A few thoughts on Ultrabooks

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 1366×768. The more I was without the dual 1920×1200 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.

Comments closed
    • Hirokuzu
    • 8 years ago

    Well, if they have a vaio Z with iGPU (SB core i5+), sacrifice optical drive to put in larger battery and proper 2.5″ SSD, that would be pretty much what an ultrabook is…

    Now, about that price tag…

    • bluepiranha
    • 8 years ago

    Nice write-up Geoff.

    Good to know your 1810TZ is serving you well. Is this one of their Timeline/X series? Frankly that 8-9-hour promised battery life was pretty darn tempting to me back when they sold the original (yet underpowered perhaps) Timeline laptop series a year or two ago.

    Intel can control only so much of the so-called “Ultrabook” specification and subsequent experience IMHO. They may offer Sandy Bridge with a decent on-die GPU, but I doubt they have much say over any other hardware choices the major notebook manufacturers have to offer, like, oh…batteries and displays :p

    Perhaps someone might indeed be able to offer that combination Intel ballyhoos, but…at what price Ultrabook?

    • NeelyCam
    • 8 years ago

    Ultrabook: the best thing since sliced bread. Thinner too.

    • 5150
    • 8 years ago

    X220 has problems too.

    Pathetic cooling
    IPS screen ghosts and commonly has backlight bleed
    Doesn’t work correctly with 90W Ultraslim adapter (even though it says it does)

    • kamikaziechameleon
    • 8 years ago

    perfect product for me is a 13 inch laptop running a 1080p IPS monitor with rearlit keyboard, giant mac imitation touch pad, and I7 CPU 4 Gb of ram with a Nvidia or AMD discrete graphics and 10 hours battery life, N wireless and blue tooth, 1USB port, SD card slot, display port, headphone & mic jack. less than 4 pounds solid aluminum build cost less than 1,500 dollars.

      • OneArmedScissor
      • 8 years ago

      That would require like a 12 cell battery. 4 pounds?!?

      • Skrying
      • 8 years ago

      I also like to day dream about the impossible. Though only 1 USB port seems awfully low if we’re just making stuff up today.

    • OneArmedScissor
    • 8 years ago

    OEMs don’t seem to care if the laptop is 0.5″ of 2″ thick. The stock battery is 40-48w in the vast majority of them, and in some cases, not changable, which is the real problem. As battery life increases little by little, they seem to whittle them down more and more.

    Their aversion to including battery life in their, “ROMG HUEG NUMBARZ!” marketing is almost unexplainable. How many normal people would buy a laptop with a sticker that says 8GB of RAM and 3 hours of battery, when the other says 4GB of RAM and 10+ hours of battery? That’s the exact difference I often see between a stock Best Buy shelf model and a customizable one.

    The only thing I can figure is that the big OEMs believe many people think their old laptop is “dying” and buy a new one when the battery is so worn down that it lasts under 30 minutes. That only happens with laptops that already had poor battery life to begin with, so they seem hell bent on keeping it that way. Laptops with 20 hours of battery life would still last 10 a few years down the road.

    • ronch
    • 8 years ago

    Thin is in nowadays. But aren’t they sacrificing durability?

      • burntham77
      • 8 years ago

      Much like the Asian lady in the picture.

        • indeego
        • 8 years ago

        Put a sticker on her and she’s durable. Heart Touching!

          • dpaus
          • 8 years ago

          All this talk of nipples and stickers and touching… I think I’m going to log off for a while now.

          • willyolio
          • 8 years ago

          I thought you said put a potsticker in her. she needs to eat.

    • quock
    • 8 years ago

    Hyperlink in the 2nd paragraph to Acer Aspire 1810TZ links to [url<]https://techreport.com/discussions.x/com/discussions.x/18633[/url<] and doesn't seem to work. It should be [url<]https://techreport.com/discussions.x/18633[/url<]

    • DeadOfKnight
    • 8 years ago

    This is why I never understood the appeal of the 13″ Macbook Air over the 13″ Macbook Pro. You’re getting a thinner and lighter notebook but it’s still basically the same size notebook and the price is even more outrageous with even less connectivity options, a slower processor, and no optical drive bay. The 1440×900 resolution is nice though.

