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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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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.

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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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