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Monthly Archives: January 2012

Innovation is a strange word that has been thrown around a lot lately. Devices that are reviewed well tend to be described as innovative. Companies that do well (especially in the tech world) tend to be “innovative.” One will be hard pressed to find any tech company that doesn’t advertise it’s new tablet, phone or…well…ultrabook now, to be “innovative.” Certainly, innovation is good. It is innovation that allows companies to succeed and grow. It is innovation that brings customers not just to buy a product, but to truly enjoy it. There is a significant risk in innovation, but there if it is done well, there is significant payback.

I’ve seen a consistent trend of desiring innovation within the tech articles and reviews that I read on a daily basis. This is generally a good thing, as innovation is defined as being the “creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas.” To me, tech innovation has always referred to risky ideas or simply ideas that no one ever thought about that end up leaving a legacy of success through generations of products. Sometimes innovation can be as simple as a manufacturing process that ends up allowing parts or devices to be made cheaper without sacrificing quality. Either way, successful innovation will benefit both the OEM and the customer.

Apple gets a lot of credit for being innovative. I give them credit too. Their Macintosh computers are beautifully designed, well built, feature a lot of power and fantastic battery life. Apple computers typically have a lower set of specs for the dollar than most Windows-based computers, but for what they lack in value, they gain in reliability, build quality and premium hardware design. Their OS is simplistic and tightly controlled, which is innovative itself since it is certainly a risk every time Apple launches dramatic updates that immediately outdate older machines and software (such as the removing PowerPC based code compatibility in Lion) and yet the benefit is that most users of Macs still tout the operating system as being beautiful, easy to use, feature-packed and more secure. One can argue against such statements, but the fact is, the customers are telling the story, so there’s something to it. Apple’s innovative nature has allowed them to create the most successful smartphone in history with their first attempt. They created a new category of product now known as the tablet and despite being first to market, still lead the category so much that customers ask for “other iPads” instead of Android tablets.

Apple’s obsession with being “innovative” has allowed them a lot of success, but not always. Apple’s track record has give them a dramatically loyal fan base, however, that assumes that every product that Apple will ever put out will be innovative. And that’s where the fault lies. There is nothing wrong with Apple, but it is the mystique that surrounds Apple that I want to take issue with. It seems that over the last few years (ever since the iPhone as far as I can see), as Apple is associated with innovation, innovation has also become associated with Apple.

That association is not only dangerous for consumers who will blindly buy products without doing any research and stand by it no matter how the experience is, but it is also dangerous for OEMs who now feel compelled to copy Apple. There is a reason Apple is going after Samsung (and Android, however, Android is not really copying anything other than the idea of a touch-based, app-based OS, and ideas should not be patentable). From their Series 9 Ultrabook, to their Series 7 MacBook Pro clone, to their Galaxy S II phones (come on Samsung, one home button and two capacitive buttons? Did you really think Apple would let that obvious attempt slide?) and their Galaxy Tabs, Samsung has done everything possible to copy Apple’s hardware designs. I quietly hope that at least part of this is due to spite, but my cynical side says that it’s all a marketing ploy to make a “cheaper Apple” so that they can grab some marketshare.

Lately I’ve been ranting a lot about how much I’m tired of Ultrabooks and its for the same reason. It was surprising to me that Intel would do such a stupid thing as to take an idea directly from Apple, aka the MacBook Air, and tell Windows OEMS to do the same thing, only cheaper. Imagine my surprise (there was none by the way) when OEMs had problems doing it. Sure you have a few good copies like the Zenbook (although missing the backlit keyboard) but I was more excited by the use of Duralumin in the Series 9 because it was different. I hate the material because it’s a flexy fingerprint magnet, but still it was an attempt. Yes its still a shameless copy of the MacBook Air but at least its not a verbatim copy like the Zenbook. Despite bad reviews, the Toshiba Portege Ultrabook did exactly what Intel wanted, it made a cheaper ($500 cheaper = cheaper in all other aspects too) MacBook Air. What the Windows laptop market needs is to pull the blinds over Apple and start looking at the sky again.

So imagine my annoyance when I see this article by Casey Johnston which takes the boredom and annoyance I suffered with the Ultrabook lineup at CES 2012 and blames it on Ultrabooks not being “MacBook Air”-ish enough. I agree that Intel is being unfairly reamed by OEMs who bend Intel’s rules on what defines an Ultrabook, however, would we be happier if every single Ultrabook perfectly fit the definition? Would it not be a depressing sight to see an HP, Dell, Toshiba, ASUS, Samsung, Acer and Lenovo MacBook Air all sitting next to each other on the CES floor? Would we still compare it to the MacBook Air and conclude that the MacBook Air was the better Ultrabook? Yes we would, because the best MacBook Air is the MacBook Air. However, that also means that the HP Envy 14 Spectre is the best HP Envy 14 Spectre. The IdeaPad Yoga is the best IdeaPad Yoga.

