Intel Corp. is doing its best to bring sexy back to notebook computing at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas via a new-ish category of laptop: The ultrabook.
A highlight within the initial ultrabook crop is Dell's new XPS 13, shown onstage during Intel's CES keynote on Tuesday. It won't launch until near the end of February, but I had a chance to lay hands on a preproduction unit in Toronto. It's a very pretty little machine.
Ultrabooks are defined primarily by their wafer-thin profile (less than 20 millimetres) and minimal mass (under 1.4-kilograms), as well as their performance specifications, which demand Intel's Sandy Bridge Core i5 and Core i7 mobile processors.
The XPS has a wedge-shaped chassis – composed of a heat-dispersing carbon fibre base and a machined aluminum shell – that's just six millimetres at its leading edge and never expands beyond 18. The Intel and Microsoft eyesore stickers normally found beside the touchpad have been turned into attractive engravings on a metal partner plate on the book's undercarriage. It measures just 12.4 inches across, yet sports a standard-sized backlit keyboard and – thanks to an unusually thin bezel – an unexpectedly large 13.4-inch 720p screen.
Based on my limited time with it, the XPS 13 feels like a full-sized notebook minus the size – and a few potentially important features.
The way one produces a notebook of such bulemic dimensions is by getting rid of space-hogging components, like optical and hard disk drives. Lack of the former means you can't install disc-based software or use your notebook as a DVD player, deficiency of the latter results in significantly lower storage capacity.
The only drives you'll find in an ultrabook are of the solid state variety, which, though smaller, faster, and sturdier, are precipitously more expensive than hard disks on a per-gigabyte basis. Dell will offer the XPS 13 with solid state drives starting at 64 gigabytes with the option to upgrade up to 256 gigabytes – for a hefty price.
Ultrabooks also offer a much smaller array of places to plug stuff in than the notebooks to which most of us are accustomed. The XPS 13 I saw had a mini-Display Port, a mic jack, and two USB ports. These will serve most users' needs most of the time, but will create some challenging situations should you want to jack in several USB devices at once, connect to Ethernet in a hotel, plug in your camera's SD card, or connect to certain types of displays.
And that sleek, minimalist shell? Consumers will pay for it by not being able to access or replace the battery, the 8-hour rated lifespan of which is sure to decline over time. Installing a new slab of lithium will require a service call.
However, these are compromises that many consumers may be willing to live with. For proof, we need look no further than the MacBook Air, which, for all intents and purposes, was the first ultrabook when it launched nearly four years ago. It's since proven one of Apple's greatest modern successes in the personal computing space, and was likely one of the factors behind the PC industry's current stampede toward the ultrabook.
Intel has projected that ultrabooks will make up about 40 per cent of the consumer laptop market by the end of this year – an ambitious goal, particularly given the premium prices of early models.
Initial offerings from Acer and Asus have come with price tags in excess of $1,000 – a premium compared to beefier Windows notebooks with similar or even better specifications. Dell's offering will likely come in around the same range.
And they may face a hard battle against tablets, especially among non-business users who find they can't justify a pricey, portable, productivity-focused machine when they can get a slate that meets most of their needs for less than half the cost.
Still, there's no denying the allure of Dell's new device. And with features like the XPS 13's Trusted Platform Module chip – advantageous should you seek approval from your company's IT department to use your personal computer for business – they could prove especially attractive to executives who want to ditch their company-issued brick-like laptops.
And while prices seem high right now, it's still early in the game. If manufacturers can shave a few hundred dollars off entry-level models to attract more budget-conscious buyers, ultrabook makers may indeed bring a little glamour and excitement back to notebook computing.