Ultrabooks, a new laptop category introduced by Intel, are the computers of the future. They're less than .8 inches thick and lighter than 3 pounds, and anyone who has used one will tell you it’s hard to go back to a heavy, boxy, full-sized laptop.
While Apple has so far dominated this category with its 11-inch and 13-inch Macbook Airs, a large percentage of businesses, especially larger ones, haven't considered them for a few important reasons. Apple is a sole supplier; Macs won’t run many business software packages out of the box; and Macs won’t integrate with many business systems.
Fortunately, if you'd like an ultrabook to run Windows and the many Windows-based programs, you won't be limited to running Windows on a Mac using Parallels, VMWare or Boot Camp. Companies like Acer, Asus, Lenovo, Samsung, and Toshiba have announced a number of ultrabooks. So whether it's a Mac or PC, there are ultrabook hardware options for everyone.
The biggest selling point of ultrabooks is portability. Being small in size and lightweight makes them easy to carry around, like a tablet, but with a full keyboard, file system, and the capability of running standard business software. Whereas you might not want to lug a full-size laptop into a vendor or client’s office, a slim ultrabook no larger than a paper notepad allows you to easily have all the necessary data at your fingertips. The small size also makes it easier to use in small places, like the front seat of your car while in the parking lot of your next sale, or the tray table of a plane on the way to a conference.
Netbooks were the previous attempt at a small, lightweight laptop. Built to run Web apps, netbooks had screens as small as 9 inches and mini-keyboards to match. Though many had reasonable battery life, most didn’t have enough processing power to run the database, spreadsheet, and word processing programs used daily in most businesses.
With ultrabooks, performance isn’t a major concern. Intel provides processors like the Core i7 that are capable of serious work, and combined with fast SSD drives, the performance of these tiny computers should rival that of much larger systems.
Though a laptop with a 9-inch screen is portable, it’s also a bit of a pain to work on, having a less-than full-size keyboard and a low resolution screen. Manufacturers have learned from this, and the 11-inch and especially 13-inch sizes offer a good balance of usability and portability.
Cost is always important to business, and could be the sticking point for some. Despite using a fraction of the materials of a full-size laptop or desktop computer, building something small generally costs more for manufacturers. Ultrabook prices have been high, with some of the most capable machines costing up to US$3,000. Prices are coming down, though. Toshiba’s Portege Z830 will be available in November for less than US$1,000, and Intel is strongly pushing all ultrabook makers to keep costs below US$1,000.
With increased volume will inevitably come lower costs. Unfortunately, though many ultrabook makers are releasing new models, most are only dipping their toes into the market, afraid to compete head-on with Apple’s popular products. Until they gain more confidence and see a non-Apple manufacturer succeeding, availability will be limited, and prices will be higher than they should be.
The performance is there; a well-configured ultrabook can do all but the most demanding of tasks. The selection is improving; Apple’s offerings are excellent, and a few PC models are already on the market with many more appearing in the next two months. The costs could be better; you can get far better value with a larger laptop, but as volumes and competition increase, prices will come down.
Should you buy an ultrabook? If you’re looking for a new laptop, your job requires lots of travel, and you have a few extra dollars to spend, then run, don’t walk to get one. If you’re looking for an occasional take-it-home desktop replacement, you’re better off waiting for the options to increase and the prices to drop. Just looking for a lightweight way to browse the Web? Go with a tablet; it’s even lighter, better for battery life, and cheaper.
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