I realize that this Johnston’s article caused me to defend the annoying lineup at CES and yes that pisses me off, but at least we saw innovation at CES this year. Johnston takes offence to the HP Envy 14 Spectre because it’s nearly 4 pounds. Yes it’s heavy if you compare it to a MacBook Air, but it’s not a MacBook Air. It’s made of freaking glass that actually improves the durability of a normally aluminum notebook. Glass is heavier than thin sheets of aluminum. Its innovative because its beautiful, powerful and durable without being a MacBook Air. You are only looking at a pound to a pound and a half difference between it and the “successful” Ultrabooks of last year. Yes it’s not as “portable” as some “ultraportables” but HP wasn’t going for the thinnest Ultrabook, they were going for the most innovative and beautiful.

Johnston also complains about the prevalence of 14” screens fitting within 13” bodies. It may be that they couldn’t get it thin enough for Intel’s 13” form factor requirements and so decided that shoving a 14” screen in a 13” body would fit the bill, qualifying for Intel’s Ultrabook funding. Yes it’s a cheap trick at fitting a rule in order to get money, but isn’t the fact that they fit a 14” screen in a 13” laptop at least a little cool? I mean, they had to actually put engineering effort into making this laptop qualify as an Ultrabook where they could have also just decided to go back to the drawing board and make a super thin Ultrabook. Wasn’t there some innovation required to achieve such a design? Maybe it’s not successful or true innovation because it’s a bit gimmicky, but it’s a start.

The final major gripe is based on the prevalence of hybrid hard drives or built in SSD caching. Hard Drives are still cheaper than SSDs. Though SSDs are getting more mainstream attention, I think many consumers are still slightly insulted at the prospect of paying more for a small amount of storage space. I, for one, think that hybrid hard drives are very innovative because even Johnston has to admit that “Their new popularity is not without reason: tests of recently released hybrid drives show they can match SSDs in many tasks, and importantly to the Ultrabook paradigm, they can match SSDs in startup times.” Hybrid hard drives can match SSDs in many tasks, and yet they cost a fraction of that which a comparable size SSD costs. Sure, as Johnston notes, “they can’t match SSDs for sustained random data access or transfer rates” but that’s why SSDs cost more. In an attempt to keep prices under $1000 (and even as low as $699), OEMs have opted toward using Hybrid hard drives because SSDs command too high of a premium for a vast majority of consumers. This is innovation at work. Hyrbid’s give customers an option so that they can choose between the highest performance and greater value.

That’s one arena where Apple’s innovation fails. They do not create value. The only “ultrabook” of their that fits Intel’s “under $1000” mark is an 11.6” MacBook Air with a paltry 2GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD. I’m sure Windows OEM makers can create something just like it for cheaper. But most will agree that the better configuration for a MacBook Air is going for at least the $1200 4GB/128GB model. For $1200 that’s still just an 11.6” screen. The entry level 13” MacBook Air (which is the form factor that Ultrabook are going after) starts at $1299. Does anyone really expect that Windows OEMs will be able to make a comparably equipped MacBook Air for $699 or even $999? They tend to do a good job at doing so, but its still incredibly difficult while still maintaining some kind of profit.

We are also ignoring the bigger picture. Over the last several years, Apple devices have become defined as the best quality, most innovative, devices. When Intel asks Windows-based OEMs to take an Apple product and make it the same but cheaper, we are asking Windows OEMs to degrade their names, consumer perception of their quality and the Windows ecosystem as a whole. When a consumer buys a Windows computer, do we really want them to do it because Windows computers are “cheaper?” Cheap implies lower price but it also implies cheap build quality, lower reliability, less powerful. Unfortunately, based on Windows computers I see today, such a description wouldn’t be far off the mark. But it doesn’t have to be. At CES this year, I saw a glimmer of hope. It was faint, but it was there. At CES 2012 we saw a little piece of the innovation that I remember that Windows OEMs used to have. Back in the days when Windows computers offered value. They were more powerful, better built, had a more robust operating system, and they also happened to be more affordable. At CES this year, I saw innovative new designs, new build materials, new uses of forgotten technologies, new technologies, all working together not to try to match Apple’s MacBook Air, but to recreate a category of device that had been captured by Apple. Maybe Intel is getting taken advantage of because of their Ultrabook fund. But that fund was designed with the explicit purpose of injecting innovation within a stale PC market. I feel that Intel’s solution forced OEMs to finally remember how to innovate. Wouldn’t that mean that Intel’s plan was at least a bit successful?

We need more of this type of innovation. It won’t be wholly successful yet, because Apple controls the culture. But just look at the chaos Android is causing for the iPhone (ironically not the iPad yet). Windows can do that too. OEMs just need to keep innovating and keep pushing the boundaries of what can and can’t be done. This is what they are good at. They just need to remember.

With the bold leap that Microsoft is making towards Windows 8, it looks like OEMs are finally ready to make bold leaps as well. I don’t hate Apple. I love what they do as a company. I’m just a sucker for options.

There has always been controversy over the released hardware requirements of each Windows Operating System, but it seems that Windows 8 has sparked more controversy than usual. There is one little piece within Microsoft’s requirements that were published last month that states that both x86 systems and ARM systems running Windows 8 must have UEFI BIOS with “secure boot” enabled which will mean there will be BIOS level security verifying that Windows 8 is the only OS on the machine and that it is not tampered with.

