It's the reincarnation of the PC in the age of tablets. Thin as a tablet and boots up just as fast, but as powerful as your latest PC. Is it the MacBook Air without the Mac?
The success of Apple's razor-thin MacBook Air and the iPad tablet have been a wake-up call to the PC industry, which has spent a decade churning out notebooks made strictly to a budget. The 'pick-a-part' manufacturing mentality has seen millions of uninspired plastic notebooks designed to the 3cm-thick, 2.5kg formula of blandness.
The problem with notebooks is that, in essence, they're really just shrunken desktop computers at a time when people's expectations for their computers have been rapidly changing. There's only one conclusion that can be drawn from accelerating iPad sales and declining notebook sales: people are putting a premium on greater portability and simplicity for their new computing devices.
People are no longer happy carrying round a briefcase-sized padded nylon bag with velcro dividers and a power-pack that looks like it should be able to power an industrial meat slicer. They're not happy with notebooks that have a 2-3 hour battery life, or which take minutes to boot up.
The 15in chunky notebooks churned out today by HP and Dell using snap-together cases will be remembered in five years the same way we look back fondly at the "portable" computers of the late 80s like the Toshiba 3100SX - an 8cm thick 386 notebook with a monochrome plasma display, weighing 6.8kg.
Intel is convinced that the way the PC industry can save itself from becoming a has-been alongside tablets is to beat Apple at its own game, by creating a new class of notebooks it calls Ultrabooks.
These notebooks share some of the same physical characteristics as MacBook Airs, but are free from the tyrannical, obsessive control Apple exercises over many aspects of how people use their computers. More importantly, they bring some of the best features of the iPad to PCs - instant resume, cold booting in just a few seconds under Windows 8, and reconnection to previously used Wi-Fi networks near instantly.
Put another way, Ultrabooks are designed to be Windows PCs without the annoying aspects of Windows PCs - heavier form factors, slow booting, unreliable sleep/resume and sluggish wireless reconnection. Intel predicts that by the end of next year, 40% of all notebooks sold will be Ultrabooks, rising to 60% by 2013.
Inside an Ultrabook
Intel has set a high bar for manufacturers to call their notebooks "Ultrabooks". They need to be less than 1.8cm thick, and weigh less than 1.4kg. Battery life needs to be five hours of usage with Wi-Fi switched on. Pricing for the base model needs to be less than US$1,000.
They mustn't include an optical drive - it's time for the industry to move on, Intel asserts. Storage should be ultra-fast SSD; again, the era of the sluggish mechanical hard drive has passed, with SSDs in reasonable sizes now available for affordable prices.
And for any manufacturer considering squashing down and flattening out one of its underpowered netbook designs - they can forget it. Intel has banned the use of Atom processors in Ultrabooks, insisting that only Core i3/i5/i7 chips are used to provide adequate processing power.
Discrete graphics chips, with their tendency to sap battery power despite being unnecessary for non-gaming needs, are also out of the question. Intel is mandating that its CPU-integrated HD Graphics be used as the exclusive graphics engine for Ultrabook designs.
All of the above is a very hard ask for notebook assemblers who are making only US$10-$20 profit on each standard sumo-wrestler sized, plastic-chassis notebook they churn out.
Fitting full computing power into an ultra-thin case means CNC-machined metal cases are a practical necessity, and special parts such as light-weight, hollow screen hinges and non-standard, custom-size batteries need to be specially made for each model of notebook.
Intel has created a $300 million fund to help notebook manufacturers transition their manufacturing lines to cope with these more demanding techniques.
You'll just want to touch it
The first Ultrabooks to come to market are essentially traditional notebooks made thinner and lighter, but Intel has longer-range plans than this.
Touch will be the next big improvement - but the way people most comfortably use touchscreens is when they're flat, iPad style, so Gen II Ultrabooks will have swivel screens that are able to fold back over the keyboard.
This isn't a new idea, of course - Microsoft tried for years to get people interested in the idea of convertible tablet PCs. But while those Windows Tablet PCs failed on many levels before, the technology timing looks pretty right now.
With Windows 8, Microsoft has utterly given up on the idea that you can somehow train people to use a standard Windows GUI with their fingers.
Windows 8 ushers in a completely new Metro UI designed for touch, and is built around the concept of constantly updating tiles, so users can see a dashboard of up-to-date info when they're using their Ultrabook in touch mode.
But when the Ultrabook is back in standard clamshell screen-and-keyboard mode, the standard Windows GUI can be called up for traditional notebook work.
The swivel-and-fold-back screen concept doesn't work on chunky clunker notebooks - nobody wants to be sitting on the train using a 3kg hunk of plastic on their lap. But something that weighs a kilo and is only 15mm thick? Absolutely doable.