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A review and refresher on the Intel Ultrabook

, 4 Jan 2013 CPOL
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Impressions on using a 3rd gen sensor-and touchscreen-equipped Intel Ultrabook prototype.

Introduction

As part of the Ultimate Code Challenge and our own, follow on AppInnovation Contest I've been carrying around, spilling coffee on, and generally abusing a prototype Intel Ultrabook in order to test contest entries and explore what the latest generation of UltraBooks can do.

This review will not be an unboxing. The box, the cover, and in fact the hardware shell itself are the least interesting parts of the Ultrabook. There are many other reviews of these units if you're curious. The interesting thing about these units is what's inside and what they can do.

From the moment you turn it on it's a different experience. Faster, for one. Much faster. Booting up takes second. Even a full reboot takes only seconds. This is the result of both the hardware and the Windows 8 OS, and there is a definite symbiotic relationship between these two parts. The Ultrabook needs an OS to support its hardware, and Windows 8 shines when given the chance to stretch its legs on hardware with an UltraBook's capabilities.

So what is an Ultrabook? A little background.

It's not, as many thought, simply an ultra light laptop. A MacBook Air is an ultra light laptop but it's not an Ultrabook. This seems odd until you realise that the first and second gen Ultrabooks were merely opening acts on the main performance. An Ultrabook is this and light (less than 0.8"), has a powerful processor (2ns and 3rd gen Intel Core's), great battery life (at least 5 hrs) and a fast startup (no more than 7 seconds). But it also has specific features that an ultrathin, ultra light laptop such as a MacBook Air doesn't.

Touch Screen
A touch screen, while seen by many as a gimmick, changes the way you interact with the unit in surprising ways. You don't hunt for the cursor or mouse. You just swipe, or pinch-zoom, or push the button directly. It's so natural that it becomes frustrating when switching back to other laptops
Lower Power use
The next gen "Haswell" chips will halve typical processor power to 10-20W.
Sensors
Compass, accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS and ambient light sensors come standard. Take a peek at the Ultrabook and Tablet Windows 8* Sensors Development Guide for more info on this.
Smart Connect
Keep getting emails, updates and messages even while the unit is asleep. Insanely valuable for those who want to grab a sleeping laptop and run out the door instead of having to fire it up, download your email, then hit the (possibly unconnected) road.
Anti-theft and Identity protection
Remotely disable your stolen laptop, from anywhere, and helps protect your online identity via a trusted link to the system, accounts and favourite online places. You may also want to read up on Intel Secure Key Technology

Let me reiterate at this point: an Ultrabook is not just a thin and light laptop. It has specific features such as touch and sensors, and specific performance parameters that take it a level about a standard laptop.

Ultrabooks are not just laptops - they are more like the love-child of a tablet and laptop, and many of the form factors you'll see coming out will reflect exactly this. Detachable keyboards mean the line between laptop and tablet is very, very blurry, or there are fold-back keyboards reminiscent of the old TabletPC, but half the width, a quarter of the weight, and with a touchscreen that actually works.

Where does Windows 8 fit into this?

If you haven't blotted out the memory of the TabletPC then you'll remember that the biggest failing, apart from the awful touch experience, was the software. You needed a pen or stylus, and even then it was a dodgy proposition on some units. Ultrabooks with Windows 8, however, are built to not just be touch enabled but touch optimised. This means that the applications developed to take advantage of touch should adhere to UI rules that govern the size of UI elements, and the way they react to certain gestures.

The Windows 8 "Windows Store" (formerly Metro) style applications are tablet applications. Full screen, touch-based, sensor enhanced. They are the types of apps you'll use while sitting on your sofa, or in the cafe, or in a bus. They may make use of sensors such as NFC to transfer data between your smartphone and the Ultrabook, or they will use the positioning sensors to control the application, or they will be always connected apps that allow to put down and pick up the Ultrabook wherever, whenever, and have it be up to date, always.

Windows Desktop applications are the same old Windows style applications that are in Windows 7. Except that they, too, can take advantage of sensors, the the graphics power, and the CPU.

It's the dichotomy of these two modes that are the only fly in the ointment.

My impressions

Given all of this, what do I think of the unit?

Firstly, I love that it's a de-badged prototype with a big, anonymous "Ultrabook" stenciled into the rubberised lid. The unit is slightly heavier than my Toshiba Z830, but then again, all laptops 13" or more are heavier than my Toshiba. It has 2 USB 3.0 ports, a micro-HDMI, headphones, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, SD card and SIM slot for 3G connectivity. A webcam, speakers, mic, touchpad and decent keyboard round out the offerings. So: a standard looking unit that's a total sleeper. Who would guess it has a gyro, accelerometer and GPS under the hood? Who would guess that the 1600 x 900 screen is touch enabled. It's a great way to make a big impression if you use it in casual company.

You are reminded, however, that this is a prototype when the fan comes on a little noisily, or you have to update sensor drivers, again, because new ones have been released. But that's really half the fun of this unit. It's a glimpse at what's coming, and if this is a prototype then I can't wait for the final, polished versions.

The Windows 8 experience, however, underwhelms me. I just cannot find peace with the two modes of operation. I am in the start screen testing an application, then want to browse the web so I fire up IE and off I go. However, when I try downloading something it kicks me into desktop mode, meaning I have to scramble back into Metro mode to find where I was at.

I've had some issues with the orientation sensor getting confused with which way it should show the screen (sideways is a huge favourite), but I simply turned that off and moved on. No doubt there's a driver update I'm been too lazy to apply. Touch response is impressive, and I find myself using touch input more and more. It's so very natural to want to just touch a page and slide it up when reading.