It’s All About Security

It’s not secret that Windows has been subjected by virus attacks for what seems like all of eternity. With the internet being tantamount to the use of any computing device, the problem may only get worse. However, Microsoft is trying to nip the problem in the bud with some interesting decisions in Windows 8.

Peter Bright over at Ars Technica wrote a great article an day ago that thoroughly discusses the technical details of the security upgrades, but I’ll summarize the details for brevity and also simplicity.

Microsoft currently uses a Certificate Authentication system for verifying the legitimacy of its own .exe files (program installers) and also hardware drivers (on 64-bit Windows) to make sure that malware has not modified critical system files. You’ll get the idea if you’ve ever had to (or seen someone on a movie) swipe a card through an automated door system before you can go inside. Windows will require that any system files “swype” their certificate before they run at every boot. The major problem with this system is that the mechanism for checking certificates, aka the card reader, is not guarded or checked for accuracy or tampering. Furthermore, it is located in the bootloader, which a type of malware that has become popular lately, the rootkit, is known for modifying. By modifying the bootloader to disable the “card reader” system, a piece of malware can then run amok modifying system files and essentially take over the user’s computer.

Microsoft will be expanding this system to include applications within Windows 8. Windows 8 apps (those that run in the Metro UI rather than the Windows 7-environment) will all be sandboxed, meaning that they are run in a separate environment and any changes made will not impact the rest of the system. For instance, if an app crashes, then Windows can kill the environment like closing a web page and prevent Windows from crashing.

Of course there will be times when legitimate apps do need to make changes to the operating system. Microsoft will be providing a lot of quality control to make sure that apps that are downloaded are good, but what about after an app is installed? Microsoft will most likely be using the certificate system to verify the security permissions of the app. But if a piece of malware (spyware and cookie based threats will still be a possibility here) is able to modify the bootloader, then it can also disable the certificate authentication system and therefore get full access to the system.

To kill this problem, Microsoft is requiring that all Windows 8 systems (ARM and x86) have UEFI BIOSes and have secure boot enabled. For all intents and purposes, UEFI gives them secure boot(although it also makes the BIOS a bit prettier) and secure boot creates another “card reader” that checks the bootloader (and therefore checks the integrity of the Windows “card reader”) and the OS. If there is problems with either, it simply will not let the code run or at the worse, it will not let the system boot.

Is There a Problem?

This is a good way to solve the problem, but it does lock the hardware, preventing you from loading anything other than Windows on the machine. Linux users are worried that they will be locked out of computers completely and developers such as Cyanogen are worried that users will not be able to modified OSes on ARM hardware. There really isn’t a problem though and here’s why:

x86

First of all, the requirements that were posted are only for systems seeking “Made for Windows 8” certification. The only ones worried about that are OEMs such as ASUS, Lenovo, HP and Dell who are making computers and selling them with Windows 8. Retail computers will have UEFI and Secure Boot enabled but Microsoft is not requiring this for user built computers. This, honestly, should alleviate most concerns about x86 computers. Most people who dual boot Linux or just use Linux on a desktop will probably be savvy enough (and smart enough) to build their own desktop.

Laptops will be a bit of a different story. However, the one caveat is that Microsoft will be allowing users to turn off secure boot on x86 machines. The process is mentioned in the above article, but it should be a simple switch within the BIOS to disable secure boot. So should you want to buy a Dell XPS or some such and put Linux on it for some reason, you will be able to.

ARM

This is where the real problem lies. Since the first tablet, the iPad came out, there have been numerous attempts to modify it, jailbreak it, put different OSes on it, etc. The hackers were at first thwarted by a locked bootloader, but eventually they got around it. Then Android tablets came to the fray and offered a customizable open source platform designed for ARM processor based machines. Since then, the hacker community has been a bit spoiled with the concept of an “unlocked bootloader.” Whenever a new Android phone or tablet is released with a locked bootloader, the masses scream and yell and the manufacturer may either unlock the bootloader (as ASUS did with the Transformer Prime and HTC did with almost all their phones) or just say “screw hackers” as Motorola, Samsung and Sony tend to do. I don’t use anything other than official builds for my phones, but I can understand that an unlocked bootloader gives unprecedented freedom for custom mod makers and custom mod users.

However, Microsoft’s policy towards ARM based Windows 8 machines is to completely lock the bootloader. Yes this provides security as stated above, but Microsoft seems totally willing to let x86 users to use their hardware with any software, so what gives?

1. The Legacy

The biggest problem Microsoft faces when locking the bootloader for x86 is the fact that when someone buys a computer, 9 times out of 10 it has Windows on it. Locking the bootloader on 9 out of 10 x86 computers will cause huge anti-trust issues. Also, people are used to dual booting or buying a Windows machine to run Linux. As far as Microsoft is concerned, hackers won’t buy Windows apps anyway, but at least they are getting paid by the OEM for the operating system. Locking the bootloader of x86 machines only causes them trouble and with very little benefit.

