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The Intel Ultrabook: 4th Generation

By , 20 Nov 2013
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The Intel Ultrabook

I love a good Ultrabook. Ultrabooks to me are the ultimate expression of True Gadget. A blend of form, function, and features, and the more of each, the better.

The first iteration of the "Ultrabook" was a device that was thin and light. A Toshiba Portege was an Ultrabook. A MacBook Air was not. This was a little confusing until the Ultrabook was more formally defined as requiring (among other things) specific dimensions (ie thin), boot up and wake from sleep time (fast), a certain level of graphics capabilities, extended battery life, anti-theft technology, Fast IO (eg USB 3.0) and the requirement that they be powered by the Intel Core family of CPUs. Intel has extended this definition to require at least 6 hours of video playback and 7 days standby, as well as having a touch screen and being hardware ready for voice command and control.

Oh, and ever wonder why Intel snapped up McAfee? All Ultrabooks will come bundled with antivirus and antimalware pre-installed.

So an Ultrabook is a thin, light, powerful, safe laptop with touch and voice control with all-day battery life (well, work-day battery life). At a minimum. 

A real Ultrabook takes that definition and kicks sand in its face. Throw in good looks, a usable keyboard with backlight, Full HD screen and then bust out a set of sensors such as GPS, NFC, ambient light and orientation sensor, throw in a SIM slot and you have a serious machine that, in my mind, warrants the term Ultrabook. Actually Awesomebook would be better but it just doesn't really roll off the tongue.

Enter Intel's latest Ultrabook prototype which Intel have kindly loaned to me so I can kick the tyres and take it for a spin. Other's have waxed lyrical about the shiny box, while others have spent, and still spend, hours each evening opening and closing the box to hear the Intel theme like the most unexpected Hallmark moment ever. I won't mention the box. I won't mention the padded slipcase. I won't even mention the black on matt black colour scheme with "Ultrabook" subtly embossed. This is a colour scheme very much trending right now on high end road bikes and I dig seeing it appear on an Ultrabook. But I won't mention it here.

What I will mention is the package as a whole. This prototype, to me, epitomises what an Ultrabook should be. It's light (though the addition of a touchscreen has noticeably made the unit screen heavy), it's thin, it has a wonderful keyboard and trackpad, it's packed with sensors, has a beautiful screen and packs enough juice to get the job done.

The big negative? You can't buy one.

This is a Software Development Prototype developed to allow developers to understand and explore the capabilities of an Ultrabook and so dispenses with the need to provide value for money and instead focuses on providing as good a (technical) experience as you would likely encounter. There's no point in providing a test unit less capable than what you'd expect to find in the field. However, I do also, and paradoxically (or unrealistically) feel that this prototype should be considered the base level of Ultrabook. Hardware manufactures should take this prototype as an example of what to do as a minimum then go off and do something amazing. Unfortunately the market seems slightly more interested in producing the cheapest laptop, not the best laptop - which is a pity because I'd rather pay a few hundred dollars more and get a laptop that doubles as a workhorse than save a few bucks and then have to purchase a desktop as

First Impressions

The goods. Light charge, padded case and plenty of dongles.

Regardless of what an Ultrabook, technically, should be and regardless of what manufacturers will offer us, this review is about a specific Intel Ultrabook featuring the latest Haswell chips and a bunch of go-fast bits.

In three words: I love it. With some caveats.

I won't post any specific benchmarks because; again, this is a prototype. It's not tuned, it's not designed to be an actual saleable product, and we all know about the new Haswell chips. They are faster than the previous generation and they offer around 12hrs of battery life on a decent setup. What's not to love about that. The integrated graphics are faster, and the inclusion of a touchscreen is so natural that, for a Windows 8 box, it would be odd (and annoying) not to have it.

This prototype unit is fitted with a relatively small 128Gb SSD and only 4Gb of RAM. Functional, but not enough to make this a day-to-day machine for a developer. It will certainly function as a strong development machine (and VS 2013 runs just fine, thank you very much) but I'm not even going to try running Visual Studio, SQL Management Studio and Photoshop at the same time.

The quality of this unit far surpasses the quality of the previous units I've worked with, and the screen, both its display and it's touch sensitivity are a pleasure to use. The unit seems to weigh slightly more than a MacBook Air to my imprecise weigh-one-in-each-hand measurements, and lying them side by side shows the Intel prototype to be a gnat's whisker thicker at the thickest point. In other words it's powerful, very thin, very light, with goods to promise great performance and battery life.

The case itself is matt black and not nearly a finger print magnet as you'd expect. And as I said I love having a laptop with no branding other than a black gloss "Ultrabook" front and center on the lid with a small Intel logo bottom right. It's the ultimate sleeper.

