A few thoughts on Ultrabooks


— 11:31 PM on June 16, 2011

As a die-hard desktop user, my laptop is more of a sidekick than my primary computing platform. I mostly use it on the couch, when traveling, or at those times when the thought of being cooped up in the Benchmarking Sweatshop for one more minute makes me feel physically ill. 12-hour benchmarking sessions will do that to you.

For more than a year and a half, I've been loving my Acer Aspire 1810TZ, mostly because the battery refuses to be anything less than awesome. Even this far into its life, I can easily squeeze a good nine hours from the thing. The fact that the system cost me only $550 is just icing on the cake. Surely, the 1810TZ is one of the finest budget ultraportables this relatively new genre has ever seen.

I just spent more than a week and a half using nothing but the Aspire as I traveled to Computex in Taipei, Taiwan, and then through Hong Kong to a Zotac factory tour in a much less hospitable part of China. For 11 days straight, the 11.6" ultraportable was my only PC—and I was using it constantly. All that time hunched over the system got me thinking about what it does right, what needs work, and what it might take to lure me away.

The wheels started spinning on my first day at Computex. I'd just completed an epic writing session on the Aspire that started in the Vancouver airport and ended the next morning in a hotel in Taipei. The first event on the day's docket: an Asus press conference announcing its UX Series ultraportable. With the UX tugging my fetish for brushed aluminum and promising to be a relatively cheap date at under a grand, I couldn't help but swoon.

The UX Series is one of a new breed of ultraportables that Intel has dubbed Ultrabooks. To be honest, the name sounds a bit silly. It's hard to argue with the specs, though. The UX Series will be available with Sandy Bridge CPUs that reach into Core i7 territory, a 6Gbps solid-state drive, and USB 3.0 connectivity.

There is, however, one small problem. The UX Series' battery life is estimated at just seven hours. That number comes from Asus, so it's probably on the optimistic side. There's no way this thing is going to outlast my year-and-a-half-old Aspire. The UX is obviously going to be a lot faster, but it's not unreasonable to expect better or at least equivalent battery life to come in tow.

As far as I can tell, the culprit is a misguided obsession with thinness. Measuring just 17 mm at its thickest point, the UX Series is skinnier than a runway model. The wedge-shaped design tapers to just 3 mm, and the whole thing weights a scant 2.4 lbs. By comparison, my Aspire is twice as thick and about two thirds of a pound heavier—and it's still considered an ultraportable.

I can't help but wonder how much additional battery capacity Asus could have squeezed into the UX Series had it ditched the wedge and just made the entire chassis 17 mm thick. Surely there would be enough room to push the UX into 9-10 hour territory. Adding some girth would leave room for more than a couple of USB ports, too.

The UX Series is coming in 11.6" and 13.3" flavors, which nicely covers the sweet spot for portability. I prefer the 11.6" screen size for travel because it's a little easier to open up when crammed into coach class on an airplane. However, 13.3" is a particularly tempting alternative when paired with resolutions higher than 1366x768. The more I was without the dual 1920x1200 IPS panels attached to my desktop, the more I cursed what has become the de facto resolution for notebook displays.

Intel talks about Ultrabooks offering a "great visual experience," which I suspect is mostly meant to refer to Sandy Bridge's much-improved integrated graphics component. The screen is an arguably even more important part of the visual experience, though. Far too many use TN panels with subpar color reproduction and lousy viewing angles. Ultrabooks are supposed to take the best ingredients from the tablet world, and they should start with aping the luscious IPS displays that grace some of the more popular slates.

One notebook maker has already taken the plunge. Lenovo's 12.5" ThinkPad X220 is available with an IPS display as a $50 upgrade, which seems like a small price to pay. The X220's keyboard has received high marks, too—an impressive feat when notebook keyboard quality seems to have regressed in recent years. I've been tempted to pull the trigger on an X220, but reviewers haven't been keen on the system's touchpad, which is a real deal-breaker for me. The only time I'm not using my notebook's touchpad is when I'm working in a hotel room, and then typically only when editing images or doing other work that requires fine precision.

Although the Aspire's touchpad is small, the tracking surface is smooth, and the associated Synaptics software is loaded with multi-touch gestures. The fact some notebook makers don't get this kind of thing right is frankly shocking to me. Intel saying Ultrabooks will be "ultra responsive" may be a reference to new quick-boot options and the snappy performance of Sandy Bridge CPUs, but it needs to extend to the interfaces. Notebook keyboards should offer crisp feedback with each keystroke, and touchpads should have robust gesture support and be as large as the chassis allows.

In short, if Ultrabooks are going to adopt tablet attributes, they should start with the important stuff: higher-quality screens and slick multi-touch input.

Those should be separate, by the way. There's no sense in ruining a gorgeous IPS display with the mess of streaks and smudges I saw all over the iPads people had out at Computex.

Notebook makers should also avoid getting lured into competing with the weight and thickness of leading slates. Next-gen ultraportables like the UX Series look set to move past the point of diminishing returns on those fronts, and battery life and I/O connectivity may be the first casualties.

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