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Windows 8 has arrived, and though Microsoft's Surface tablet might be the Win8 hardware grabbing the most headlines, Intel doesn't want you to forget that its Ultrabook program is getting an upgrade too. OEMs have been previewing new designs for months, eager to foment customer excitement -- not only for features the touch-friendly OS now enables, but also the new, sometimes experimental form factors that are finally becoming available.
For some manufacturers, new designs have been compelled by the continued pursuit of thinness, the Ultrabook line's original hallmark. For others, slim profiles are just a starting point; docking stations, removable screens, rotating displays and more have been thrown into the mix, resulting in a slew of devices that strive to blur the line between tablet and PC.
Windows 8 factors into this convergence effort as well. On the one hand, its tile-based Modern interface, formerly called Metro, drops the familiar Start menu in favor of a tablet-like, touch-enabled experience. On the other hand, Windows 8 still preserves the PC experience thanks to its compatibility with legacy x86 applications (something Windows RT lacks).
If all goes according to plan, the next generation of Ultrabooks will accommodate work and play, consumption and productivity. Thanks to BYOD, consumers are increasingly dictating enterprise adoption, so the rewards could be substantial for devices that find the right blend.
According to Ron DeLine, Intel's director of marketing for the Ultrabook program, this new breed of computer was always conceived as a multi-year journey. "It's going to take some time to get products to market and improved," he said in an interview. "So we've seen this as chunks or phases, and the first phase was to get the ecosystem bought in, to convince [OEMs] that if they invested with us in thin components, that there'd be a market for them at the end of it."
Given that Ultrabook sales to date have been disappointing, this narrative might seem too convenient, too focused on a forward-looking vision that glances straight past the present. Then again, some of the same analysts who've been downgrading Ultrabook sales forecasts have also been projecting substantial growth over the next few years -- a story that echoes DeLine's.
Plus, the OEM enthusiasm that Intel has cultivated contrasts sharply with the dearth of partners standing alongside rival chipmaker AMD when it announced its own Windows 8-centric processor.
In other words, Ultrabooks might not be a slam dunk yet, but kneejerk cynicism isn't a justified response to the program's modest first phase. And with new models now hitting stores, it might be downright obtuse.
Are Ultrabooks ready to hit the big time, and will they play a major role in positioning Intel for future success? Will buyers be persuaded by the addition of Windows 8, or the introduction of new form factors? Read on for six reasons why you might consider an Ultrabook.
Ron DeLine, Intel's director of marketing for the Ultrabook program, conceded that some might "denigrate" Ultrabook manufacturers for "trying to do a Swiss Army knife" with their designs. He countered, however, that devices have naturally converged throughout history. The market has offered dedicated GPS devices with appealing technology, he illustrated, but these products have tended not to sell well because "a phone is not just a phone; it's now also a mapping device."
In other words, new form factors -- such as that of the Dell XPS 12, pictured above -- allow devices to double as both laptops and tablets. Why carry lots of stuff when a single item will do the job?
But the benefits stretch beyond simply carrying fewer devices.
Tablets appeal because they're often more convenient than PCs, and because they're excellent for consumptive activities like watching videos. But they can also change the way companies do business. Information can be visualized and interacted with in new ways. Liberated by mobility and on-the-fly access to CRM content, salespeople and service teams can more effectively engage customers. Healthcare professionals can cut patient wait times and otherwise improve care. The benefits go on -- and they're a big reason why tablet enterprise apps are a growing trend. Touch-based UIs, as the next slide will elaborate, serve only to augment this momentum.
But tablets can't do everything. Access to legacy apps, a need for more computing power -- there are many reasons that laptops remain popular among consumers and necessary among many business users.
Ultrabooks, then, might be ready to break out because convergence form factors promise the best of both worlds; users not only carry fewer items -- they also get more firepower and versatility.
In an interview, Nadia Steere, who directs Intel's marketing and corporate relationships with Microsoft, said that "people want touch on a PC." The function isn't just an appeal to users, she elaborated, but to developers as well.
"Seeing the software companies coming back to optimizing and writing for Windows," she remarked, "is what reinvigoration is all about: getting people excited to go invest in this ecosystem."
Indeed, though the lead-up to Windows 8 frustrated at least some developers, touch-optimized apps are a growing part of the OS's apps catalog, promising more intuitive operation, improved productivity and new ways to use content.
Touch-based functions and next-gen designs might dominate headlines -- but the Ultrabook label encompasses more than these current water cooler topics. Ron DeLine, Intel's director of marketing for the Ultrabook program, said that over 70 Ultrabook models are currently on the market, and that the lineup is tracking toward 140 by early 2013 -- including several models dedicated to refining the traditional laptop form factor.
Lenovo, for example, has invested in touch-friendly devices such as the Yoga series, which appears in both the first and third slides of this slideshow. The company has also, however, released the ThinkPad X1 Carbon (pictured above), a sleek and modern update to its line of enterprise-oriented laptops.
