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Year of the ultrabook

You better believe it: 2012 will unfold as the year of the ultrabook. Anyone living under a rock is likely to ask: so, what’s that? Well, it’s that awesomely thin, super-light, power-packed designer (and full-fledged) laptop for you. If you thought that your netbook (that other lightweight and very-easy-on-the-pocket sibling of the laptop), was super cool, then it’s time to check out the ultrabook. It’s far more svelte, oomphy built, and with certainly better battery life making it the perfect ultraportable to carry around.

Ultrabooks, also called ‘instant-on’ devices, also promise no-compromise performance. So there.

Some four years ago Apple popped eyes with the launch of the world’s first skinny laptop christened the MacBook Air. And since then, every rival has been tripping over itself to give the world its version of the ultrabook.

The term ‘ultrabook’, by the way, has been trademarked by chip-maker Intel. Intel has defined the specifications for ultrabooks with a maximum weight of 3.1 pounds (that’s 0.6kg) and a maximum thickness of 0.8 inches. Even this upper-end of thickness is about half that of an average laptop. The ultrabook is an all-out effort by the company to reinvent the laptop in order to regain the market that it’s losing to the huge tablet and smartphone segment. Tablets, incidentally, mostly use processors made by Intel’s rival ARM.

“In a nutshell, ultrabooks marry the performance and capabilities of today’s laptops with tablet-like features and deliver a highly responsive and secure experience in a thin, light and elegant design,” says Saji Kumar, director, product management, Acer India, which has its Acer Aspire S3.

As mobile computing is moving rapidly, companies expect ultrabooks to penetrate the Indian market really fast. And at the 2012 Computer Electronic Show (CES) in January, a slew of ultrabooks were announced some 70 of them are coming up this year.

Since thin it must be, Acer Aspire S3 measures just 1.3cm and weighs under 1.4kg. And yes, it also boasts of a 50-day battery life (on standby) and connects to the Internet in 2.5 seconds flat! Not to forget the professionally-tuned Dolby Home Theater v4, that it’s fitted with which delivers vibrant, cinema-style surround-sound.

If Samsung has its 1.31kg ultrabook called the Series 9, then IdeaPad U300s comes from Lenovo, which is yet another designer ultrabook at 14.9mm thickness and is a light-bodied 1.32kg. Designer touches include a full-aluminum shell and a cool-touch palm-rest. Smart technologies like ‘breathable keyboard’ improve airflow so the PC can run cooler on your lap.

Vinay Awasthi, senior director product & marketing (PSG), HP India, says that ultrabooks have two important roles to play of providing laptop consumers an entirely new design and to redefine portability.

“Lightweight, long battery life and instant wake-up from standby mode are features that all laptop consumers love,” says Awasthi.

Rajesh Thadani, director, consumer business segment, Lenovo India, adds that ultrabooks are not here to replace an existing device (like netbooks and tablets), but to provide an additional choice to users who are always on the lookout for something new and fashionable. “There will always be enough room for different mobility devices to co-exist in the Indian PC market today. One device will not fend off the other,” says Thadani.

A downer? Perhaps the prices of ultrabooks that come from between Rs 50,000 and about Rs 1 lakh. But the manufacturers are upbeat anyway. “In spite of ultrabooks being positioned at the higher and niche segment, we are quite sure that this device will eventually dominate the tech landscape in India as well,” says Kumar of Acer.

Currently, ultrabooks are positioned as a premium product in the marketplace, but once the demand grows and the volume builds up, companies expect the product to touch mainstream price points.

And your choices are...

So, your choices just got wider when you go shopping for a computer. The early bird in the market was Apple of course. Apple’s MacBook Air (both the 11-in and 13-in versions) actually set the benchmark in build and style. The wafer-thin MacBook Air has a display that measures a mere 4.86mm (0.19-in) thin, yet offers high resolution. The standby mode of up to 30 days means that your MacBook Air snaps to attention in an instant, whether you open it tomorrow or weeks later.

Now in its fourth edition, the aluminum unibody Air is the best-honed skinnybook with features like a backlit keyboard, more than six hours of battery life, and a great trackpad (in terms of accuracy, responsiveness and comfort). Specs include a 13.3-in backlit LED glossy widescreen display, stereo speakers, 1.35kg weight and more. Prices go from Rs 56,900 to Rs 73,900 (depending on which one you get).

At the most expensive end of the market you could check out Samsung’s Series 9 (Rs 1.09 lakh). Or if your budget is a bit less then scout around for other options. If you’re always in a hurry, the Acer Aspire S3 is a time-saver with two new innovations. Acer Instant Connect, provides access to the Internet in just 2.5 seconds (perhaps four times faster than conventional connections). And with Acer Green Instant On, the ultrabook responds with surprising speed from Sleep mode (between a mere 1.5 seconds and six seconds). These energy-conscious moves result in a battery life that lasts up to 50 days. The Acer Aspire S3 costs about Rs 49,999.

