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Scott's Column
CES Brings Ultrabooks

February 1, 2012
By Scott Lewis

This month it is all about Ultrabooks, Intel's push for a MacBook Air like laptop that runs Windows. CES 2012 was chock full of Ultrabooks. This was of no surprise to me... and I am anxiously waiting to see some of these with my own eyes.

I am a little surprised. While I was doing my research on Ultrabooks during 2011 I noticed there were a number of review sites (CNet & PCMag) that questioned Intel's plan to "push" a new category. Yet those same sites praised the MacBook Air, which clearly is the target of Intel's new category.

How hard is it to realize that some people need Windows laptops. They want something like a MacBook Air, but a machine that runs Windows. Dual booting a MacBook Air into Windows can be done, but it has two major drawbacks, and a couple of minor drawbacks. For me, the biggest drawback to dual booting Windows on a MacBook Air are the lack of Windows keys, and disc space.

As far as the keyboard, it is not just the Option vs. Alt key. There is no "Windows" key on a Mac. There is no Home/End/PgUp/PgDn keys either. And there is no backspace key... or is that no delete key and only a backspace key. Whatever... the keyboards are different enough that it does not make sense to buy a MacBook Air -- at a premium -- to install Windows on it and use it primarily as a Windows laptop.

As far as disc space is concerned, with a 128 GB SSD your partition will end with about half for each operating system. That's only 64 GB for Windows (and 64 for OS X) which is a ridiculously low amount of disc space. Hardly something I could live with as a primary machine, and difficult even for a secondary travel machine.

Then there is the cost. Not only is the 13 inch MacBook Air priced at $1,299, but you would still have to buy a copy of Windows to run on it.

I find Intel's Ultrabook specification to be the perfect answer. Clearly they are trying to push Windows laptop manufacturers to build MacBook Air like machines for the 90% of us that need a Windows computer. I applaud it. That is what I will buy one... when someone steps up and builds a true MacBook Air clone that runs Windows.

Of the five original Ultrabooks only ASUS with its UX31 managed to build a machine with a screen resolution higher than 1366 x 768. The MacBook Air is 1440 x 900, and ASUS went with 1600 x 900. I was impressed. Toshiba, Lenovo, Samsung & Acer all stuck with the lowest common denominator and used 1366 x 768. Oops!

Why can't the others step up?

CES 2012 (Consumer Electronic Show) brought with it a flood of Ultrabook announcements. None are shipping yet, but that is the point of CES... to showcase what is coming for the year.

Intel wanted its second generation Core i-Series processors, called Sandy Bridge, to be put into Ultrabooks. That happened for 2011. But Intel is going to launch its third generation i-Series chips, called Ivy Bridge, in the second quarter of 2012. The Ivy Bridge chip is supposed to be a significant improvement over the Sandy Bridge processors. Almost all of the Ultrabooks mentioned at CES plan to use these new chips. That means they can't sell to the public until the chips are ready around April or May.

Once you get to April or May you have to seriously consider what Microsoft will do, since it is largely expected that Windows 8 will come out in 2012.

If you want an Ultrabook, like I do, you have to decide when is good enough going to be good enough. Do you wait for Ivy Bridge? Do you wait even longer for Windows 8?

For me I am only waiting for an Ultrabook that gets it right? I would buy one with a Sandy Bridge processor and Windows 7 if it had the following:

- Screen resolution higher than 1366 x 768 (1600 x 900 seems about right)
- At least 6 hours of battery life playing video
- A really good, preferably back lit, keyboard
- A really good touch pad
- 2.5 - 3.0 pounds

That's it. I tried typing on the ASUS UX31 and it was terrible. It might be good enough for you, but I found it hard to type with a lot of mistakes.

None of the others have the screen I want. Toshiba's Z835 keyboard is the nicest of the ones I have tried personally. But I would hate to buy the Toshiba now to find out someone will get the screen right in 2012. So I am holding out for a little longer.

Here is a quick run down on all the Ultrabooks I heard about from CES:

Lenovo U310 & U410 - I love the look of the color choices here. The price is very affordable as well. Granted, to get the prices so low they replace the SSD drives with standard HDD. This makes them not an Ultrabook in my opinion... and Intel's too. I just hope they have the option of an SSD. I don't mind spending a little more for the instant on and super fast boot times the SSD drives allow.