2. It’s All About Money

When considering ARM, the first thing to consider is where the money comes from for all three platforms. Apple’s revenue comes from hardware and App store sales. It could make sense that Apple might unlock the bootloader since they get money from hardware anyway, but they’re Apple, so they won’t. Apple’s “walled garden” approach to computing (read: user experience and quality control controlled by Apple) prevents them from even considering such a proposition.

Google gives away their operating system. Yes they require registering with an advertising partnership but most companies building devices do anyway. Android is free. Google makes almost nothing off app store purchases. Their money is made off advertising both in the OS, Google Searches, the Market, and within free Apps. Most OEMs modify Android in some way before they put it on the device, so obviously Google doesn’t care about changing the OS or locked bootloaders. They kept Android open so that the developer community could play with it as they want and be happy and use Google’s services and other things that get Google money from advertising. Google even gets money from iOS and Windows 8 if the user uses Google Search. They don’t care about locked bootloaders.

Microsoft is looking at a different approach here. They sell software, but excepting their accessory division, they don’t sell hardware. Microsoft’s only revenue will come from the sale of Windows 8 and App Store purchases. Microsoft has a vested interest in keeping Windows on their tablet because, though they get initial revenue from the sale of OS, they could get continued revenue through App Store purchases. When considering whether to lock the bootloader, they had to decide between losing App Store revenue and making Google-loving hackers happy or providing a more secure platform that happens to guarantee App Store revenue from the users of their devices. Not a hard decision.

3. ARM’s Legacy vs. Microsoft’s Strategy

Also, when it comes to ARM, Microsoft is the new kid on the block. Unlike with x86, if they lock Windows 8 tablets, no anti-trust lawyers will come see them. There’s also the fact that the biggest kid on the block, Apple does run a locked bootloader. Android tablets are under constant pressure not to, but that’s because Google has positioned themselves as the Open Source alternative, thus appealing to the Linux crowd and thus needing to cater to their desire for an open and customizable platform. Microsoft does not pretend to be such. And they don’t need to. Android is open source, Windows is not, therefore if someone wants open and customizable, one will go to Android, not Windows.

Microsoft is trying to position themselves as a viable and different 3rd choice. They are trying to provide the security of iOS, integration (hopefully) with a legacy platform that 90% of computer users are already invested in, but are also offering a platform that is much more friendly to customization than iOS. It’s not totally secured and controlled like iOS, but its also not as chaotic and insecure as Android. The only rule, is that your Windows 8 tablet must have Windows 8. That’s not really so bad, and it makes sense.

4. Who cares?

I question whether those who have a problem with the locked bootloaders on Windows 8 tablets really plan on putting Android or Linux on a Windows 8 tablet. Why? Can’t these same people buy an Android tablet and do what they want with it? It makes logical sense, to me, that if you buy a Windows 8 tablet, then it will have Windows 8 on it and that’s it. You will buy apps from the Windows Marketplace, you will sync your Windows stuff with it, and you will use it like a Windows tablet. If you don’t want Windows 8 on your tablet, don’t buy a Windows 8 tablet. Simple as that.

Are Microsoft’s new security measures the end of the world? No. It will mean nothing for x86 other than a more secure Windows then ever before. Microsoft already has locked bootloaders for Windows Phone 7. It’s just business as usual.

One of the companies that I’ve been hoping to see at CES has been AMD. I’ve seen all I can stand of Intel based ultrabooks and I’ve seen my share of them sit in a warehouse and rot. I’m quite intrigued by what AMD has to offer, but first of all, here’s why I’m not as excited about Ultrabooks.

It’s Like a High End Netbook, Right?

What bugs me the most about ultrabooks is that they all use CULV or Compact Ultra Low Voltage processors. These chips will range from 1.4-1.8 Ghz, but while the power in these chips are probably good enough for the average user, they aren’t priced at average consumer prices. Run several applications at the same time, some heavy photoshop or video rendering tasks (you know, the stuff that Intel is supposed to be really good at) and you’ll see a noticeable difference compared to a typical Core i5 laptop. Even with Turbo-Boost, the chips in a $1000+ Ultrabook are slower than the chips in a $600 or under notebook, and that seems a little stupid.

Where netbooks exceled is that they were portable but cheap. Most people have a primary computer (desktop or laptop) at home which will do their heavy duty tasks. What most consumers are looking for is a portable machine that can do some work, entertainment, and maybe even some photoshop work on the go, but they don’t want to buy yet another computer just for on the go work.

Finding the Right Mobile Platform

Netbooks were popular for a couple years because they were cheap, portable, had great battery life and ran Windows which allowed for basic legacy work and some basic web and email access. Unfortunately, Intel’s Atom processor proved too slow and too low end.

Tablets ended up becoming replacements for Netbooks because they are great entertainment machines, are light and portable, offer great battery life, and offer a range of apps that can give most of the functionality of a standard computer. Unfortunately, they don’t run Windows, which means the average user will have problems keeping OSX/Android synced up with their Windows-based home PC. Not to mention, you can’t have the same programs on each, making it more difficult to switch from platform to platform.

