What do you get with an ultrabook?

A second wave of ultrabooks with touchscreens and longer battery life are due later this year

A new category of thin and light Windows 7 laptops called ultrabooks has emerged in the past few months, but questions remain about whether the time is ripe to buy or to wait for Windows 8 models with features like touchscreens.

The initial ultrabooks resemble Apple's MacBook Air, and models are already available from Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Acer and Lenovo. The first ultrabooks are thinner and lighter than standard laptops, but are expensive with prices starting at $800.

But as the biggest backer of ultrabooks, Intel has said starting prices of the devices will drop to $699 by the end of the year. The company also hopes future ultrabooks will blur the lines between laptops and tablets with features like touchscreens, long battery life, always-on connectivity and voice recognition capabilities.

A few prototype ultrabooks with touchscreens, like Lenovo's IdeaPad Yoga, were shown earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Yoga turns into a tablet by flipping the screen backward, and users can take advantage of the touch interface in Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8. The ultrabook will ship later this year.

Apple's MacBook Air has proved that buyers are willing to pay a premium for thin and light laptops, and Intel hopes ultrabooks get the same response. The Intel-dominated PC market has weakened as people gravitate toward tablets with processors designed by ARM, which is also looking to enter the PC market. Intel has virtually no presence in the tablet market.

To unmask some of the mysteries surrounding ultrabooks, I took a test unit of Lenovo's IdeaPad U300S for an extended whirl. With a starting price of over $1,000, the price won't please buyers, but the ultrabook provided a peek into the future of Windows laptops.

Lenovo's U300S was extremely thin, with a generous 13.3-inch screen. It can be held by one hand and fits into a bag designed to hold smaller laptops. Ultrabooks have to meet certain design criteria set by Intel, including not being more than 21 millimeters thick (0.8 inches).

The ultrabook came with a solid-state drive, and the Windows 7 OS booted in just over 10 seconds. Ultrabooks like Hewlett-Packard's Folio 13 come with a hard-drive option, but an SSD component on the motherboard enables a fast OS boot. The U300S came back from sleep mode almost instantly, a significant improvement from past laptops I have used.

The ultrabook has a 17-watt variant of a Core i7 processor based on the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture. Applications loaded quickly and casual shooter games ran without losing frames. The laptop's battery life was between six and eight hours on active usage, similar to my current ThinkPad X220 laptop with a 35-watt Core i5 chip. The similar battery life may have been due to X220's smaller 12.5-inch screen and the ability for Intel chips to shut down inactive cores.

The chiclet keyboard made typing easy, and the ultrabook ran cooler than the X220. The U300S had standard laptop features such as USB 3.0 and HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) ports, though the display was not as sharp as IPS screens found on some X220 models.

Overall, if you immediately need a lightweight laptop and can shell out more than $800, ultrabooks could be worth looking at. But for those willing to wait, the next phase of ultrabooks coming out later this year could either be cheaper or have features like touchscreens.

The first phase of ultrabooks highlights the thin and light design and "ultraresponsiveness," said Becky Emmett, an Intel spokeswoman. It also provides a foundation on which the company can engineer its second wave of ultrabooks, which will be faster and more user-friendly, Emmett said.

The next phase of ultrabooks will have new Core processors based on the upcoming Ivy Bridge microarchitecture, which will speed up programs and graphics. The chips will have 3D transistors, which will make the processors faster and power-efficient.

A third phase of ultrabooks will follow in 2013, with Intel chips code-named Haswell, Emmett said. The laptop battery life should improve significantly with Haswell, Emmett said.

IdeaPad U300S ultrabook
Lenovo's IdeaPad U300S ultrabook

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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