And it offers much more: Besides the 13.3-in ultra-thin HD LED display, the computer has a vent-free bottom so that the ultrabook rests comfortably on your lap. Warm components are smartly placed away from the palm-rest and touchpad area, so you won’t feel any discomfort from the heat. A new airflow design dissipates warm air from the rear of the notebook, preventing air from blowing towards your hands. Yes, it looks neat too what with strong yet lightweight aluminum/ magnesium alloy chassis, and a lid of fingerprint-free metal finish.

Since companies are also focusing on securing your machine, Lenovo’s IdeaPad U300s comes armed with anti-theft protection. Which means that in the case of loss or theft, it tracks the computer and alerts you when someone tries to connect it to the Internet.

On the looks front, the IdeaPad U300s tagged at Rs 67,990 (plus taxes) has an Intelligent Touchpad, a large glass touchpad, plus the long-life battery that gives you up to 30-day standby time. And with Lenovo Enhanced Experience RapidDrive SSD technology, you can boot your computer in just 10 seconds.

Then there’s the Asus Zenbook UX31, the first ultrabook from the stables of ASUS, which is available in 11.6-in and 13.3-in variations and will set you back around Rs 89,999. Coming in at a thickness of 0.11-in at the front and 0.67-in at the rear, the Zenbook UX31 is amongst the thinnest ultrabooks doing the rounds. Its instant-on feature gets the system working in about two seconds and it has a standby time up to 10 days. And when battery life dips below five per cent, the Zenbook automatically saves files in progress to prevent data loss.

Each Zenbook is also equipped with Asus SonicMaster technology, that the company has developed in tandem with Bang & Olufsen ICEpower it guarantees better sound for you.

You could always check out HP’s first business ultrabook, the HP Folio13 (Rs 69,990) that weighs 1.4kg and offers a battery life of up to 9.5 hours. HP also just launched its Spectre in the US last month at $1,399. It too is loaded with HP exclusives including the HP CoolSense technology, which automatically adjusts the internal fan settings for a noticeably cooler PC.

Soon to do the international rounds are LG’s brand new Super Ultrabook Series, the Z330 and the Z430 that will be out during the first quarter of 2012 (though they won’t be available in India just yet).

Money money money

But are these benefits enough to justify the high pricing especially with the gloomy economic climate looming large? Well, ultrabooks cater to a consumer segment that loves fashion and looks for the finest of everything they can afford. Quality, portability and style quotient are their top priorities, say gadget gurus. This reincarnation of the PC thin, light and powerful ultrabooks validates the higher pricing, they say.

Says Alex Huang, country head-system business group, Asus Technology (India): “Being what they are lightweight, powerful, with superior audio quality and modish build ultrabooks have managed to create their own specific target market, irrespective of the dark economic climate. People are willing to pay extra for substantially refined features.”

Awasthi of HP India adds that ultrabooks provide advantages to consumers in terms of weight and height, small footprint, longer battery life and ability to instantly switch on from standby mode. He says: “These are features which are desired by most consumers. The current pricing of ultrabooks is driven by a few commodities like solid state drives, panels and so on. With the volumes increasing, ultrabooks will show a declining trend in prices, towards the end of 2012.”

According to him, the key will be to reach mainstream pricing. He also believes that ultrabooks will provide existing laptop users a good reason to upgrade. “We feel that all product categories netbooks, mainstream notebooks, ultrabooks and tablets will co-exist,” he says.

Future certain

Anyway, one thing’s for sure. There’ll be no shortage of choice for customers in the coming months with about 70 models coming on sale. The future will offer ultrabooks with voice recognition capabilities, and Intel’s Next-Gen Ivy Bridge processors.

Manufacturers are also looking at introducing many more 13-in and 15-in screen models in the upcoming months. Device protection is now seen as a crucial add-on by manufacturers. So serious efforts are being made to integrate antivirus security, anti-theft technology, identity and data protection into ultrabooks. And since touchscreens have touched every other category of gadgets, ultrabooks can’t be very far behind.

There will very soon be other innovations too. Ultrabooks like the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga (just announced at CES) will allow you to convert the ultrabook into a tablet by simply flipping the screen over. And while some ultrabooks already offer over seven hours of battery life, you can look forward to ones that last your entire workday without re-charging.

Fast and stylish

They are the most cutting-edge laptops around: über-thin at around 0.7-in, light at under 1.4kg, and powerful as they run on Intel i3, i5, or i7 processors. They are energy efficient to boot.

Basically, they are style-intensive laptops.

An ultrabook is really the perfect travel mate given its portability and long battery life (up to seven hours straight).

On the down side, this portability comes at a cost: most ultrabooks have only two USB ports, no optical drive, and a non-removal battery. LAN ports, HDMI ports, standard
monitor sockets and so on, are now being either built in or accessible via adaptor accessories.

Who should get one? Since they’re fast booting and fairly speedy — courtesy their processors — ultrabooks are ideal for writing, browsing, presentations, research, entertainment, multimedia and almost all regular, everyday computing tasks.