Seeing netbooks die to ARM-based tablets made Intel twitch but when Apple crafted their new lower priced Macbook Airs, then Intel got the idea to bring this to Windows. It made absolute sense at first. The biggest problem with netbooks was the low performance of its processor. Bringing Core i3, i5, and i7 processors to a thin and light form factor while maintaining great battery life would be the perfect mobile platform. Plus, what Apple can do, Windows can do cheaper right? Well, apparently not.

For the Price of Two Laptops, You Can Have a Second Computer

The problem with Ultrabooks is that Intel jumped from the low end of the spectrum to the high end, while ignoring anything in the mid range. Intel obviously wants to sell SSDs and CULV processors and at the same time try to capture the quickly mobilizing market. Unfortunately, CULV processors are more expensive than full power CPUs, just as SSDs are more expensive than HDDs. The only result could be that consumers would be asked to spend twice as much as they spent on their home computer on a portable laptop that had less ports, no optical drive, slower processors, and low storage space. People are used to premiums on tablets, but not that much. Express cache and magnetic hard drives are helping price but now we are seeing “budget” Ultrabooks or “Ultra-Laptops” as if removing the SSD knocks them down a rung from “Ultra”-ness.

The one thing that Intel forgot when they looked at the Macbook Air is that the reason its considered a value is because Apple computers start at $1200. In a time when most consumers are buying $400-$700 laptops as primary computers, spending over $1000 on machine that appears to be designed to be a secondary machine is ridiculous.

Even if you were to consider that the power in an Ultrabook could make it a primary computer for most people, paying a $300-$600 premium for something with, once again, less power, less storage, less ports, no optical drive, and happens to be almost (but not quite) as portable as a tablet is also ridiculous. Most consumers that I have asked would rather spend the same amount of money on a midrange production laptop for home and a tablet that is more portable than an Ultrabook that does an average job of being both.

Enter the APU

For the last year, AMD’s CPU efforts, aka the APU, have positioned them uniquely for the ultra portable market. Frankly, I’m surprised that AMD’s E-series Brazos processor never arrived in significant quantities within ultra-portable laptops, but did arrive as a Celeron replacement for cheap 15” laptops. the E-350 and 450 seemed to me to be a natural fit for a 12 or 13 inch ultra-portable in a way that the Atom was never able to. Brazos combines a CPU that does what Atom did, but better, included better multitasking, and a powerful GPU that could run HD video, flash video, and some basic games all at a price that made it highly competitive.

Now that AMD has created Llano, it makes even more sense. Now, for a $400-500 price range (the price of a tablet by the way…) someone can have an ultrathin device with great battery life that can play games, HD video, get full web access, multitask, and even run some quick photoshop edits. Sure the Intel based ultrabooks are faster, more powerful, and typically have SSDs, but is it worth paying twice the price? Well to many of us bloggers, it might be, but to the general public, it won’t be.

Check out this quick sneak peak of an ASUS ultrathin powered by an AMD A-Series Processor

Here’s another video showing off the machine itself.

I wish someone other than ASUS would have been on board to show some hardware because ASUS’s reference design here is pretty ugly. I wouldn’t expect high end materials in a $400-$500 Ultra-portable, but I can tell this is based on ASUS’ K-Series design, which is gawd awful. But regardless, the power inside the machine is impressive.

Am I Going Crazy Here?

While bloggers go crazy over Ultrabooks, I can’t help but yawn. Yeah they’re cool, fast and look great but I’d almost rather get a Macbook Air if I was going to spend a grand on something ultraportable. I don’t consider myself an AMD fanboy. Maybe I’m biased because I like to play games on my laptops. Maybe I just see way too many Ultrabooks rot on retail store shelves. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that Ultrabooks are inevitably going to fail unless they see drastic price reductions.

AMD has a chance, but only because they seem to have realized that ultra portable CPUs need to be cheaper than full powered processors. Sure, it’s a bit of a strange reversal. Not long ago, it was expected that one would pay more for a more portable machine. But the dominance of netbooks and tablets have change that perception.

And so I feel that Intel’s Ultrabooks will fall to the same fate that tablets did after the introduction of the iPad and iPad 2. Eventually they’ll get cheaper and start selling finally. Because honestly, Apple is really good at being Apple. Let Apple be Apple and stop copying them.

Intel finally announced and showed off their Medfield smartphone platform at CES today. After 5 years of chest beating and promising, we finally have a product and I’m surprised to say that I’m impressed.

Anand over at Anandtech managed to get a hold of a chip for testing and the results are quite good.

     

According to Anand’s tests, browsing performance is actually improved with a single core x86 SoC vs even the venerable Cortex A9 Dual Core SoC. Intel’s power usage is also generally lower or on par with its competitors.

Intel has even managed to land contracts with Lenovo and Motorola to build Intel-based Android 4.0 smartphones.

 

Also, in case you are worried about it, Intel mentioned to Anand that 75% of Android apps in the market are already compatible with Intel’s x86 platform since Android Market apps are mostly virtualized and most do not contain any ARM specific code. The other 25% do, but just require updates to be compliant.

