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.

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    The Asus UX31 "Zenbook" is light, thin, and absolutely gorgeous. But capable as it is, this machine doesn't represent a "new era" in computing.
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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.

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 But I also think that within a year or so the field will have shifted and their argument will seem outdated and quaint.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.

If we return to the present, we can see Ultrabook makers like ASUS, Samsung, and Dell trying to make inroads in the areas where tablets excel. Take touch, for example -- the Zenbook I'm typing on contains a spacious, reasonably capable multitouch trackpad. I can scroll through documents easily with two fingers, swipe back and forth between Web sites with three, and even zoom in and out or bring up an application switcher with other gestures. And some forthcoming Ultrabooks, most notably the Lenovo Yoga, will include touchscreens in addition to traditional pad-and-keyboard inputs.

These features shouldn't be overlooked, since they certainly make the computer easy to use. But a multitouch trackpad is weak tea when compared with a touch screen like the iPad's. I can actually interact directly with my media that way, flipping through songs or pictures, zipping through documents, or dragging e-mails away with a contemptuous flick of the wrist. This Zenbook's trackpad approximates that tactile experience, but a tablet is that experience.

I still need a physical keyboard for content creation, but I recognize that not everyone shares that view. And here's the thing: with a tablet, if you want a physical keyboard, you just add a physical keyboard. With a laptop, thin and light though it may be, you're stuck with that accessory at all times -- even if you're not Photoshopping or writing a report right at that moment. It's inextricably part of the device itself.

If someone asked me right now to choose between the Zenbook sitting on my lap and the new iPad just released, I'd pick the Zenbook in a heartbeat. I made a similar choice six months ago, when I sold the iPad 2 and bought a MacBook Pro with the proceeds. I can do way more stuff here and now with a laptop than with a tablet, and the fact that most Ultrabooks are so thin and stylish is just icing on the cake. In that sense, Intel's reps were correct when they said that those interested in real work would be foolish to choose a tablet over an Ultrabook. But a year from now the iPad will be way more capable than it is today (especially if its software keeps maturing the way it has), while the Ultrabook will still be just a laptop, albeit a particularly svelte one.

The experience of using this review unit kind of makes me long for an Ultrabook of my own. I'd consider buying one: for the foreseeable future, it would be a useful machine that could accompany me everywhere and do just about everything I need. But I can't shake the feeling that the Ultrabook concept itself is obsolete. I suspect that the “New Era in Computing” is here already, or at least already coming into its own. The future is shaped like a tablet.

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