Using the Unit

SIM card slot, HDMI, USB 3.0 and power

My all-time favourite laptop is the Toshiba Portege 935 because it's fast enough, can go up to 6GB RAM, was the thinnest and lightest laptop available at the time, and was cheap. More importantly it had full-sized VGA and Ethernet connectors.

No recent Ultrabook has these, and so you're forced to use adapters, which, thankfully, are included with this prototype. Micro HDMI to HDMI or VGA and USB 3.0 to Ethernet. Or just buy yourself a decent docking solution and use that. However, I do prefer at least having a full HDMI such as in the Acer S7 or NEC Lavie.

The WiFi is dual band so you can connect to your 5GHz routers. Unfortunately it's 802.11n, not 802.11ac, so no Gigabit WiFi which is a pity since that would mean one less dongle. Ultrabooks have WiDi as standard and so too this unit. However, WiDi has always been hit and miss for me and I'll admit I've given up and just use AirPlay.

As I mentioned this unit comes equipped with sensors and it's good to see sensor support in software becoming mainstream. The screen brightness and orientation change automatically, Google Maps can set your location and NFC is slowly on the rise. As an iPhone user I may have to wait until sometime after September 10 to test out the NFC support on this unit.

My only quibbles with the unit would be a little fan noise (though we think this could be an issue with my test unit), and the hinge of the monitor. I am yet to find a laptop that opens as nicely as the MacBook, and that when used as a touchscreen doesn't bounce and bob around. The screen is very stiff to open and you almost have a dig a fingernail in to get it to open. Touching the screen often causes a fair degree of screen bounce so better dampening and graduated resistance would solve these two issues - along with a small cutout to enable us to get a hold of the lid.

Wrapping up

Wrapping up for now, that is. I'm going to extend this post in a few weeks to provide a little feedback on what it's like using it over time. I break things. I don't mean to, I don't even treat them badly, but if something will break then even just being near me will break it, so it will be interesting to see how this Ultrabook stands the test of me.

At this point, though, I do very much like this unit.

Pros:

  • Looks great
  • Powerful, fast
  • Excellent screen, both to look at and for touch response
  • Sensors and all the Ultrabook goodness
  • Small and light power adapter. A big win.
  • Backlit keyboard, standard keyboard layout (no weird shaped keys) and a nice trackpad

Cons:

  • Small SSD and low RAM
  • No 802.11ac
  • Opening is a little stiff
  • Fan seems a bit weird, but a firmware update should easily fix that
  • Would prefer it to be lighter. It's already very light, so this is a tiny niggle.
  • Would also prefer a full sized HDMI port 

8 / 10 

Second Impressions

I've had the unit for a while now and my impressions are essentially unchanged. It's a lovely unit. Beautiful screen with a ton of screen real estate (I have to mirror Steve Smith's comments on that one) and it's light enough for travel and powerful enough to be a daily driver. I am, in fact, in the process of decommissioning my  venerable desktop with it's many cables, its aging UPS, it's dusty case and its inability to slip into my satchel and am moving fulltime to Haswell based laptops. 

In doing so I have some complaints, though. And they are petty, but they highlight some of the issues with using a laptop as a desktop replacement.

  1. It's not as convenient (or safe) to leave a laptop on the ground under your desk by your chair. You may step on it. This means you have just lost some desktop space.
  2. Laptops get noisy when they get all hot and bothered. You don't hear a desktop fan when the desktop is, er, under the desk.
  3. Desktops are way cheaper, way more powerful, and way more expandable. Sure, you can go nuts with some gaming laptops, but you'll always get better bang for your buck buying a case, and I've not yet seen a liquid cooled laptop. We're talking extremes here, however, and for general development work a laptop is often perfectly adequate.
  4. It's harder to get decent RAM and decent storage space. 8GB RAM is typically all you'll get, and 256GB or 512GB of HDD. The Haswell Ultrabook I'm currently reviewing has only 4GB RAM and 128GB HDD and it's not enough. RAM is ridiculously cheap. I do not understand why 8GB / 16GB aren't the standard low / high RAM options on offer. It's insane.

What I love about using a Haswell laptop as a daily driver is I unplug it from the docking station (the Targus works great) and take it home, or to a coffee shop, or on a plane to Australia and I have exactly the setup, the files, the profile that I've been working on all day without the need to remote desktop into the office. I can never go back.

Docking Stations

What I dislike is that you really do need a docking station solution if you're going to use it for work, and if you're going to bring it home then you'll end up wanting a docking station at home, too. I'm actually cheating a little with my setup at home: I plug the laptop in, then remote desktop to the laptop from my 27" iMac. Awesome screen space and a full keyboard, and I just leave the laptop closed on the desk, typically buried by several inches of papes, books, and sometimes coffee cups.