Toshiba Ultrabook 14 - This was just a prototype... so much so it did not have a name yet. Basically this is just a larger version of the excellent Z835 13.3 inch Ultrabook. However, the touch pad looks to be larger, and integrates the buttons into the touch pad (The Z835 has separate buttons, which seem a little out of place in this class). I hope this gets a higher resolution screen than the commonplace 1366 x 768.

Dell XPS 13 - This looks very promising... except they too skimped on the screen resolution. However, I may be able to forgive Dell on this because this little powerhouse claims to squeeze a 13 inch screen into the frame of a 12.5 inch laptop. So making the Ultrabook even smaller... maybe I can live with only 1366 x 768 if the overall package is smaller. But then I have to worry about the keyboard. How much of a sacrifice is it going to be. I like the idea of the aluminum & carbon fiber construction. I will be keeping a close eye on this one.

HP Envy Spectre - This is a "glass" covered laptop. The lid, screen and wrist pad are made of Gorilla Glass. However, I think it falls outside the Ultrabook class being it is about 4 pounds. Not bad... but I want closer to 3 pounds myself. Let us not forget, HP is on the verge of releasing the Folio 13, which is a typical Ultrabook in the near 3 pound range. I wonder if these two machines will be competing against each other for sales.

HP Folio 13 - Technically this was announced prior to CES. But reviews are already out and it is getting high praise. It is a little heavy at 3.3 pounds (Wow... when did less than 3-1/2 pound become heavy). But its solid construction and generally good keyboard, and affordable price at pluses for this laptop.

Samsung Series 9 & 5 - Samsung has been making a point not to call their "ultra" sleek laptops Ultrabooks. For starters, the original Series 9 did not use a Sandy Bridge processor, even though all its other specs would clearly land it in the Ultrabook category. But that first Series 9 was more expensive than a MacBook Air when it arrived. Slow sales had the price eventually drop to as low as $999... at which point I gave it a lot of thought. Now Samsung is coming out with a refreshed Series 9... and it has a shot at showing everyone else how good looking a Windows laptop can be. Samsung also plans to offer two screen sizes... the original 13.3, and a 15.6 inch as well. This might grow too large to be classified as an Ultrabook, but that doesn't bothered Samsung. The key here is that both are going to get 1600 x 900 resolution screens. HURRAY!!! The 15 inch is supposed to be priced at around $1,500. Ouch. I want to stay at about $1,000... and I might be willing to go to $1,100. But get too close to the MacBook Air's $1,299 and you better make it just as good. I don't see anyone making a laptop just as good as the MacBook Air... even at the same price. There always seems to be a compromise. At $1,500... the 15 inch Series 9 better be a no compromise machine... that makes me coffee in the morning.

Acer Aspire S5 - Acers was just about first out of the gate with its Aspire S3. Now they plan to come out with a S5 model. Acer is claiming that the new S5 will be the thinnest Ultrabook on the market. Bold words indeed. If you get a chance to find a video of this... the S5 has its ports in a motorize panel in the back of the laptop. It looks cool when it extend out of the body. Acer also announced two Timeline Ultra laptops (not Ultrabooks). These will be slightly larger than Ultrabooks, but they still have that sleek look of the Ultrabooks. They will be available in 14 and 15 inches. We will have to see how heavy these get... and what resolution screens.

LG Z330 & Z430 - LG surprised a lot of people when they introduced an Ultrabook... and not content to come out with one... but two... a 13 and 14 inch Ultrabook. And not just Ultrabooks... Super Ultrabooks. LG says they will have "vastly superior features" to Intel's Ultrabook specifications. Uh-huh! They are still sticking with 1366 x 768 screens for both machines. LG is a new comer to laptops... we will just have to see how well they do coming out of the gate.

Vizio - I could not find a link to refresh my memory of these, but Visio announced a coule fo Ultrbooks. One with a 14 inch screen and one with a 15. The nest part... screen resolution. The 14 will have a 1600 x 900 screen, and the 15 inch will get a 1920 x 1080 display. I want to see these.

Lenovo Ideapad Yoga - This is a wild card. It is not really an Ultrabook. This is a convertible laptop/tablet. However, unlike previous Windows Tablets that had small flimsy screens that had to be rotated and twisted to turn it into a tablet... the Yoga just folds its screen back... like a manila folder. You can even proper it up tent style. This could make for a sleek laptop and tablet in one. But you will be better heavily that Microsoft will score high marks with Windows 8 and a touch interface. Plus it will still be expensive. Something like $1,400 if I recall.

Conclusion

It looks like 2012 will be the year of the Ultrabook. I have been waiting a long time... let's gets some products on the street and let me see what will be good enough to empty my wallet.

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