Intel Hopes to Revive Notebook Market With Ultrabooks

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At the Computex trade show in Taiwan, Intel outlined more of its mobile future with chip strategies and a new name for old devices. The company plans to improve the energy efficiency of its Core processors, and also leverage a previously announced 3-D chip technology in the first half of 2012. This silicon will power a class of notebooks Intel calls Ultrabooks, which it expects to account for 40 percent of the overall notebook market by the end of next year. Atom processors, currently used in netbooks, will see redesigns on a yearly basis; twice as often as before.

Here’s how Intel defines the Ultrabook category:

These computers will marry the performance and capabilities of today’s laptops with tablet-like features and deliver a highly responsive and secure experience, in a thin, light and elegant design. The Ultrabook™ will be shaped by Moore’s Law and silicon technology in the same way they have shaped the traditional PC for the past 40 years.

Intel suggests device manufacturers keep such Ultrabooks to a thin 20 millimeter or less profile and a price point starting at under $1,000. Intel is touting “instant on” functionality and background connectivity through features called “Smart Connect” and “Rapid Start.” These features check for application updates immediately prior to sleep mode, just after resuming and take advantage of flash memory for faster wake times. The first of these Ultrabooks should arrive in time for the holiday season this year; ASUS has already announced the UX21 in this category and it is indeed thin and light as shown by a hands-on video from Netbook News:

Ultrabooks may be a new notebook title, but the tune sounds familiar. In fact, the ASUS UX21 visually reminds me of numerous laptops I saw two years back when Intel touted CULV, or Consumer Ultra Low Voltage, processors.

These energy-efficient chips were set to power thin notebooks such as the $899 MSI Slim X340 back in May of 2009, which looks much like the new ASUS UX21 on the outside. Granted, the new Ultrabooks will feature faster flash memory storage and peppier processors, but that seems like an expected development to me. Based on the specs of the chips that will power Ultrabooks, the devices won’t be as underpowered as the CULV notebooks were, which could help stimulate sales.

But sales growth potential isn’t likely in the cards for notebook computers, whether you call them netbooks or Ultrabooks. Smartphone sales surpassed that of personal computers near the beginning of this year and Intel isn’t in that market yet. As the company watches chips based on the ARM architecture power virtually all handheld devices, it still has no answer to meet the challenge. Instead, Intel continues to buy time with new notebook features and chip designs while it tweaks its handheld platform, currently known as Medfield, to combat ARM processors in smartphones and tablets.

While there will be Intel-powered tablets for sale in 2011, I wouldn’t expect these to take the lion’s share of the tablet market: I’d be surprised if Intel can capture any share in the double digits this year because the big name tablets from Apple, Motorola, Samsung, HTC, LG and others all use ARM processors. And it doesn’t look like ARM’s progress will slow anytime soon, either.

Just as Intel is expecting to advance its chips with 3-D Tri-Gate technology next year, mobile chipmakers will be readying the next-generation of ARM chips using the Cortex-A15 architecture. According to ARM Holdings, a quad-core version of such a chip running up to 2.5 GHz will move beyond smartphones and into “mobile computing.” One could read that as more powerful tablet devices, but Microsoft has already demonstrated a version of Windows that runs on ARM chips. Between that and Google’s Chrome OS, which can also run on ARM processors, I suspect the first usable notebooks running on ARM processors are in store for 2012. And at that point, it may not matter what Intel calls notebooks with its chips.

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