Ultrabooks: 7 ways they're revolutionising mobile computing

Is the ultrabook a revolutionary PC concept, or just an incremental evolution destined to fade away like the netbook?

At CES 2012, the ultrabook is the new tablet. Of course, there are plenty of new tablets being offered up as well, but 2012 is shaping up to be the year of the ultrabook.

So, are ultrabooks the second coming of the laptop, or just a desperate, futile attempt to fend off the tablet revolution and maintain some relevance in the mobile market for more traditional PCs? Or, are ultrabooks simply a “me too” clone of the MacBook Air because it seems to work for Apple?

The ultrabook takes the portability of a netbook, and merges it with the capabilities of a full-sized notebook to enable mobile users to be more productive on the go. Here are seven ways that ultrabooks are revolutionizing mobile computing.

1. Thinner, Lighter

Ultrabooks are – by their very nature – thinner and lighter than other laptops of comparable power. Intel has defined the specifications for ultrabooks with a maximum thickness of 0.8 inches, and a maximum weight of 3.1 pounds. Even on the high end of acceptable ultrabook specs, it is about half the thickness and weight of an average notebook, making it easier to be mobile without requiring a back brace.

2. Endurance

Another aspect of the ultrabook specification from Intel requires that they have battery life of at least five hours -- preferably eight or more. When it comes to computing on the go, battery life is probably one of the biggest stumbling blocks for many laptops. An ultrabook that can run for eight hours means you can get through an entire work day on a single charge, and you don’t need to carry the power adapter or a backup battery along for the ride.

As energy efficient as the current stable of ultrabooks are, when the Intel Ivy Bridge processors hit the street later this year, things will get even better. Ivy Bridge processors are lower voltage, and run more efficiently, which will allow ultrabooks to extend battery life well beyond eight hours.

3. Tablet/Laptop Convertibles

There are advantages to having a traditional desktop OS, and the full power of a laptop computer, but tablets also have many benefits. You could carry a tablet along with an ultrabook, but vendors are also introducing products that straddle the line and deliver both experiences in one device.

Acer unveiled a convertible tablet that blurs the line with ultrabooks. It looks like an ultrabook, but the display can be detached to become a standalone tablet. More intriguing options, though, are ultrabooks that can act as tablets without having to be physically separated, like the Acer model with the swivel screen, or the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga.

4. Touchscreen

PC purists will probably fight this to the death, but for most routine computer tasks touchscreens will replace the traditional mouse and keyboard. The Metro interface of Windows 8 is designed to be an interactive, touchscreen experience, and ultrabooks equipped with touchscreen displays will enable users to take advantage of the benefits of swiping and tapping a gesture-based interface, while still having a traditional desktop OS and keyboard / trackpad to fall back on.

5. Voice Recognition

While touchscreen interfaces are revolutionising computing, the future is voice recognition. Voice commands have been around for a long time, but Apple raised the bar with Siri on the iPhone 4S, and at CES 2012 gadgets of all shapes and sizes are being introduced that can be managed and controlled with your voice. Intel revealed that future ultrabooks will incorporate voice recognition to bring that “Siri-like” experience to the mobile PC as well.

6. Embedded Security

Intel is also striving to provide a more secure mobile computing experience. It spent a good chunk of money to acquire McAfee so it would have the security expertise to integrate protection into its architecture. Intel offers Intel Anti-Theft Technology (AT), and Intel Identity Protection Technology (Intel IPT) as options for its ultrabook hardware.

Intel-AT lets you disable access to your data from anywhere in the world in the event that your ultrabook is lost or stolen. If and when it is recovered, it can be reactivated with no impact to the data. Intel-IPT helps protect your identity and personal information.

7. NFC

Some ultrabooks, like the HP Envy 14 Spectre unveiled at CES 2012, also come equipped with NFC technology. NFC -- or Near Field Communications -- is a short-range wireless protocol used in smartphone like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus to facilitate making payments. The HP Envy 14 Spectre might be capable of transacting payments as well, but the NFC in the HP ultrabook is designed to enable wireless information sharing between NFC-capable devices.

The ultrabook is everything mobile business users rely on with their traditional notebooks, combined with most of the benefits and advantages of netbooks or tablets, with some extra tricks thrown in. It is a powerful combination that has the potential to revolutionize mobile computing.

Only time will tell if the ultrabook is a brilliant evolution of the laptop PC, or a desperate grasp by Intel to redefine the category and maintain some relevance in a mobile world that threatens to leave it behind.

What do you think? Does the ultrabook sound like a winner? Is there a particular vendor or ultrabook model you have on your wish list?

For more blogs, stories, photos, and video from the nation's largest consumer electronics show, check out PCWorld's complete coverage of CES 2012.

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Tony Bradley

PC World (US online)

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