Intel Ultrabooks: An interrogation lamp on Windows 8 and tablets

Mobile Aug 06, 2011 No Comments

In a world where PC and tablet makers are finding it difficult to compete with Apple on price, it seems natural that the industry would turn to a gimmick to try and find their way in.  No, Apple is not undercutting traditional PCs with sub-$500 notebooks, but they are setting a new standard in design that they are forcing the PC competition to chase after.  The Macbook Air is on fire right now, becoming Apple’s best-selling Mac in less than a year on the market (we’ll forget about the relatively modest first generation for now).  With the new models unveiled last month, the Macbook Air is clearly positioned to become the main, and possibly only, Macbook design sooner than later.  In response to consumer reaction to the Air, Intel detailed its design for “ultrabooks” in late May.  These designs are meant to be taken by PC manufacturers to create cheaper, appealing alternatives to the Macbook Air.

One of the most interesting developments of this design and its roadmap comes from Paul Thurrott on the weekly TWiT podcast Windows Weekly and on his Supersite for Windows.  It appears that Intel is encouraging manufacturers to put processing power behind the screen of these ultrabooks, allowing them to create detachable designs that allow the user to pop off the screen for a ready-to-go tablet.  This is not a new concept as similar ideas float around CES year after year now, making Louderbacks out of people, but this is the first time that we’re seeing any type of major company push towards this form factor.  None of these designs have worked before because there was the issue of what OS your tablet will run after you’ve detached it from the keyboard.  Will it be Windows 7?  Will it switch to Android?  Will it be a terrible custom Linux distro like on Lenovo’s U1 Hybrid?  Hardware limitations like battery life have killed these products, but the software limitations have been worse.  There hasn’t been one cohesive product to date.

Going into 2012, however, the story is going to get far more interesting.  The reason?  Windows 8.  Windows 8 is a big story if only because it’s Microsoft’s attempt to enter the tablet market by recasting the PC as a tablet OS.  Their vision going forward is that Windows 8 will have a touch-specific shell and launcher well-suited to touch that can also run and use traditional Windows with touch input.  As we detailed in our Windows 8 strategic critique, this concept is flawed at its core as a tablet strategy and may even end up hurting their PC innovations.  A detachable screen, however, makes a lot of sense for these types of machines.  The user interface doesn’t have to change when you remove the keyboard.  You can have Windows with a keyboard and all of the usefulness of a mouse, but the product that you carry around as a tablet will not be an unusable brick like the Windows 7 tablets we see today.  Since Windows 8 is in many ways built for touch, this detachable touchscreen will be just fine on its own.

At first glance, this is a very appealing concept.  Rather than have two devices, why not just have one that can act as the ideal device for any scenario?  Type away and use your power applications with the keyboard, then settle down on the couch with just the screen and its HTML5 apps.  This is might be an upgrade over existing laptops that serve one purpose, but is it really going to be that appealing to most people? The real problem with this new ultrabook idea is that it still doesn’t address the main issues surrounding Windows 8.  We laid out the reasons that Windows 8 might be a misstep for Microsoft’s platforms back at the first Windows 8 unveiling.  There are still a number of questions to be answered, hopefully at Microsoft’s BUILD conference in September.  Unfortunately, from where we stand right now, these ultrabooks actually represent everything that’s wrong with Microsoft’s Windows 8 plans.  Their do-everything approach to Windows is flawed at the core and bound to be exacerbated by these new products.  The balance between cost and features is going to be that much more difficult to strike.

Without going too much into the territory we covered before about user experience, there are a number of reasons this form factor idea highlights the worst decisions for Windows 8.  For starters, aren’t these new ultrabooks supposed to be competitive with the Macbook Air on price?  If companies can’t compete right now in materials and design, how are they supposed to compete when they start throwing touchscreens on these computers? Will the design stay competitive if they have to be concerned with cramming processing power and batteries behind the screen?

Battery life is actually one of the main concerns with this detachable tablet idea.  Full Windows, with all of its backgrounding and other processing needs, requires a lot of power.  It’s one of the main reasons that no Windows tablet has been successful to date.  The move to ARM processors might help this, but the two most prominent modern mobile platforms, iOS and Android, handle memory and processing much more efficiently than Windows.  To compensate, either the form factor or the battery life will suffer.  There’s no way around that.

Today, one of the biggest costs in an iPad or any other tablet is the screen itself.  A high-quality touchscreen is a necessity for a tablet.  It has to look excellent because you’re holding it close to you.  It also has to be accurate and responsive because it’s the only thing you can interact with.  If a quality screen is going to be more necessary on an ultrabook/PC than ever before, it’s just one more area where they won’t be able to cut corners in price.  Either the ultrabook has a disappointing screen, and therefore a disappointing tablet experience, or it costs more.  And there we have another pain point for OEM’s trying to do everything with one device.

In so many ways, the ultrabook represents the difference between how Apple and Microsoft approach the tablet.  Apple designed a new OS from the ground up to suit what they thought was a more accessible type of device.  Microsoft refuses to view tablets as distinct from the personal computer and modified Windows to better fit their concept.  Intel’s hopes for the ultrabook may be in keeping with Microsoft’s plans, but they aren’t necessarily the way to create the best product.  Ultimately, price and other sacrifices will take it out of the market that consumers have settled into for both iPads and Macbook Airs.  Typically, a more expensive and less satisfying device tends to not be that successful in the marketplace.



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