Robustness

Herein lies the true issue with laptops. They just aren't that strong. My old Toshiba Portege was extremely flexible which meant it soaked up all the bangs and stresses placed on it during travel, but it meant it just started getting old before its time. It still goes like a champion, but now it has a kinder owner.

The Haswell unit is very stiff, and very solid, but in the interest of full disclosure it's not a reliable unit. I had issues with the keyboard and I have now, unfortunately, joined the ranks of those who have had to get a replacement unit due to battery issues. This unit is not a commercial quality unit - it's meant to be a test rig for use in developing applications that target the platform. However, in this round of reviews of the latest rigs there have been a number of reviewers who have had unit failures.

My Current  Setup

As an aside I thought I'd provide an update on my working setup. Given that the loaner Ultrabooks are not suitable for me to use as my one-and-only (especially given the "loaner" bit!) I've moved to a MacBook Air running Windows 7 with VS 2013 / SQL Server 2008 R2 (yeah, old school). Haswell Core i7 with 8GB of RAM, 256GB SSD. 12 hour battery life and the thing compiles CodeProject.com way, way faster than my old quad core i7 desktop.

I chose the MacBook because I am not a fan of Windows 8 and nor of 8.1. Simply put, it gets in the way of my productivity by trying to be something I don't want, and not doing it very well in the first place. Harsh words, yes, but my perfect OS is one that I don't even notice is there. I don't work with 1 app at a time, I work with 5-6 apps at a time, and I need them in small, resizable windows. I could stick to Windows Desktop mode but what is the point - I have a laptop with a keyboard, not a tablet and swipes. 

A MacBook lets me install Windows 7 with no UEFI concerns, it's an incredibly solid unit, and the upgrade to the Haswell chips means they have great performance and stellar battery life. My "docking station" is actually a 27" thunderbolt screen. The screen contains speakers, USB, ethernet in, webcam, mic and a single cable out of the screen that splits into a power cable and a thunderbolt cable. Connecting the laptop to the screen is two seconds work. 2560 x 1440 is the perfect resolution for me since it's equivalent to two 19" screens side by side with added legroom. My old 3 screen setup is now 1 screen plus the laptop screen itself. Much neater and only three cables (power, laptop-out, USB keyboard).

The Haswell chips

I am a huge, huge fan of the new Haswell chips, to the point that I've switched exclusively to them for my working machines. Power, battery life, and excellent built-in graphics. Perfect. At least until the Broadwell chips come out, that is...

Final Impressions

It's been a few months and I figured it was worth posting some real world experiences with the Haswell chips and Ultrabooks in general.

I am still using a Macbook Air as my primary, and in fact only development machine. I admit to racing out and buying a new Haswell Macbook Pro when it came out but returned it within days because

  1. It was too heavy
  2. It was crazy expensive
  3. The effective vertical resolution was 800px vs the Air's 900px (though you obviously could get more going non-native)
  4. It was barely faster than the MacBook Air.
  5. It didn't have anywhere near the battery life of the MacBook Air

The last two points were the killer for me. An Ultrabook needs to be fast enough to complete the job I need done, and it needs to have the stamina to allow me to keep working.

Intel's Haswell chips have changed the way I think about Laptops because I no longer need to compromise on power vs. longevity, nor either of these with weight and portability. The Haswell unit I was testing is fast, light, has great battery life and is, to put it in a nutshell "good enough". Everything from here on in will just keep getting better and better.

I love the touchscreen but found myself using it only when showing someone else something: it's easier to reach across and flick a screen than it is to position the hands on a keyboard on the right keys (or trackpad) and navigate.

I also wish all laptops came with inbuilt GPS (everything's location aware these days) and ambient light sensors. Too many late nights in dim offices mean I can no longer deal with a screen that doesn't cater to my bleary eyes.  The powerful graphics onboard? Nice to have, but my gaming days are over by virtue of needing to break that addiction long ago.

I'm not sure that an inclinometer or compass will be a big hit in a laptop but that's because I don't see them as being that useful today. I'm sure there's a killer app out there for them, and I'm sure that including them can't be that expensive, right?

So the Ultrabook - or more accurately for me, a lightweight Haswell powered laptop - is the right decision for what I need, and I do generally ask a lot of my machines. Intel have a hit on their hands and I'm looking forward to the next generation.

Goodbye desktop. It was fun.

License

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

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

 
QuestionBattery lifetime. PinmemberTimoKinnunen22-Nov-13 2:29 
GeneralMy vote of 5 PinprofessionalAyush00123-Sep-13 20:39 
GeneralMy vote of 5 PinprofessionalDrABELL16-Aug-13 11:26 
GeneralRe: My vote of 5 PinadminChris Maunder16-Aug-13 12:03 
GeneralRe: My vote of 5 PinprofessionalDrABELL16-Aug-13 18:23 

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