Will Intel’s Ultrabook catch on?

So you thought Apple was onto something with the ultrathin, touchscreen slab known as the iPad? Intel would beg to differ, instead seeing swivel tablets in its future.

More details about Ultrabooks — the company’s new buzzword for ultrathin laptops with swiveling touchscreens — are expected are expected along with new chips for laptops and tablets at the Intel Developer Forum next week in San Francisco.

Other hints come from an Intel exec’s remarks at the Citi Technology Conference in New York earlier this week. Intel hopes that it can offer both casual computing and productivity in one piece of hardware.

“Form factors in the notebook market have been somewhat stagnant over the last several years,” Intel CFO Stacy Smith said, adding that new Ultrabook designs coming over the next 18 months should change that,

Of course, the swivel tablet is not a new concept. PC makers have been dabbling in convertible touch screen laptops since the Windows XP era, with computers like the Acer TravelMate 100. More recently, Fujitsu’s Lifebook T580 tried to offer the best of both worlds with a $1000 swiveling netbook, and Dell took a slightly different take with the Inspiron Duo, which has a touchscreen that flips down along an outer frame.

None of those laptops have become sensations like the iPad. That’s partly because Windows has never really been designed for touchscreens, and partly because the hardware is bulky and in many cases more expensive than modern tablets.

Microsoft may solve the first problem with Windows 8, which will come with a touch-optimized user interface that runs its own tablet apps. But hardware may still be an issue. The non-touch Ultrabooks that PC makers have shown so far are still quite pricey, hovering around $1000 for basic configurations. And although Ultrabooks will be much thinner and lighter than any other convertible tablets we’ve seen, they’ll always be bulkier than the slimmest standalone tablets.

I prefer the approach Asus took with its Eee Pad Transformer Android tablet. Instead of joining the keyboard and touchscreen permanently at the hip, the Transformer’s keyboard/trackpad dock sells as a separate accessory, allowing the device to slim down when users only want to use it as a tablet. Asus is rumored to be putting Windows 8 in its next Eee Pad Transformer.

At the Citi conference, Intel also reiterated a claim that ARM-based Windows 8 tablets won’t be able to run legacy Windows apps, unlike the x86 architecture that Intel uses. Microsoft has previously dismissed those claims as “factually inaccurate and unfortunately misleading,” but hasn’t elaborated. Expect answers at Microsoft’s BUILD developers conference next week.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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