Writing On The Wall: Intel Ultrabook Design Takes Hold11:41 AM EST Mon. Feb. 13, 2012
While some people might be calling 2012 the "Year of the Ultrabook," solution providers are likely to look back on 2012 as the year that Windows-based laptops started selling again. Mobile computing is enjoying a reboot thanks in large part to Intel and its Ultrabook specification.
Perhaps having grown weary of the yearly hype around brighter screens, faster clocks, and more cores, bytes and ports, the PC buying public sent sales into a slump, and laptops and netbooks were particularly hard hit. At least, that's how the folks at research firm Gartner saw it.
According to a September 2011 report, PC sales for the year were on course to grow by just 3.8 percent, anemic compared with the 9.3 percent growth rate from projected 2010 figures. Gartner expects the pattern to continue into this year and has adjusted its growth projections for 2012 to 10.9 percent from 12.8 percent.
While the researcher cited the downgraded forecasts for the U.S and Western Europe, Gartner research director Ranjit Atwal also pointed to a perhaps more dire indicator. "More worrisome for the long term is that Generation Y has an altogether different view of client devices than older generations and are not buying PCs as their first, or necessarily main, device," he said in a statement.
Atwal further stated that as today's solutions fail to entice new buyers, "PC shops and IT departments repair rather than replace these systems" to extend the lifetimes of their current equipment. A flagging economy no doubt also plays a role there too.
NEXT: Writing Is On The Wall For Ultrabooks
Seeming to have read the writing on the wall, Intel in 2009 set out to determine what prospective computer buyers wanted most from a new machine. Rather than focusing on speeds and feeds, David Ginsberg, Intel's director of Insights and Market Research, conducted "an emotional inquiry," with techniques borrowed from neuroscience and cognitive and behavioral psychology.
"People want technology to fade away into the background so they can focus on the task at hand, " Ginsberg told Forbes magazine in an October online story. "That still implies speed, but it's about how people experience speed, " he said. Intel's research revealed that people think of pleasant computing experiences much as they do other experiences, in which everything just works.
In specific, Intel found that computer users don't like long boot times (we could have told them that). Research participants also revealed that when they're deeply involved in computing tasks, a smooth user experience is critical and that having to wait through long pauses between tasks or apps is annoying. Today's users demand that their computing platform be as connected and capable as their smartphone. It must remain in sync with social networks and run a full day before needing a charge.
For the modern mobile thought worker, whose productivity is tied to the Web for e-mail, productivity apps, number crunching and collaboration, the mere thought of not having a full-time connection is a deal-breaker. Instant access to high-speed Internet for many of us is a necessary part of doing our job.
Researchers learned that a successful future in mobile computing would require devices that were always immediately available, offered an intuitive user interface and seamless work experience, were never without an Internet connection, had fast and responsive apps, and would automatically protect their data and stay free from viruses. Plus, the machines had to look great to make users the envy of all their peers.
Those requirements might sound something like a certain lighter-than-air ultraportable from another major American icon. But Intel didn't arrive at the Ultrabook design by reverse-engineering Apple's MacBook Air. Intel's research also found a hunger for touch input as well as input from accelerometers, gyroscopes, compasses and other tablet- and smartphone-style functionality not yet commonly found on laptops.
Such features will begin to appear after the release of Intel's 22nm Ivy Bridge processor and Windows 8, the current beta of which supports sensors (Windows 7 does not). Both are expected sometime later this year. Intel told us that development tools shipping now will enable testing of sensor support in the Windows 8 beta so apps can be ready when Ivy Bridge ships in the fourth quarter of this year.
Offering a sneak peek at CES 2012 in January, Intel demonstrated a new Ultrabook reference design called Nikiski that's built around the 20nm package. The design features an innovative see-through touchpad that permits the device to accept input while it's closed.
About a dozen of today's Ultrabook devices were on display at CES this year, all built around second-generation Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 processors, and most including the platform's key design elements of fast performance, powerful graphics, efficient energy usage, instant responsiveness, thin and lightweight body and a sub-$1,000 price.
NEXT: Ultrabook Inside
The Ultrabook spec defines three major responsiveness techniques, one of which -- Rapid Start -- is required to earn the Ultrabook imprimatur. Simply stated, Rapid Start requires that a system be operational (from sleep) within seven seconds of opening the lid. It also defines short parameters for boot-up time. Rapid Start defines a method of reserving a portion of the hard drive for caching operating system and application state information.
Intended mainly to speed up application launch times is Smart Response, which boosts performance by caching to SSD or an SSD-hybrid drive data between the system hard drive and its memory. Then there's Smart Connect, Intel's method of keeping Ultrabook devices always on and always connected.
Like a cell phone, Smart Connect allows apps to continue communicating with a network when the device appears to be turned off. When an Ultrabook device is in sleep or hibernate modes, Smart Connect keeps social messages messaging and Twitter feeds feeding. Intel calls this a stopgap until Windows 8 arrives; it works with any app, but the feature isn't supported by any currently released version of Windows.
Application distribution also will be a bit different. Since most Ultrabook devices will lack an optical drive, installations will consist almost entirely of online purchase and over-air downloads from sites such as Intel's app store, AppUp.com.
Intel employs some fairly clever security schemes that go far beyond simple name and password security. To protect user data and identity and minimize risk of theft and loss, Ultrabook devices include Intel security baked into the hardware.
Intel Identity Protection Technology, or IPT, increases one-factor (name and password) authentication to two-factor by introducing a onetime six-digit password that's unique to each device. Web sites that have been integrated with IPT will prompt visitors coming in with Ultrabook devices for the code.
Intel and industry analysts have tremendous expectations for Ultrabooks, which after the buzz at CES we'd say are well placed. Of the nearly 400 million computers Gartner expects to be sold in 2012, half of which will be laptops, Intel analysts have estimated that 20 percent to 40 percent of those will be Ultrabook devices. Even taking the 20 percent figure, that's about 40 million Ultrabook devices in its first full year of existence.
Systems built using the Ultrabook specification will provide users with all the speed, power and efficiency of Intel's second-generation Core i3, i5 and i7 processors and the 3-D graphics of Intel's integrated GPU, while giving solution providers an exciting new platform with a whole new set of capabilities to harness.
What's more, Ultrabook holds new potential for smartphone and tablet developers. With the addition of sensors to machines with lots of CPU, memory and graphics horsepower, mobile app developers who were once focused on apps for small-footprint devices without such resources will now have access to the CPU and graphics performance without losing sensory input, opening new customer and application prospects.
The combination of a powerful mobile application platform with touch navigation, instant-on responsiveness, always-on synchronization and other smartphone and tablet capabilities, plus the power and efficiency of Ivy Bridge, will give developers and solution providers a fast, secure and easily portable platform to take mobile computing far into the future.