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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