Overall, it’s a good start for Intel, but only time will tell whether smartphone makers abandon their reliable connections with ARM for Intel’s platform.

CES has been in full swing for the last few days and its all about Ultra. As in books that is. Yes everyone is gunning for the spot of “best competitor to the Macbook Air.” For those of you looking for your next PC to be as light as air, to help you cut your next birthday cake, or simply be really thin and have great battery life, here is a list of all the new Ultrabooks showing up at CES and hopefully showing up at retail chains soon:

Samsung

Samsung’s showing off a truck load of goods this year. Not only do they have new TVs and monitors to show off, they also have a ton of ultrabooks at the ready.

13 and 14 inch Series 5

Samsung is updating their Series 5 to be more – well ultra I suppose. As you may know, Sammy’s Series 5 is typically their mainstream notebook line, and it appears that these two are no exception. The 13 inch version start at $899 packing a 300-nit, matte (yay!) LED screen at 1600×900 resolution, aluminum body, Core i5 Processors and either 500GB or 1TB HDDs(13″ and 14″ respectably) or 128GB SSDs. Having a Hard Drive keeps them at the $899 price point but at least Sammy includes a 16GB Express Cache to give some SSD performance. The SSDs jump the price up to $1099.
The 14 inch version is a bit of an odd ball as well because it is a bit thicker than the 13 inch, but also totes an optical drive. With the lower-end configuration starting at $1099 containing an optical drive, 14-inch screen and a Hard Drive, it’s debatable whether this is an ultrabook or just an expensive and slightly thinner laptop. As an interesting twist in this story, I’ve been hearing that Samsung will also allow users to opt for an AMD Radeon HD7550M to be jammed into this case as well, which would make it a great portable mainstream gaming machine.
Samsung continues to stretch the lines of what can be considered an Ultrabook by releasing one with a 15″ screen. So far it looks like it continues from the trend started with their 14-inch model, containing a Core i5 Processor, either a 1TB HDD or SSD, optical drive, and a fantastic looking HD LED Screen. This one will be starting at a rather pocket-ripping $1300-1400 price range, keeping it in the price range of the higher-end Series 9. But with an optical drive, huge HDD, 8GB of RAM, and 15″ screen, there may be a couple people looking at this strange ultra-portable.

Now I know this isn’t an ultrabook, but it’s probably the closest thing we gamers are going to get with this much performance this side of the Razer Blade. And for once, Samsung is giving us a ton of horsepower for our money. For $1799, this guy is packing a Core i7 Processor, 2GB AMD Radeon HD 6970M, a 5900 mAh battery, JBL speakers, a backlit keyboard (with separately colored WASD keys of course), and a 17-inch 300-nit 1080 screen. For only 4 Benjamins more than their Series 5 ultrabook, you get gaming power and a lot of high-end power. Even though it’s a huge, 17-inch gaming machine, Samsung still managed to make it pretty thin, showing that the Razer Blade is actually making companies think about the aesthetics of gaming computers.

Series 9 Second Generation

Previous gen Series 9(left) vs 2012 Series 9(right)

Samsung’s Series 9 was the first notebook to legitimately compete against the Macbook Air and became the staple for what Intel eventually called the Ultrabook. Ever since then, Ultrabooks have become more mainstream (read: cheaper) and so Samsung badly needed to update their proto-ultrabook.

So here we have, the Samsung Series 9 2nd generation. It’s 37% thinner and .4 lbs lighter than it’s predecessor, yet manages to pack the first gen’s 400-nit 1600×900 screen. Also, gone is the fingerprint loving Duraluminum, but it has been replaced by a more minimal aluminum uni-body design. I personally applaud the change. They did keep the clickpad unlike the Series 5 which has separate left and right mouse buttons.

Also gone is the pull-down drawers for your ports. The new series 9 has a much better port selection with two USB 3.0 ports in a typical Macbook Air design (one port on each side), a mini Display Port, and a full SD card slot that is the only thing nestled still in a pull-down drawer.

The Series 9 will come in both 13 and 15-inch configurations, both with Core i5s and 128GB SSDs starting at $1399 and $1499 respectibly.

Lenovo

The other OEM coming out in full swing is Lenovo. The Chinese Legend/IBM combo has gone crazy for ultrabooks in both its Business-minded Thinkpad line-up as well as its Consumer-drive IdeaPad lineup.

ThinkPad T430U

Lenovo is introducing two new Thinkpad Ultrabooks in CES, and these two are both very different. The first entry is a pretty standard Ultrabook fare, coming with Intel Ivy Bridge processors (2nd half of the year), HDD or SSD options, a non-replaceable battery and will be .8 inches thick and 3.9 lbs. This is a bit heavier than your standard ultrabook but does have a bit of a unique Thinkpad flare including their legendary keyboard, a trackpoint mouse, fingerprint reader and a removable back plate allowing easy access for replacing the RAM and the HDD or SSD. Lenovo will also allow thorough customization including the option for Nvidia discrete graphics, something not offered on most Ultrabooks. It’s only downside is that it’s 14-inch screen is only a 1366×768 display, but for an $849 starting price, its certainly a decent value.

