Yesterday Intel announced fourteen new Ivy Bridge desktop and mobile (laptop) dual-core processors and amongst this announcement also came updated specifications for Intel’s Ultrabook platform. Along with the top end mobile cpu, the core i7-3520m with a base clock of 2.90GHz and turbo of 3.6GHz, are four ultra low voltage (ULV) processors that have the potential to reinvigorate Intel’s ultrabook family. Indeed the i5-3317u, i5-3427u, i7-3517u and i7-3667u all have a TDP of 17W. This leads to the question of whether these new processors have the capacity to push ultrabook prices down, increase battery life and thus take ultrabooks into the mainstream.
What are Ultrabooks?
While it is likely you have heard the term ultrabook you would not be blamed for not knowing exactly what they are. Indeed their market penetration over the past 8months has been rather limited due to the lack of quality hardware that has been built around the concept. Ultrabooks are Intel’s initiative to tackle the wildly successful MacBook Air. The Air provides users with an incredibly thin, beautifully designed yet still relatively powerful machine and compared to many PC laptops only serves to highlight Apple’s understanding of what consumers want. While such a thin and light computer was not first created by Apple, previous attempts at building a thin and light PC often resulted in exorbitant pricing, Sony Vaio Z, or below par specs. Therefore Intel’s aim with ultrabooks was to erode Apple’s market dominance by encouraging manufacturers to use its processors to produce high quality, well designed and ultimately highly desirable laptops that could hit a $699 price point and thus rival the MacBook Air. However, many of the first generation ultrabooks failed to live up to their billing as MacBook Air competitors as they suffered from a number of problems including poor battery performance and expensive starting prices.
Dont Blame Intel
Intel clearly hopes that the release of their new Ivy Bridge ULV chips therefore provides a new start for manufacturers in their quest to rival the MacBook Air. Indeed there is good news in the shape of the new processors’ performance. The early signs are that these new ULV 22nm Ivy Bridge chips pack around 10% more performance than last years sandy bridge chips whilst also consuming less power. Not only that, but Intel has included their brand new HD4000 integrated graphics along with these chips. While still a long way behind a dedicated graphics solution the HD4000 does provide a nice boost to ultrabook graphics performance. However, the bad news for Intel is that these processors do nothing to solve the real problem behind the first generation of ultrabook failings, the manufacturers.
By taking a look at two of the ultrabooks from last year we can see a number of the problems with the ultrabook family, they lack the attention to detail of Apple products. Take the Asus Zenbook for example. Arguably the best of the first generation ultrabooks, the Zenbook suffered from flaky touchpad drivers and a less than ideal keyboard. These are admittedly minor problems especially as a driver update somewhat solved the touchpad issues. However, what it does go to show is that other manufacturers are still missing out crucial details when it comes to designing PCs. Until the arrival of ultrabooks with touchscreens both the touchpad and keyboard are the only means by which to interact with a computer. It is therefore crucial that these aspects are things that manufacturers focus on and work out of the box without the need for driver updates. At the end of the day much of Apple’s success is based on its user experience. Taking a look at one of the most expensive ultrabooks of last year, the HP Envy 14 Spectre, we see another problem with the first generation of ultrabooks. At first glance the Spectre looks like exactly what Intel was aiming for when it announced the ultrabook concept. A thin 14” laptop in the size of chassis usually reserved for 13.3” inch screens, an exterior shell made of metal and covered in gorilla glass, with beats audio and a 1600×900 display. Yet a look at the price shows all that you need to know about what is wrong with the device. Starting at $1400 the Spectre was twice the price that Intel envisaged ultrabooks could be sold for. Apple has shown that stunning design has a way of tempting people to spend more money on a device than its specs would have you believe yet the difference is that Apple is, at the moment, the brand in technology. People buy Apple products not only for the user experience but also because they are made by Apple and carry with them a certain prestige. HP launching a brand new product does not have the luxury of the Apple brand to turn to when people ask why it costs so much. Furthermore there is a reason that Intel said that it eventually hoped ultrabooks to cost $699. They understand that PC manufacturers cannot get away with pricing their products to close to Apple’s as for the vast majority of people Apple will win every time. This may seem a rather negative appraisal of the first generation of ultrabooks but the important details here are that if ultrabooks fail it will not be down to Intel’s processors not being fast enough but rather the manufacturers for not fully understanding what is important for consumers.
Ivy Bridge, Hope and the Second Generation
While Ivy Bridge does not signal a revolution for the ultrabook it does allow manufacturers to somewhat start afresh and learn from the failings of their first generation of products. Indeed there are certainly signs that manufacturers seem to have taken criticism on board and look likely to finally produce machines that are capable of rivalling Apple’s MacBook Air line up. The new Asus Zenbook Prime for instance looks set to challenge the Air. Coming in both an 11” and 13” version the Zenbook Prime, like its predecessor, is setting its stall out to be the ultrabook to beat. It has maintained the excellent design and build quality of its predecessor yet now not only packs a faster Ivy Bridge processor and better battery life but also includes a full IPS 1080p (1920×1080) screen on both its 13” and 11” inch models. Finally it seems that manufacturers are grasping how important screen resolution is to users. Apple is likely to give its Air line up a resolution bump when the new MacBook Pro and Air are expected to be announced on 11th June but it is good to see that Asus is not waiting to let Apple set the trend for increased resolutions on ultra-portables. Indeed there is certainly hope for Intel’s Ultrabooks. Intel have recently said that they have 110 ultrabook projects currently worked on. Whether or not such a large number of products will sully the ultrabook brand is an issue for another day but as it stands it certainly looks promising for Ivy Bridge and the second generation of ultrabooks.
While Ivy Bridge does not bring enough of a performance or battery life leap to automatically revitalise the ultrabook market the fact that it is coinciding with the second generation of ultrabooks bodes well for the platform as a whole. Not all manufacturers seemed to have build upon the feedback of users and critics alike, looking at you Envy Spectre XT, but the fact that some are certainly shows that manufacturers are dedicated to the ultrabook brand. There is only so much Intel can do to push the ultrabook brand as in the end it is up to the manufacturers to make ultrabooks a successs and with Intel’s Haswell processors promising huge increases in battery life maybe by next year we will be discussing whether Apple will be able to catch up to the ultrabook.