As part of the
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
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
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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.