MacBook Air. And in Intel's eyes, Ultrabooks aren't just an iterative step in notebooks: their marketing campaign, launched just last week, is called “A New Era of Computing.” An Ultrabook TV ad quips, “Suddenly, everything else seems old-fashioned."
But in spite of my fuzzy feelings about the Zenbook, I'm not convinced that this is really where the “New Era” of computing lies. I think it lies with tablets – and, specifically, with the iPad.
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I think it's fair to compare the two classes of devices – in fact, two Intel reps compared Ultrabooks to iPads in an interview with PCWorld last week, arguing Ultrabooks' physical keyboards were a point in their favor: “There's no tactile feedback on touchscreens.... Consumers have told us that tablets are great for certain things like content consumption and casual gaming, but when there's real work to be done, they really like to do it on a laptop.”
I think Intel is essentially correct, in the short term: Ultrabooks stack up favorably against the iPad right now. But I also think that within a year or so the field will have shifted and their argument will seem outdated and quaint.
Let me give a little personal background: I owned an iPad 2 last year, but sold it after about three months. I loved what it represented – the ability to interact directly and tangibly with documents, web sites, and media -- but felt its overall execution was a little lacking. There were just too many things I couldn't do with an iPad. I couldn't work on more than a few documents at a time without resorting to WebDAV workarounds, or constantly syncing to and from a computer. I couldn't view Flash content (which, for better or worse, still makes up a pretty sizable chunk of the Internet) without using a special browser. I couldn't print, because I didn't own one of the small number of AirPrint-compatible printers.
But here's the thing: these grievances are fixable. The iPad will keep maturing in these areas until it's as capable as a computer, only with an impossibly crisp touch screen that allows you to interact with content in mind-blowing new ways. We're certainly headed in that direction: a lot of the smaller problems I had with my iPad 2 have already been fixed by iOS 5. And tablet software will continue to mature until you're able to edit photos and craft presentations as capably as you currently can on a desktop computer. When we reach that point, I don't think Ultrabooks will compare favorably. They're brought up short by the inherent limitations of, well, being laptops.