Skip to main content

An example of the newest Ultrabooks hitting the market soon.

When Intel announced its vision for a slim, light laptop with long battery life and dubbed it the "Ultrabook," most manufacturers were quick to jump on board. Their last swat at ultra-portability, the netbook, underwhelmed many with its tiny screen and, in many cases, awkward keyboard. There had to be a better way.

The first incarnation of the Ultrabook – the specs for which are decreed by Intel and adopted by manufacturers – had a lot going for it. Super-slim, tipping the scales at about 1.3 kilograms and boasting respectable screen size and a virtually full-sized keyboard, it appealed to mobile users who spend a lot of time pounding the keys. However, some weren't happy with the shortage of ports and other tradeoffs required when you produce a laptop that is super-skinny. The original models also lacked business-class security.

This month, a year after their debut, the second generation of Ultrabooks was unveiled, and so far, they're generating smiles.

So what does a new Ultrabook look like? Well, it's mega-skinny. The spec says an Ultrabook with up to a 14-inch display may be up to 18mm (just under 3/4 of an inch) thick. Models with bigger screens get a pass if they're up to 21 mm (0.83 inches) thick.

Vendors, of course, are one-upping each other. ASUS, for example, has an impossibly thin 9 mm model, and Dell's wedge-shaped offering is 6 mm at its thinnest point. Most of the Ultrabooks boast full-sized keyboards and oversized touchpads (the better to support gestures such as pinch and zoom). And they are as much fashion statements as computing devices, as HP demonstrated when it sprinkled Ultrabooks among the exhibits at the Shanghai Museum of Glass during its recent global launch event.

But despite the sleek profile, for a computer to be called an Ultrabook there has to be some serious technology behind the pretty face. It needs an Intel Core processor that can wake up from deep sleep in less than 7 seconds; it gets going even faster from standard sleep mode. In addition, it needs either USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt technology to ensure fast data transfers.

Current Ultrabooks contain the Intel second generation Sandy Bridge processor but we will soon see third generation Ivy Bridge models. The big deal with Ivy Bridge is that it further reduces power consumption (which means less heat), provides embedded security and enhances graphics.

Regardless of the chips inside, an Ultrabook needs killer battery life: a minimum of five hours, with a recommended life of eight hours. Often, vendor-quoted times are optimistic and depend on a dim screen and no wireless usage, but I tested a first generation 13-inch HP Folio at a recent conference and with WiFi in use, it got me through the day with juice left over. It's a far cry from the experience of using older laptops, when you spend half your time hunting for a power outlet.

The new models coming later this summer promise more gorgeous industrial design and even better battery life. HP says its new Folio will offer 9 hours of battery life, increasing to 20 hours with an optional battery slice – a large, flat battery that clips to the bottom of the laptop. Other vendors claim up to 32 hours – truly drool-worthy.

The final piece of the next generation Ultrabook is security. All devices must offer Intel Anti-Theft technology, a hardware-based technology that makes it possible to lock down an Ultrabook if it's lost or stolen and helps secure sensitive information stored on the device's hard drive. Should the machine be recovered, it can quickly be unlocked and put back in action. In addition, Intel Identity Protection technology uses chip-level authentication similar to hardware tokens to increase the security of online transactions.

There is a price to pay for the slim form factor: Only Dell offers models with user-replaceable batteries (as does the upcoming HP Elitebook Folio; the original model is sealed), and don't even think about a DVD drive. In addition, most Ultrabooks have solid-state drives to cut weight and conserve power, which means storage capacity is smaller.

You'll also lack an external video port in most cases, which means you'll need a dongle to plug in an external monitor (again, there are some exceptions).

IT departments tend to hate dongles; they break, and are easily lost, so a business-ready Ultrabook should have all ports, even if they make it a tad thicker. HP says the incremental increase in thickness for its upcoming Folio is the height of a penny.

Naturally, there's a price attached to all of these goodies. While firm pricing hasn't been announced by all vendors, next-generation Ultrabooks will likely start at around $1,000, several hundred dollars more than for similarly configured standard business laptops.