IDF 2012: Ultrabook hybrids come out to play

We get hands-on with some of the most exciting designs that will be released for Windows 8

We've already seen sneak peeks some of the designs that notebook manufacturers will be bringing to market in order to support the touch-focused Windows 8 operating system. Most look very cool; some are perhaps a little awkward to use. Nevertheless, Intel says that the majority of people it has surveyed want a computer with touch capabilities — especially from those surveyed who had not used touch before — and that's important because over 40 Ultrabooks with touch capabilities will be coming to market in the next few months alone.

Many different styles will be introduced in October and beyond, and the buying decision is sure to be a perplexing one, purely because we will be spoilt for choice. There will be options for computers that have removable screens, double-sided screen, screens with keyboards that slide under them, and even models with screens that can fold all the way around underneath the base. The clamshell form factor will still exist in many models, but it will be much different to what we're used to now.

The touch experience needs to be comfortable and responsive and therefore the best models will be the ones that are light and easy to carry, and which can be used in a tablet form factor. At the Intel Developer Forum, we managed to get some brief hands-on time with some of the models that will be getting released at about the same time as Windows 8.

Acer Aspire S7

Acer has its Aspire S7, which is a very light 11.6in Ultrabook (shown here) with a touchscreen installed. It's a touchscreen with an IPS panel that has a Full HD resolution and is absolutely stunning to look at -- the larger 13.3-inch version can also tilt all the way back, which we imagine would be handy when using the touch capability. Intel says it has worked closely with manufacturers to get the touch experience to a level where lag is practically non-existent.

The aluminium Acer Aspire S7.
The aluminium Acer Aspire S7.

The Acer's excellent touchscreen.
The Acer's excellent touchscreen.

The stylish Windows key.
The stylish Windows key.

Playing with the little Acer, it definitely felt more responsive than most touchscreens we have seen on notebooks to date, and even much better than some dedicated tablets. Using flick gestures to browse through open apps was a breeze — sometimes the screen was a little too sensitive to touch, registering accidental double taps if our finger gripped the screen as we moved, for example.

If you want a conventional laptop with the ability to handle touch, and one that's also made out of very light aluminium, we reckon this one will be hard to overlook.

Dell XPS 12 Duo

Dell's XPS 12 Duo is a 12-inch hybrid Ultrabook that has, in our opinion, one of the most user-friendly designs. It looks like a regular clamshell notebook by day, but at night the Full HD (1920x1080) screen can flip on its frame to face outwards, and when you close the lid the notebook turns into a tablet. It's a solution that's definitely interesting, in addition to being fairly practical. The screen flipping mechanism is not hard to use and it's actually quite fun to flip the screen back and forth.

Dell's XPS 12 Duo Looks like a regular laptop.
Dell's XPS 12 Duo Looks like a regular laptop.

But it can do this!
But it can do this!

The screen stays on as it flips, but it's not removable. The CPU power is in the base of the Ultrabook, not integrated in the screen, and the screen is connected to the base through the frame. The frame is a single piece of metal and it sits on strong hinges. How well the hinges and the tiny clips that hold the screen in place can stand up to wear and tear over time is the big question. Simply lifting the lid caused the screen to rotate feely in the frame. We're not sure if that's by design or due to the display model getting so much play from the IDF crowds.

Lenovo Yoga 13

The Lenovo Yoga 13 is a 13-inch hybrid Ultrabook with a clamshell form factor. It looks normal when it's in notebook mode, but the magical aspect of this Ultrabook is its hinge design. The hinges allow the screen to till all the way back, and then to keep going until it's in a reversed position and looking like a tablet.

Lenovo's hybrid Ultrabook also looks like a regular laptop.
Lenovo's hybrid Ultrabook also looks like a regular laptop.

But its hinges can perform tricks others can't.
But its hinges can perform tricks others can't.

Tablet mode -- ta da!
Tablet mode -- ta da!

It's a very cool concept, for sure, but a little cumbersome in practice. Wrestling with two ends that are both 13 inches on the diagonal won't be easy for everyone. Furthermore, the keyboard is exposed on the other side and it can feel a little weird to hold the Yoga in tablet mode because of this. We were told that accessories will become available so that the keyboard can be covered though. The hinge felt very strong — strong enough to allow the Yoga to sit on the desk like a picture frame without either end giving way.

Toshiba Satellite U925t

A sliding mechanism finds its way onto Toshiba's 12.5-inch hybrid Ultrabook. This one isn't a traditional clam-shell notebook, so you can't open the screen by lifting it. In fact, the screen faces upwards by default, much like a tablet. To expose the keyboard underneath, the screen slides towards the back of the base, where it can then be tilted upwards.

The Satellite's screen slides towards the rear to expose the keyboard.
The Satellite's screen slides towards the rear to expose the keyboard.

The Satellite in laptop mode.
The Satellite in laptop mode.

The rear view shows the tracks and hinges, as well as the cable that attaches the screen to the base.
The rear view shows the tracks and hinges, as well as the cable that attaches the screen to the base.
In its upward position, the U925t can then be used like a traditional laptop. However, tilting isn't really supported – it's limited to the angle at which the screen finishes up. On the back, you can see the tracks on which the screen travels, and the heavy-looking brackets and hinges that support the screen in its upright position. There is a cable in the middle that moves up and down with the screen to keep it connected to the base.

A swift Windows 8 experience

All these hybrid Ultrabooks have third generation Intel Core CPUs inside with Intel HD 4000 graphics, as well solid state storage and at least 4GB of RAM, and they ran very swiftly under the command of Windows 8. They represent the many paths that manufacturers are choosing to go down for Windows 8, but they only scratch the surface of what will be available: there are also detachable screen options (from Samsung and ASUS), tablet-docking solutions (from Acer), and more sliding options (from Sony) that aren't shown here.

What the future holds

However, it's 2013 in which Intel says that the Ultrabook will really be re-invented.

Next year's Ultrabooks will feature the fourth generation Core CPU, more sensors for location tracking, better security (via Identity Protection technology), faster access to data from sleep states through Smart Connect (think email and social media), and more advanced graphics support (up to 4K resolution and also three-screen support).

The fourth gen Core CPU will be faster and more power efficient than the third gen Core CPU it will replace, but it's all of those extra features that are designed to enrich the user experience and really make Ultrabooks capable of doing many of the things tablets can do today, and more.

Wether you want to wait until next year to buy an Ultrabook or pick one up at the end of this year is up to you, but bear in mind that you will have to wait perhaps until this time next year before you see Ultrabook hybrids with fourth generation Core CPUs in them. The models that will go on sale from October with third gen Core will be well worth checking out — and you will need to check out a lot in order to find a solution that suits your needs.

The author of this article attended IDF as a guest of Intel.

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Elias Plastiras
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