APC's technical editor Nick Race thinks the new Acer S3 and Ultrabooks in general may be sheep in wolf's clothing.
Sitting in the Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook launch this afternoon, with the smoke machines belching and the lasers flashing, I was attempting to understand just what kind of impact the Ultrabook will have on the notebook market for you and me.
The Ultrabook (with big U) is the next buzzword in portable computing. Seeking to replicate the new product segment success of the netbook (small n) a number of vendors including Acer, Toshiba, Lenovo and Asus are beginning to unveil what they hope will be big game changers in notebook functionality and design.
Ultrabook designs are based around a set of guidelines established by Intel and announced earlier this year. Ultrabooks should weigh in at 1.4kg or less, have a long battery life (but how that's measured is anyone's guess), measure in at less than 21mm thick and sport an Intel low voltage processor. These designs are going to be in the 11-13in size range to meet those specs and most importantly, they should cost around $1000USD (in the USA).
Just like netbooks before them, there are compromises to get the Ultrabook svelte enough to make the average Joe take a second look. The processors used are Intel's low voltage models of the Core i5 and Core i7 mobile processors. Those chips, while being leaps and bounds ahead of even last generation's LV chips are still crippled compared to their full-cream-milk drinking bigger brothers.
Sluggish isn't the word, but they aren't going to break any speed records. Secondly, you are restricted to Intel's HD 3000 graphics solution built in to the LV chips no matter which Ultrabook you buy. And, once again, compared to last generation it's dramatically improved but next to any other current gen solution, either integrated or discrete, it offers performance that is passable at best.
What nobody seems to be able to say is why anyone would want one? Nobody's screaming out for a whole series of notebooks you can mark as smaller and slower than what we have now. People aren't standing in the aisles of the big box retailers with demo models in hand saying, "I wish this was 2mm thinner but didn't have all this processing power; that would suit me perfectly!".
When Apple launched the MacBook Air, people took note because it was different. Tiny, portable and with some great design. People also understood that having a notebook of that size involved compromise. It wasn't sold as a main machine, but that notebook you grabbed with your keys on the way out of the door to whittle away time on the bus or plane, take notes at meetings or for browsing the web during some downtime. When you were done at the end of the day you took the Air home and got down to the business of doing some "real" computing: editing those videos, designing the website, encoding your HD movies or playing a game. It's exactly the same story with netbooks, and people didn't assume they were high end, because they were really cheap, made out of plastic and looked like toys.
We spent a very short time today with the Acer Aspire S3 (pictured), and it does look beautiful. It's got a good quality screen, seems well put together with a pleasant usable keyboard and looks thin enough to slide under a door. It's less than 13mm thick and, well, there's not much more to say on it until we can get in to it with some benchmarks.
I think there's a danger with these Ultrabooks. They look like a super premium product and cost a decent amount. The Acer Aspire S3 starts at $1199 and goes up to $2099. I'm just concerned that the average punter won't know the difference between the slick but slow new thing and a more stoutly built but more capable notebook, then ultimately end up disappointed when they find the limitations of the hardware. It's a sheep in wolf's clothing.