ThinkPad X1

The other ThinkPad from Lenovo is a bit more unique. On the surface it seems like yet another standard Lenovo ThinkPad X1. It has Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, it’s thin and light (3.73 lbs) with 5 hour battery life. It has a TrackPoint mouse.

But this thing has an Android tablet hiding under its shell. The ThinkPad X1 has a 1.2Ghz Snapdragon AS WELL as up to a Core i7 processor and can run Windows 7 for your heavy-duty tasks, or run a Lenovo skinned version of Android for quick boot internet and app access. The Android part of this laptop will also come with 1GB of RAM and 16GB of Flash storage. When the laptop is running Android, that 5 hour battery life will extend to 10 hours and also comes with a rapid charge feature allowing you to charge it to 80% in under 30 minutes.

Practical or not, its kinda interesting, but for its $1400 starting price, it will certainly make business professionals consider it before pulling the trigger.

IdeaPad U310 and U410

The Mainstream Ultrabook

It makes sense that Lenovo’s entry into the mainstream notebook market also coincided with their meteoric rise in market share. So it makes sense that Lenovo create Ultrabooks in their IdeaPad consumer-based line up as well as their time-test ThinkPad lineup.

The U310 and U410 are revisions of last year’s U300 and U400 ultra portables. Last year they were value priced options with Hard Drives standard and a $899 starting price. Unlike many of the other entries of this year, Lenovo hasn’t done much to change the machine, but perhaps that’s a good thing. They still have the same aluminum shell, glass trackpad, great Lenovo keyboard, RapidDrive (HDD/SSD hybrid) and great battery life. Put that on the scale at 3.79 lbs at .97 inches thick, and you’ve got something Lenovo calls an “Ultra Laptop.” It also comes in an “Ultrabook” configuration including a SSD starting at 64GB and several colors including  Cotton-candy Pink, Crimson Red, Electric Blue, Graphite Grey and Pearl White.

So other than the SSDs and new color options, what’s new? The price. Starting at $699, I would expect this laptop to sell quite nicely because of its great feature, good build quality and bargain price.

Acer

Acer is typically known for their budget notebooks and netbooks, a reputation that informed last years S3 Ultrabook. It was a “bargain” last year at an $899 starting price but suffered from poor build quality, a less-than-stellar keyboard, and average quality screen. This year Acer is trying to turn over a new leaf on its Ultrabook division with two new high-end models.

Aspire S5

Considering everything that’s changed with Acer’s new Aspire Ultrabook compared to last year’s S3, it’s surprising they didn’t name it differently. The hardware under the hood it very similar to most Ultrabooks, coming with Intel Core i processors, SSDs, a thin and light aluminum frame (although it feels a bit higher in build quality),  and a good helping of RAM (upgraded now to 8GB).However, there are a lot of exciting upgrades in the S5 that could make this little guy a bit more unique.

I’m most interested in Acer’s “AlwaysConnect” technology which keeps the Ultrabook in some sort of hybrid sleep mode while still being connected online to receive updates for Outlook, Facebook, Twitter and others so that on resume, the most recent information is right in front of you. This feature will also let you wake the machine from your smartphone so you can grab data from it even if its closed and sitting on your bed at home.

All Ultrabooks have to balance port selection with a thin frame. You can’t have both ports and a sleek frame, until Acer’s MagicFlip. It’s an unfortunate name but its a great way to get two USB 3.0 ports, a full-sized HDMI port, a Thunderbolt port and a full-sized SD card slot in a .59 inch frame. This is how they did it. By the way, this hidden panel should hold up to 50lbs of weight

Finally the S5 comes with a MagSafe like AC Adapter connection, which is something that has been badly needed on notebooks for a long time. With all these small but fairly significant upgrades, its not surprising to hear that this Ultrabook will be priced at “around $1000.” However, with all its small upgrades, this may be one of the more innovative and well priced Ultrabook of the bunch, as long as Acer’s final build quality remains solid.

Timeline Ultra

The Timeline name represents Acer’s high performance line up and this Ultrabook is being touted no differently. It will come in both 14 inch and 15 inch form factors and will be around 20mm thick. That’s not particularly thin but it will pack a Core i processor that has apparently not been announced yet (probably Ivy Bridge) as well as gaming-grade dedicated graphics and an impressive 8 hour battery life.

Also included is an optical drive, USB 3.0 ports, Dolby Home Theater v4 Audio, Acer’s Cloud service and the AlwaysConnect feature listed in the S5 above. Unfortunately there is no pricing yet but it will be available in the Q1 2012.

Hewlett-Packard

With HP’s Folio Ultrabook already announced (although will be sold in consumer divisions too now), that leaves this week’s Ultrabook announcement for the consumer division. But don’t expect this to be a meager Macbook Air-wannabe at a bargain price. This Ultrabook is hoping to the object of Envy for many OEMs

HP ENVY Spectre 14

I have to say, this is probably the most beautiful Ultrabook on the CES floor. HP announced a few months back that they had been experimenting with various new materials other than aluminum for notebook design, but I didn’t expect this. Most of the machine is covered in scratch resistant glass from the lid, to the display and even on the trackpad and palm rest. HP even claims this glass actually improves the durability of the aluminum case underneath.

