Affordable, ultra-thin and light notebooks with real processing grunt WILL replace today's thick old clunker notebooks. Here's why we think Intel is on a winner with the Ultrabook.
1. The tech is ready to deliver the vision
There was a time where ultra-low voltage processors meant unacceptably sluggish performance. That time has passed. The proof? A 1.8GHz Sandy Bridge ULV Core i7-2677M is capable of thrashing an Arrandale i7-620M 2.66GHz, full-power dual-core notebook Core i7 of 12 months ago.
Of course, there's still a speed differential between a Sandy Bridge ULV CPU and the full-power Sandy Bridge equivalent part, but the fact is the speed in Sandy Bridge ULVs is still more than adequate for today's apps. In fact, as I write this article on a 12 month old 2.66GHz Core i7 MacBook Pro, the speed still feels not only adequate, but fast, especially when married up with SSD storage.
Display technology is also better than it used to be. Small LCD displays are available in high resolutions, and Windows 7 is better at scaling its GUI for such displays, so that on-screen controls aren't microscopic.
Thanks to Apple, notebook makers also know how to fit a full-size keyboard and trackpad into a tiny notebook now. Using an ultraportable no longer means being an expert in hunt-n-peck.
2. The world has gone wireless
Laptops used to be things that corporate salarymen lugged from meeting to meeting in ballistic nylon bags with velcro compartments and plugged in to Ethernet when they got back to their cubicle.
But people only put up with these "clamshell desktop PCs" with their awful battery life and reliance on wired Ethernet connections under suffrance.
Working on Wi-Fi or 3G is now much more viable than it was a few years ago.
Workplaces are increasingly installing Wi-Fi to allow for more flexible use of office space, and many people, whether they know it or not, have a smartphone capable of creating a personal 3G+Wi-Fi hotspot for their laptop.
Coupled with a decent mobile network like Telstra Next G, using internet on the train/bus or at an airport gatelounge move is now entirely viable, at no extra cost for moderate usage.
3. Having one of every port is no longer needed
The fact is, more of what people do on their laptop now is done over Wi-Fi. Access to storage and printers -- two of the key uses for USB on a laptop -- are regularly done over the air.
All most people really care about is being able to connect a thumb drive, a USB 3G modem, an camera memory card to download photos and a TV to play downloaded movies easily. You get all these ports in an Ultrabook.
Chunkier ports like VGA connectors for old projectors really aren't necessary any more, and had become a barrier to getting the size of notebooks down.
People who need chunky old ports can get an HDMI or mini DisplayPort to VGA adaptor. The rest of us can enjoy the slimmer form factor made possible by getting rid of legacy ports.
4. Full computing, anywhere
Very few people pull their 3kg, 15" notebook out on the train to get some work done or on a street corner to check an address. But people happily do that with their iPad or smartphone.
However, as amazing as the iPad is in many respects, it's still doesn't hold a candle on a laptop with a full multitasking OS and a real keyboard when it comes to getting work done.
The fact is: size and weight make a huge difference to how people perceive a device. Super thin and light notebooks that can be easily picked up one-handed change how people use their computer.
5. No-one needs built-in optical drives any more
Ask yourself: when was the last time you used your notebook's DVD drive? And how long ago was the time before that?
USB memory keys are now so cheap and well supported by all sorts of devices (not just computers, but DVD players, TVs, etc) that very few people move files between computers on burned discs any more.
The main reason anyone uses a DVD drive these days is to install software, and with the popularity of online app stores, that's also fast becoming last decade's method of software distribution.
Ultrabooks don't have a DVD drive in them, but if you do need to occasionally use one, there's always a $30 USB DVD drive. They're so cheap that you can have one at home and one at work.
6. SSD storage unlocks the speed of computing
When people upgrade their computer from a hard disk to a solid state drive, they are inevitably amazed by the speed boost.
For years, mechanical hard drives have been holding back the true speed of PCs.Even a fairly low-end CPU in a PC can be made to feel amazingly fast with the addition of SSD, because program loading and bootup times are cut dramatically.
The pricing of SSD is reaching a sweet spot -- it's possible to make an Ultrabook with 240GB of SSD for $1500, and even without the full-speed processors used in normal size notebooks, users will see stunning performance.
7. User serviceability is no longer so essential
Making ultra-thin and light notebooks requires precision manufacturing that bonds layers together, requires every millimetre of space to be used productively and seals everything in. Put simply, manufacturing of laptops is becoming much more like the way smartphones are made.
This does mean Ultrabook owners won't necessarily be able to crack the case and swap parts like RAM and the hard drive around.For the vast majority of people, this simply doesn't matter.The only time most people ever got bits of their notebook upgraded was when they'd ploughed $3,000 into it and wanted to get a couple more years out of it.
Notebooks are so cheap now that most people are happy to buy them, use them in their standard configuration and then buy a new one in two or three years.
8. Intel and Microsoft are finally fixing Windows sleep/resume
"Instant-on" is one of the big appeals of the iPad, and has been one area Macs (pictured left) have the upper hand over Windows PCs for years.
Although Microsoft has protested for a long time that Windows is equally capable of instant resume, the variety of hardware configurations in Windows PCs has, in practice, made Windows sleep and resume extremely unreliable.
Part of the Ultrabook design spec is that manufacturers properly implement sleep/resume in Windows. Even if resume fails, Intel has helped this along in Ultrabooks with its "Rapid Start Technology" which writes the contents of RAM at sleep time to NAND flash memory.
It can be read back into RAM in 5-6 seconds, allowing a notebook to resume back to a fully usable state very quickly, even if the battery had completely run out.
9. There's no reason "big" notebooks can't be made thin and light too
Right now, Ultrabooks are appearing in 13" form factors, but there's really no reason our love affair with 15" laptops can't be extended to thin-and-lights.
We would lay money on a bet that Apple is working right now on a 15" MacBook Air, which may be even thinner than the current Airs due to the extra chassis width and depth.
Given the whole industry is moving away from bunging various separate components into a notebook chassis, and towards more all-in-one integrated designs, it makes sense that the same design philosophy will be applied to making big-screen notebooks.
10. At the right price, why would you not go Ultrabook?
The first Ultrabooks are coming out at pricing around the $1200 mark now -- about a 50% price premium over a standard chunky laptop. Admittedly, the good models with a decent amount of SSD storage are around the $1,500 mark.
But there's one thing you can be absolutely sure of in tech: prices come down constantly. Laptops that used to cost $1,500 a few years ago sell for $700 today.
Ultrabooks will come down in price too, especially as SSD storage gets cheaper. Of course, so will full-size notebooks, but there will come a point where the cost differential will be so small that there'd no good reason to buy a chunker.