What is an Ultrabook?

Anyone who has thought about buying a new laptop recently will almost certainly have found the word “Ultrabook” looming large through the fog of jargon and technical specifications.

But what, exactly, is an Ultrabook, and how is it different from a regular laptop or netbook?

To answer these questions, we need to look back to 2011, and Computex, the International Information Technology Show held every year in Taipei, China.

At that time, Intel, the company that makes many of the chips that drive modern laptop and desktop computers, was becoming increasingly alarmed by the growing popularity of tablet computers like the iPad. These machines didn’t use Intel chips, and, even worse, there were signs that their growth might harm sales of laptops that did use Intel chips.

Intel’s answer to this problem, unveiled at Computex 2011, was the Ultrabook concept – a new class of small, easily portable laptops that retained the performance and battery life of their larger counterparts.

The concept defined strict criteria that manufacturers would have to meet if they wanted to market their laptops as Ultrabooks. Most importantly, they would be driven by Intel’s latest generation of high performance, energy efficient mobile processors, and could – but did not have to – include touch screens and other tablet-like features.

In addition, they would have a battery life of at least 5 hours, and take no more than 7 seconds to awaken from hibernation. But power and performance were only part of the equation – Intel demanded portability, too. In the interests of making Ultrabooks easier to carry, it was decided that machines with displays of 13.3 inches and smaller should be at most 18mm high, while machines with displays of 14 inches and greater should be no more than 21mm high.

It was expected that manufacturers would sacrifice superfluous features, and take advantage of new or improving technologies in order to comply with these requirements, and in many cases they have done so. Many Ultrabooks (but not all) forego the luxury of an integrated CD or DVD drive – the user must usually obtain an external USB optical drive if they think they will need one. Similarly, solid state drives take the place of hard drives in many Ultrabooks, and unibody chassis are common, leading to products that are both lightweight and sturdy.

The concept is not set in stone, however – it continues to evolve, as technology advances. Second generation Ultrabooks, with more advanced processors, are already on the market, and a third generation, featuring yet more advances in processor design, and a much longer minimum battery life, amongst other improvements, should go on sale in mid 2013.

As the concept evolves, its position in the market becomes clearer. Ultrabooks are intended to bring powerful computing facilities to professionals and power users on the move. They are smaller and lighter (and often more expensive) than a standard laptop, placing a premium on portability rather than features. Indeed, some features that are taken for granted in conventional, desktop-replacement laptops may be be absent altogether from an Ultrabook.

In some respects, they are the heir to the mobile computing philosophy that brought us the now almost obsolete netbook. Like Ultrabooks, they sacrificed optical drives in exchange for size. But, while the netbook was – at least to begin with – the embodiment of the Small, Cheap, Computer concept, they lacked the computing power to match desktop and larger laptops task for task. Ultrabooks, on the other hand, retain the ability to undertake demanding tasks that would be out of the question for an even more portable, but much less powerful netbook.

All of these different types of machine have their own strengths and weaknesses, and anyone in the market for a new laptop should keep them in mind. Ultrabooks, in particular, are an impressive technological development, and are very useful if you need portable computing power at the expense of some features, but they’re not necessarily for everyone.