HP also included Beats Audio(big surprise) and HP Wireless Audio to stream audio to KleerNet devices. I can’t wait to lay my eyes on the 14-inch 1600×900 Radiance Display, which is HP’s highest end display with better color quality, within the shell of a 13.3″ laptop. The result is a beautiful piece of equipment.

The rest of the hardware is fairly standard fare, with Core i5 processors, a fairly paltry 4GB of RAM, but a huge 256GB SSD, 9 hour battery life and a surprising NFC card for connecting from your NFC equipped smartphone (or your HP Touchpad of course), all packed into a 20mm frame. It’s priced at a high end $1399 but HP is hoping you won’t mind considering they also preloaded Photoshop Elements 10, Premier Elements 10, and 2 years of Norton.

Dell

Seeing Dell show up at the CES Ultrabook-o-thon was rather surprising considering its definitive refusal to build Ultrabooks earlier this year (or at least sub-$1000 ultrabooks). apparently Intel’s subsidies eventually convinced Dell otherwise, because we now have a Dell Ultrabook for a dollar under 1000 called the
Dell’s entry into this highly competitive market comes with yet another type of material, Carbon Fiber. It’s one of the thinnest ultrabooks at a paltry .24 inches at its thinnest, but expands to .71 inches at highest point of the wedge. The use of aluminum and carbon fiber in the same case makes me wonder how sturdy the two materials will fit together,but it’s interesting to see carbon fiber within a notebook case.
The keyboard is also Dell’s standard backlit XPS keyboard, which is fantastic.
Other than that’s the XPS is a pretty standard Ultrabook. It sports an Intel Core i5, 4GB of RAM, 128GB SSD, 8 hour battery life and a 13.3″ laptop screen at 1366×768 resolution within a 12″ shell. The gorilla glass on the screen makes no sense to me, since that will only make the screen scratch resistant and to my knowledge, its not a touchscreen.
*updated* Hybrid Ultrabooks
This is all I can use to describe a couple Windows 8 ultrabooks debuted near the end of CES 2012. Both of these take inspiration from the hybrid Tablet/Laptop form of Windows 8’s software and decided to bring that hybridization to the hardware. We’ve seen attempts to create Windows 7 (and even Android) Laptops that convert into tablets and we’ve seen Tablet PCs from the pre-ARM days. But with Windows 8 on the horizon, now we may finally see a revitalization of the Tablet PC.
Imagine a thin and light 13″ Ultrabook at 17mm thick. Now add Windows 8. Of course with Windows 8, you need a touchscreen. But reaching over to tap and flick around the internet is too annoying, so what do you do? Well of course you bend the laptop in half! Any other Ultrabook would break, but not this guy. The aptly-named yoga has a hinge that lets you rotate the screen a full 180 degrees vertically so that the screen lies flush with the back panel. It might be a bit thicker than your standard tablet, but at 17mm thick, it’s not that much thicker. When rotated a full 180 degrees, the keyboard will shut off, allowing you to hold it and interact like any tablet.
When it’s released (sometime after Windows 8 is) it will come with Ivy Bridge Processors, a Samsung SSD, 13.3″ IPS Touchscreen, and 8 hour battery life. With it’s robust specs and fairly innovative hinge design, this will certainly be the Ultrabook to fear near the latter half of the year.
Inspiron Duo flashback anyone? Yes we’ve seen this hinge design before, but it never fails to impress. It’s just simply cool to impress your friends by moving it from Tablet to Laptop mode so easily and quickly. I feel that luster is going to fade when you try to use that gawd awful touch sensor and buttons that they decided to replace a traditional trackpad with. As per Toshiba’s typical design, you’ve also got a cramped and uncomfortable keyboard to work with as well.
The specs are your average mediocre Ultrabook specs, including CULV Core i5 processors, 4GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD (which will mean it will probably be in the higher price range) and an average looking 13.3″ screen running at a slightly better than bargain 1280×800 resolution. Also included are 2 USB ports, an Ethernet Jack, SD card slot, HDMI and separate headphone and mic jacks. At 4.2lbs, it’s also fairly heavy for an Ultrabook.
It’s still in early development, so let’s hope Toshiba puts some spit and polish on this guy before they try to sell it.
That’s it…for now
I’m kind of disappointed by the showing of Hybrid laptops at CES. I’m sure there will be more introduced as Windows 8 comes more into development, but this is certainly the most exciting form factor to see coming back to Windows.
I guess that’s it for the Ultrabooks for CES. Some are kinda cool, many are flops, and generally I’m not very impressed. I feel that these machines are way too expensive to gain any traction whatsoever. While they are impressive in just how thin and light they are, impressive in performance and battery life, they simply do not offer value (good bang for buck) right now and I feel that Intel will have a hard time selling Ultrabooks until they get to or under the $699 price range. Much of CES also seems to be waiting until next year when Windows 8 arrives, so I feel like 2012 is a bit of a limbo year.