The ThinkPad family had traditionally focused on functionality over aesthetics. The results might not have been clunky, per se -- but they weren't sexy either. The X1 Carbon seeks to change that. With an i5 processor standard and an i7 upgrade available, the laptop maintains the performance specs that business users expect. But thanks to Intel's power-conscious third generation Core chips and some clever engineering, it also comes in a thin, light and attractive package.
That package includes not only a 14-inch screen that's been fit into a 13-inch enclosure, but also overall dimensions that are only slightly bigger than a MacBook Air's -- and significantly smaller than those of a MacBook Pro. The 13-inch MacBook Air, for example, measures 0.68 inches thick and weighs 2.96 pounds, only slightly smaller than the X1 Carbon's 0.7-inch thickness and mass of 2.99 pounds. The 13-inch MacBook Pros, meanwhile, check in at 4.5 pounds for the model that includes an optical drive, and 3.57 pounds for the new Retina version.
Ron DeLine, Intel's director of marketing for the Ultrabook program, DeLine said that Ultrabooks have evolved thanks to the April launch of Intel's third generation core technology, otherwise known as the Ivy Bridge platform. The chips cut power consumption to 17W, less than half what the previous generation drew. This reduction enabled increasingly slimmer designs, such as the svelte Lenovo described on the previous slide.
The fourth generation, or Haswell, chips were introduced at Intel Developer Forum (IDF) in September, and DeLine said they will "spur another wave of innovation" that will "get into even cooler form factors."
How will the upcoming processors fulfill DeLine's predictions? Only time (and OEMs) will tell, but better power management will be at least one factor.
Intel claimed at IDF that Haswell chips running at 8W can equal the performance of the twice-as-hot Ivy Bridge models. Haswell can also boost its consumption to 17W, at which point it achieves substantial performance improvements that make the current models look outdated, especially in terms of graphics processing.
If buyers aren't moved by current Ultrabooks, in other words, they might change their minds once Haswell-equipped models begin appearing in early 2013.
The PC market is generally a competitive field with many players -- and the need to differentiate now might be stronger than ever, given that sales have been in an extended slump.
Ron DeLine, Intel's director of marketing for the Ultrabook program, implied, however, that manufacturers of Ultrabooks have a particular incentive to innovate.
He stated that Ultrabooks are "beneficial to the industry at large" because they encourage PC makers to experiment with new designs and to develop manufacturing processes that make producing the requisite components financially tenable. If an OEM invests in thin components, for example, economies of scale are driven down, leading PC makers to distribute new ideas across numerous models. This means that design concepts are combined in varied ways, leading to more choices and cutting-edge Ultrabook models.
"You see what used to be the center design point of 35 mm go down to below one inch," DeLine stated. "You'll see a whole bunch of visibly thinner designs ... [that] feed back to our vision for reinvigorating the entire industry."
DeLine explained that if the new Ultrabook form factors "get it right," they'll "unleash the power of multiple guys placing bets in multiple places in the market." In other words, as manufacturers compete with one another, the result will be not only more innovative products but also more compelling price points.
"Touch is the thing that's really kind of in front of us, but we're investing a lot in bringing new things to the PC platform," said Ron DeLine, Intel's director of marketing for the Ultrabook program, adding, "We call it perceptual computing."
This concept has been part of Intel's messaging since at least Intel Developer Forum (IDF), when executive VP Dadi Perlmutter characterized the initiative's goal as "machines with human-like senses."
Elaborating, DeLine said, "We see a world where touch and gestures and facial recognition work together in a better way of interacting with your computing devices." Some of this technology is already reaching the market, such as laptops that respond to voice commands. DeLine described these models as "a start," adding, "We want this innovation to continue ... The whole experimentation and proliferation of devices is an excellent thing."
Though Windows 8, energy-efficient processors, novel form factors and other new technologies make Ultrabooks appealing, several barriers still stand in the way of the platform's success.
One is price. On the one hand, costs are coming down. Ron DeLine, Intel's director of marketing for the Ultrabook program, remarked that "hitting price points that are $699 across all the major OEMs ... was an important part of [Intel's] strategy." Even so, many of the most compelling devices are nowhere near this relatively affordable mark. The base cost for the Lenovo X1 Carbon, for example, is around $1,200. The Dell XPS 12 is similarly expensive.
The other barrier is competition. The last few weeks alone have seen the Surface tablet launch, the announcement of not only the iPad Mini but also a new iPad, and the appearance of the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Eye-catching as some Ultrabooks are, it will be tough to gain traction in such a crowded environment.
Even so, the Ultrabooks are more enticing than ever, and once the Haswell chips begin shipping, they'll be even better positioned to capture market share. Odds are good that they'll merit the consideration of PC shoppers -- but whether that consideration translates to sales is a different matter.