Complete guide to Intel’s new Ultrabooks

The Ultrabook, a new class of ultraportable laptops defined byIntel, has been making waves lately as the next major step in laptopdesign. These ultraslim and lightweight laptops promise to combine the conveniences of tablets with the functionality of larger notebooks.

If Intel and Ultrabook manufacturers can getthe design and technology right, Windows users may finally haverelatively affordable and varied alternatives to the reigning ultrathinlaptop, Apple’s MacBook Air. In addition to the much thinner andlighter laptops we’ll see this fall, you can expect combo devices withsliding or removable multitouch screens for true all-in-oneversatility. Here’s what you need to know about Ultrabooks and whetheryou should prepare to purchase one.

What Are Ultrabooks?
Ultrabooks are laptops based on reference designs that Intel announcedat the Computex trade show in May. Although Intel makes computer chips,not entire laptops, the company has provided the Ultrabookspecification (five different ones, actually) to laptop manufacturersso that they can produce a new army of “thin, light, and beautiful”portables.

Intel defines Ultrabooks as having Intel Core processors, athickness under 21mm (0.8 inches), and a long battery life (initialUltrabook models are rated for at least 7 hours). They also share 11-to 13-inch displays, a weight under 3 pounds (closer to 2.5 pounds),and a near-instant resume from sleep, thanks to their solid-statedrives. Ideally–and this is the kicker–Ultrabooks should be priced atunder $1000.

In short, Ultrabooks are designed to be inexpensive, high-performance,and svelte laptops.

Ultrabooks Are Like the MacBook Air…But Not
In concept, Ultrabooks aren’t really new: After all, the MacBook Air meets the criteria,and Apple revealed it in 2008. And the laptop industry as a whole wasalready racing to thin-and-light long before the MacBook Air madeskinny popular; five years earlier, for example, we had the 2-poundSony VAIO x505.

Some people might argue that the MacBook Air is an Ultrabook,but “Ultrabook” is also a marketing term that Intel trademarked thisyear–a term that describes the laptop PC’s comeback attempt in a worldof rising tablet and smartphone fame.

To date, if you wanted a well-designed, high-performance ultraportablelaptop–something that you could easily carry everywhere without havingto worry about looking for an outlet every couple of hours–andspecifically one that cost about a grand, you’d have to turn to theMacBook Air. As PCWorld laptops editor Jason Cross has pointed out,Windows laptop makers haven’t been able to keep up with Apple in itsinnovation, marketing, and pricing for the MacBook Air.

Ultrabooks, however, may be the first worthy MacBook Air rivals, machines that can compete on all levels: design, hardware specs, and price. And Intel is pushing for innovation beyond the MacBook Air model.

The First Ultrabooks
The first Ultrabooks are coming this fall, from Asus, Acer, Lenovo, andToshiba. (You might also consider the Samsung Series 9 to be anUltrabook, but it debuted before Intel announced the Ultrabookconcept.)

AsusUX21: The first Ultrabook to be introduced, this 2.4-pound laptop hasan 11.6-inch display, a 0.66-inch thickness, and an Intel Core i7processor. It’s expected to start at under $1000 and launch this month.

Toshiba Portege Z830: Billed asthe “world’s lightest 13-inch laptop,” the Z830 starts at just under$1000, is 0.63 inches thin, and weighs under 2.5 pounds.

Acer Aspire S3: Launching at 799euros ($1134) and promising to capture the MacBook Air feel, the13.3-inch Aspire S3 offers a Core i3, i5, or i7 processor and a choicebetween a traditional hard drive or an SSD.

Lenovo IdeaPad U300s: This13.3-inch Ultrabook is expected in November starting at $1200. TheU300s will be available in Core i5 and i7 models, and will have aClementine color option.

The Future of Ultrabooks: Laptops Meet Tablets
Intel has indicated that the potential of Ultrabooks exceeds what we’veseen in current ultraportable laptops. After the initial Ultrabookmodels (the Windows MacBook Air clones) come out this year, we shouldsee a second wave based on Intel’s next-generation Ivy Bridgechips–systems with touchscreens that swivel or slide out of the way.In other words, they’ll be superthin, convertible tablets. Intelis calling Ultrabooks a “new category of what promises tobecome the must-have, most complete and satisfying computing devicesover the next couple of years.”

Should You Buy an Ultrabook?

This year’s Ultrabooks are truly attractive laptops–for both businessand personal use, and especially for travel. They’re powerful,flexible, incredibly thin, light, and durable. If you need a laptopright now, these are among your best options.

However, at the moment Ultrabooks aren’t the great value we firstenvisioned (due to manufacturers’ issues with high costs and limitedsupplies), and laptop makers are taking a wait-and-see approach to thisnew portable category, despite Intel’s $300 million investment in theproject.

If you have a couple of months to wait, you could see theseUltrabooks drop in price and become even more attractive.Alternatively, you might prefer to get in touch with Windows 8Ultrabooks next year, or hold out for Ultrabooks with 24-hour battery life, which are due in2013.