      • adisor19
      • 8 years ago

      Portability my friend.

      I would take the Air over the regular MBP any day since i cary my laptop with me to and back from work. Do that every day and you’ll quickly change your mind.

      My hackintoshed Vostro 3400 is NOT very portable but it’s free and runs OS X so i can’t complain.

      I guess so far only Apple has managed to squese good battery life our of their wedge Air design and the update do SandyBridge should increase that further. Now if they only added back the damn back light to the keyboard !!

      Adi

      • derFunkenstein
      • 8 years ago

      According to the Apple tech specs pages, the 13.3″ Macbook Pro is about 1.55″ wider and an inch deeper. But I agree with you in principle, thickness is not an important dimension (as long as we’re talking under 1″, that is). Having a bigger battery and a slight bit more weight is worth it, if you can get more battery life (as in, you’re not gaining performance instead of life).

      [url<]http://www.apple.com/macbookpro/specs.html[/url<] [url<]http://www.apple.com/macbookair/specs-13inch.html[/url<]

      • Beelzebubba9
      • 8 years ago

      Much of the Air’s cost comes from its SSD; spec a Pro with the same hard drive and it also becomes expensive quickly.

      I bought a fully loaded 13″ Air last year and it’s the best computer I’ve ever owned. Depending on my usage, I can get a whole day of work out of a single charge and it disappears neatly into my shoulder bag (unlike the MBP it replaced). I don’t think ultra-portables are for everyone, but the Air has left me wanting for little and I’ve never regretted buying it over a larger, more powerful unit.

    • Pizzapotamus
    • 8 years ago

    There’s no reason to use the touchpad on an x220 when it has the far superior nipple in the middle of the kb.

      • HisDivineOrder
      • 8 years ago

      There’s no reason to use the touchpad on an x220 or the far superior nipple in the middle of the kb when there is an even MORE superior USB port to plug a mouse into. Which you should be doing. Because the only thing that sucks worse than a eraser head pointer is a touchpad. Stop including the touchpad or eraserhead, get us to a future where the keyboard is full sized with numpad and extra money left over can be put toward those IPS displays every tablet next year will have.

      Or you can keep tossing stupid touchpads with even worse gesture support, eraserheads as extras for no reason, itty-bitty trashy keyboards, and crappy TN displays onto metallic ultra thin laptops that run out of juice far too quickly for such a bad performer. I guess it’ll be moot in about a year when Windows 8 shows up and all laptops wind up with touchscreens just to have a new bullet to list because of how well Metro will work with it. Even if it does give you carpal tunnel trying to touch everything.

      “Microsoft Windows Feel – Touch me anywhere you like. Especially there.” Followed by a legal disclaimer that Microsoft employees do not, in fact, really want to be touched “anywhere.”

        • bhtooefr
        • 8 years ago

        However, IIRC, IBM found that pointing sticks were usually faster than a separate keyboard and mouse, due to the hands not having to leave the keyboard to perform pointing functions.

        Note that I said faster than a mouse. As in, a real, external mouse, not a touchpad.

        • bthylafh
        • 8 years ago

        Who wants to use a mouse when you’re in a confined area or on the couch? Hell, unless I’m at a desk with my laptop docked I always use the touchpad. That’s what it’s there for, and I submit that your problem is that your computer’s touchpad is simply sub-par, or perhaps you’ve got a personal failing.

        I’ve got one user who’s even gotten himself one of those Lenovo keyboards with the nipple mouse, and uses that on his desktop machine without a conventional mouse.

          • Corrado
          • 8 years ago

          Exactly. Hay! Lets make the smallest/thinnest/lightest/longest running laptop available so you don’t need to carry a charger and it will fit in your purse. But THEN lets put an external USB dongle and a normal mouse to carry with it. Brilliant!

        • derFunkenstein
        • 8 years ago

        Many usage cases for these devices don’t give you adequate room for a USB (or even Bluetooth) mouse. Like Geoff mentioned about being on a plane; you’re better off using built-in tracking devices.

