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Mar 21

Written by: J. Gerry Purdy

The term Ultrabook is used to describe the newest generation of laptops that utilize flash storage instead of a hard disk drive (HDD), are thin and light and enable greater mobility than older generations of laptops.  The sector was made popular by Apple with their introduction of the MacBook Air, but the Wintel (Windows OS + Intel processors) ecosystem (HP, Dell, Lenovo, Acer, Toshiba and others) are now all producing thin and light Ultrabooks that utilize flash storage.

The rise of the Ultrabook brings more people into buying and carrying around their laptop to more places because it’s not a burden that previous generation laptops were.  The MacBook Air weighs just 2.38 lb. (1.08 kg) for the 11.6” display version and 2.96 lb. (1.35 kg) for the 13.3” display version (1440 by 900).  A similar HP Folio Ultrabook weighs 3.3 lb. and has a 13.3” LED display (1366 x 768).

The use of flash storage enables the OS to load faster.  A Wintel system typically boots up in less than 20 seconds.  So, users get more work done in less time.  Sleep mode is faster making it easy to close the cover, pick up an Ultrabook and carry it to different places around the home or office.  Intel calls this their Rapid Start Technology.

Ultrabook displays are typically limited to 13.3” which makes it easier to use on an airplane in coach.  And, because flash storage consumes less energy, Ultrabooks typically provide the user with substantially longer battery life.  The folio provides up to 9.25 hours of battery life.  The MacBook Air runs for 7 hours using their 50-watt battery.

While an Ultrabook can be used ‘as is’ when in the home or office, it’s easy to attach a larger external monitor (e.g. 23” or larger), keyboard and mouse giving the user a full desktop experience when not traveling.  Thus, there’s little compromise when using an Ultrabook at home or the office when utilized with the larger monitor.

Ultrabooks still include many of the ports that are on current laptops such USB (2.0 runs at 480M bps and 3.0 at 5Gbps).  Apple includes Thunderbolt that can run at 10G bps but can also drive an external (DisplayPort-compatible) display.  The HP Folio has USB 3.0 while the Apple MacBook Air includes USB 2.0 plus Thunderbolt, so it can be used to connect to both displays and Thunderbolt-compatible external hard drives.  The HP folio also includes HDMI, so it can connect to an HD TV and Ethernet.  All Ultrabooks include Wi-Fi using 802.11n technology.  You can add an external wireless 3G/4G modem through the USB connector on both units.

Keyboards with LED backlights are provided on most Ultrabooks which help in a low ambient lighting environment such as an airplane.  They both include HD webcams.

Ultrabooks include processors that are more advanced than most of the laptops currently in use.  The MacBook Air uses a 1.8GHz Intel Core i7 with 4MB shared L3 cache.  HP Folio uses a 1.6 GHz Intel Core i5-2467M.  They both use the Intel HD Graphics 3000 for graphics processing.

With the lighter weight and ease of carrying around the Ultrabook, the natural question to ask is, “Do I need both a tablet and an Ultrabook?  Won’t just one do?” The Ultrabook is still a laptop and, as such, is better for the creation of content than a tablet, e.g. in writing and composing presentations and interacting with larger volumes of storage.

The tablet (such as the Apple iPad, Amazon Kindle Fire or Samsung Galaxy series) is great for taking with you during the day and using it to reference information (reading a book, playing a game or web browsing) or running a specific mobile app.  But, the Ultrabook will typically be used more when someone has ‘serious’ work to get done.  Over the coming years, the distinction between a tablet and laptop will become blurred, but the difference is still substantial today.

You can expect to see larger storage capacities in future generations of Ultrabooks with 512MB standard by next year with 1TB (1,000GB) in 2014 or 2015.  Also, because the cost of flash storage is becoming lower every year, the entry price of Ultrabooks may come down on the Wintel from $900 today).  Apple is not likely to drop their price.  Rather, Apple typically keeps the price points the same but adds features.

Since flash storage is more expensive than a HDD right now, there’s about a $250 to $300 difference between aggressively priced HDD systems ($600) and Ultrabooks ($900 or more), but the difference should come down over the next couple of years.

If anyone is going to get a new laptop today, they should consider getting either a PC or Mac Ultrabook unless there are specific reasons that they would need to get a traditional laptop that incorporates a HDD.  Laptops that use HDDs are still the majority but don’t be surprised if we reach a ‘tipping point’ in a few years in which the Ultrabook becomes the market leader in laptops.

I suspect that within five years, laptops will no longer include a HDD.  Rather, HDD’s will become the backup and extra storage for the Ultrabook.  Storage management in the new Ultrabook world is the subject for an upcoming column. 

Written By:

J. Gerry Purdy, Ph.D.
Principal Analyst
Mobile & Wireless
MobileTrax LLC
[email protected]
404 855-9494

Dr. Purdy writes a weekly column via eWeek, a leading online & digital publisher with millions of readers. Some of these columns are distributed via Inside Mobile with approval from eWeek.


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