Windows 8 Desktop apps are not touch optimised. You still have the small "close" buttons, small text (especially on a high res 13" screen) and small UI controls. I'm also very dark on the multiple places within Windows 8 you need to go to in order to change settings. Microsoft needs to consolidate the UI sooner rather than later for the overall experience to be rewarding. However, the hardware is exceptionally solid for something meant only as a platform on which to test and develop software.

And the Ultrabook? Initially I was sceptical, then I was frustrated with driver issues, then it all suddenly started working and then I finally understood what an Ultrabook is. And I love the idea. Take a powerful portable computer that's as thin as you can make it, as light as possible, and equip it with the sensors to be aware of it's environment and the infrastructure to maximise your connections with that world. It's to a tablet what a tablet is to a smartphone. Bigger, more powerful, more capable, and more productive.

An Ultrabook isn't for everyone, just like a MacBook or beige desktop PC isn't for everyone. An Ultrabook is, however, the direction laptops will go and I love it. I would love to see Apple embrace sensors and touch on their laptops, and I'd love to see more OS manufacturers jump on board and support the hardware. My day to day OS is still Windows, so most of all I want the Windows 8 experience to be made cleaner so that the OS makes whole the integration of human and environmental inputs into one seamless experience.

After 3 months

I've been using the Ultrabook for a few months now and the main thing that is clear to me now is that touchscreen is hear to stay. At least I hope it is. 

An ultrabook is the biggest change for PCs and laptops in terms of user interaction since the introduction of the mouse. The mouse is a proxy for touching and manipulating things on the screen. With a touchscreen you are actually touching and manipulating things on a screen. Steve Jobs famously commented on touchscreen computers by saying "We've done tons of user testing on this, and it turns out it doesn't work", but he also said you'd need to file down your fingers in order to use a 7" tablet. We all know how that turned out (though to be fair the iPad mini is 7.9". Clearly above the sandpaper threshold).

So the touchscreen interface is, for me, the biggest win for Ultrabooks. It's also the most visible and in a way, the most prosaic. Ultrabooks also contain sensors, include always on/always connected, and adhere to a minimum set of criteria for thickness, weight, battery life, graphics capabilities and CPU power. Buying an Ultrabook - a true 3rd gen Ultrabook - is a guarantee of a certain level of quality, feature set and user experience and that is a very, very good thing.

My daily driver is still my trusty Toshiba Portege which, while marketed as an Ultrabook is not what one would consider a true Ultrabook today. No touch, no sensors, it runs Windows 7  and is setup with all my stuff. However, should it die or need a reformat it will be set aside. I constantly find myself wanting to scroll with a flick of the finger, or resize with a reverse pinch, or dismiss a dialog with a tap. I'm constantly on my iPads, still use my Windows 8 Ultrabook frequently, and so now simply expect screens to be touch enabled. It's almost painfully frustrating sometimes to grab the mouse or reanable the touchpad simply to move things.

Which raises another point with touchscreens: with a touchscreen you don't need a trackpad. Well, maybe you do for tapping, since tapping a touchscreen on a laptop can result in seasickness as the screen bounces, but this is a problem that Apple, with it's rock solid hinges, has already solved. No more palm-brushes messing up your typing, and more space for a keyboard (or just for your palms to rest) is a side benefit that can't be ignored,

As to the other features an Ultrabook brings, always on/always connected is, not surprisingly, incredibly handy. I grab the ultrabook, head out, and I know that it's grabbed my latest emails and messages without me needing to hang around my Wifi connection until it's done. It's a time saver. A small one, but it adds up.

I do also find it quaint that applications are asking me for my location. I'm so used to applications simply grabbing my location from my iPhone's GPS that it's jarring to see an application be totally unaware of where I am. That does not happen with the Ultrabook: the GPS is there to be used. Mapping, shopping, looking for services, getting the local weather - the list of things a GPS provides is getting longer, disturbingly longer, every day.

Finally, ultrathin and ultralight are no longer a nice to have. They are standard. Anything thicker and half an inch, or heavier than 4lb is as good as dead to me. Ultrabooks are portable, extremely portable, and are meant to be used casually, on the go, in the cafe, on your lap on the couch, or buried in your backpack, taking up as little space and weight possible.  

The Verdict 

I'm a fan. A huge fan. I'm keenly waiting for the next round of Ultrabooks to be released, but I'm also looking forward to the next evolution of the Ultrabook. Touchscreen is a huge advance, but surely this is just the beginning of the changes as to how we interact with our machines.

License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

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About the Author

Chris Maunder
Founder CodeProject
Canada Canada
Chris is the Co-founder, Administrator, Architect, Chief Editor and Shameless Hack who wrote and runs The Code Project. He's been programming since 1988 while pretending to be, in various guises, an astrophysicist, mathematician, physicist, hydrologist, geomorphologist, defence intelligence researcher and then, when all that got a bit rough on the nerves, a web developer. He is a Microsoft Visual C++ MVP both globally and for Canada locally.
 
His programming experience includes C/C++, C#, SQL, MFC, ASP, ASP.NET, and far, far too much FORTRAN. He has worked on PocketPCs, AIX mainframes, Sun workstations, and a CRAY YMP C90 behemoth but finds notebooks take up less desk space.
 
He dodges, he weaves, and he never gets enough sleep. He is kind to small animals.
 
Chris was born and bred in Australia but splits his time between Toronto and Melbourne, depending on the weather. For relaxation he is into road cycling, snowboarding, rock climbing, and storm chasing.
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Comments and Discussions

 
QuestionTouchscreen PinmvpMeshack Musundi4-Jan-13 19:45 
QuestionNice Article PinmemberPatrick Harris4-Oct-12 18:16 

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