      • Dissonance
      • 8 years ago

      I love a good nubbin and indeed prefer one to a touchpad when I’m writing and want to quickly move the cursor without my fingers leaving the keyboard. The thing is, it’s simply not as good for surfing or tooling around in Windows when compared to a touchpad with good multitouch gestures. Ideally, I’d have both. But if forced to choose between them, I’d ditch the eraserhead for a quality touchpad any day. Wouldn’t have said that a few years ago.

        • anotherengineer
        • 8 years ago

        It would be nice if all notebooks had a (fwd, back) button on the keyboard somewhere. I can’t live without that now after having it on my mx518.

          • WillBach
          • 8 years ago

          My ThinkPad has back and forward buttons above the left and right carrot buttons. They’re really easy to hit my accident, but useful. It’s a trade-off.

    • potatochobit
    • 8 years ago

    I like how instead of paying 10$ to have a nice looking body tattoo or face paint art done they just took one of the stickers off a computer and slapped it on her chest

    I have always wanted to buy a zotac but the performance vs. price ratio has never been where I wanted it. I am interested in what llano brings at the end of this summer.

      • destroy.all.monsters
      • 8 years ago

      You’re right they should have put the sticker on her forehead.

      Or made her wear them Wendy O. Williams style…

        • Rakhmaninov3
        • 8 years ago

        Ass would have been even better, considering the company name

      • DeadOfKnight
      • 8 years ago

      I’m waiting to see what Trinity + S.I. hybrid crossfire brings.

    • ImSpartacus
    • 8 years ago

    I agree that the thinness obsession is rather silly.

    I really like the .95″ thickness of my MBP13. It’s compact, but still big enough to fit an enormous battery.

    I hope more pedestrian ultrabooks will loiter under the one inch mark and pack larger batteries. A thin machine is worthless if its dead.

      • potatochobit
      • 8 years ago

      macbook air runs for about 7 hours on a full charge
      your idea that batteries need to be thick to provide power is inaccurate.
      what needs to be done is that the components need to be more efficient.

      the issue is, when you build a cheap computer with cheap components efficiency may suffer.
      It might be thin, but that doesnt mean you are getting advanced technology inside.
      of course, a thin battery that lasts long would really cost alot. so its probably not even worth it to most consumers.

        • ImSpartacus
        • 8 years ago

        Cheap components, what are you talking about? In a super-thin boutique laptop, thermals are the single biggest barrier. The most advanced technology usually provides the best performance to TDP ratio, so that’s what is used.

        I’m just saying that once we get under an inch, thickness doesn’t really matter anymore. Get me a sturdy <1.00″ chassis with an mSATA SSD, a ULV CPU, two RAM DIMMS, reliable graphics and a big fucking battery.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 8 years ago

        Just think how long it could run if there was room for an actual battery instead of a handful of ants running on a treadmill.

          • Beelzebubba9
          • 8 years ago

          Well they’re very expensive ants farmed from the finest sweatshops in China. They’s why they’re so expensive.

        • BestJinjo
        • 8 years ago

        Hate to break it to you but there are no special magical components in your macbook air. It still uses USB 2.0 and Core 2 Duo processors btw. It has been shown various times that the main advantage in battery life in Apple’s laptops comes from the far superior OSX. Run Windows 7 on the same macbook air and your battery life will drop 2-3 hours. Of course OSX is what makes Apple what it is. But let’s not start implying that the Asus Ultrabook has “inferior” components to the Air considering everything inside of it is actually more advanced (outside of the screen).

          • axeman
          • 8 years ago

          apple also does pay attention to power usage of the components, that’s why the first core i3/i5 didn’t make it into the macbook air and mb 13″, so I’m told – the battery life would have suffered.

            • ImSpartacus
            • 8 years ago

            That’s incorrect. It was all about graphics. For thermal reasons, the MBP13 can not have discrete graphics, only the integrated variety.

            For Penryn, the chipset held the integrated graphics. nVidia made the MBP13’s chipset, so it put its own 9400M (and later 320M) graphics into the chipset.

            For Arrandale, the CPU held the integrated graphics. If Apple were to adopt Arrandale, it would have to use Intel’s inept graphics.

            This wasn’t a problem in the MBP15 and MBP17, because those also had discrete graphics.

            This is the same reason the MBA uses old Penryn-M processors; Apple wants to guarantee good graphics on every level of its laptops.

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