Ultrabooks dip into touch-screen tablet territory

By Pat Pilcher

Intel VP Mooly Eden talks up ultrabooks at the Consumer Electronics Show. Photo / AFP
Intel VP Mooly Eden talks up ultrabooks at the Consumer Electronics Show. Photo / AFP

Intel's trick bag at the Consumer Electronics Show points at its new ultrabook category crossing the line into tablet territory.

The huge Consumer Electronics Show draws hundreds of thousands of analysts, journalists and exhibitors to Las Vegas every year - it's a gadget addict's nirvana, but it also provides a solid indicator of the upcoming year's tech trends.

At a press event today Intel vice president Mooly Eden announced some upcoming initiatives, along with boasting that an impressive 150 million equipped PCs have shipped with the company's new 'Sandybridge' processor in the last 12 months.

The real focus of his presentation was ultrabooks, the recently launched ultra slim, zero compromise notebook specification championed by Intel and adopted by the world's largest computer manufacturers.

The ultrabook category seems to be gaining traction, with over 75 new models currently targeting a 2012 launch, and Eden demonstrating that ultrabooks won't go the same way as the short-lived netbook craze.

He described some of the engineering challenges that go with squashing a bulky notebook form factor into a petite ultrabook body.

This process involved a lot of re-engineering - especially for LCD displays and batteries, which both have a significant influence on the shape and size of a notebook PC. Other components have also been tweaked, with the traditional approach to fitting the CPU socket scrapped in favour of soldering the processor directly to the ultrabook's motherboard - allowing for a far thinner device with superior head dissipation.

Geeky techy stuff aside, the big out-take with Eden's ultrabooks was that Intel is moving notebook PCs away from the inch-thick slabs that constantly whinge for a power socket, to millimetre-slim devices that'll survive an impressive five hours or more away from mains power.

He was not only adamant that ultrabooks will get slimer over time, but that they'll also make them more affordable as manufacturing processes improve and greater economies of scale are realised.

Where manufacturers have long focused on adding more specs, bling for greater customer confusion, Eden announced that Intel is adopting a different tack, and are instead focussing on customer experience. Intel has employed a team of anthropologists to look at how people are using PCs as well as what people actually want from their computers. Given that as customers are the ones holding the credit cards, this approach makes considerable sense.

While devices like the iPad and the host of cloned tablets are cool, they're primarily designed for surfing the web, reading email, listening to music and watching movies.

Intel's research has shown that people want to create, and as Eden colourfully put it "consumption is for cows".

Intel's research also surprisingly found that people don't want to wait for the computer and that the hour glass is the enemy.

According to the research, while customers also want security and wireless abilities, they also want their PCs to be sexy and most importantly, they want them cheap. The research points at a real challenge for Intel and its partner PC manufacturers to achieve all of this at a reasonable sticker price.

Thankfully Intel has already made big in-roads into banishing the hourglass, with the amount of raw computing power available in the latest range of Intel CPUs translating into some big usability benefits.

To drive the point home, Eden used a Lenovo Ultrabook to create a photo album with over 100 multi-megapixel photos and compressed the entire album into a 2MB file which can easily able to be emailed. Not only was this a great showcase for the amount of processing grunt baked into ultrabooks, it is also immediately relevant to anyone who's experienced the grief associated with emailing large amounts of travel photos to relatives.

Eden also showcased the early results of a collaboration between Intel and MasterCard for improving security and simplifying online transactions for both Intel ultrabook-toting online merchants and MasterCard cardholders. The real wow factor was when he demonstrated contactless payments using a prototype ultrabook, booking a hotel room simply by tapping his credit card against the machine's palm-rest. While this does raise security questions, ultrabooks will incorporate Intel's ID protection technology which will pair specific 'contactless' cards with each device.


Touchy-feely

With tablets taking serious income from traditional PC territory, it wasn't terribly surprising to here talk of how Intel could make the new category more compelling.

Intel has been testing touchscreen technology for the next generation of ultrabooks which could make them tantalisingly useful and give users some notebook benefits - like a physical keyboard - along with the intuitiveness of touch.

This was showcased by with several prototype ultrabooks incorporating early builds of Windows 8 with a touch screen interface. Unsurprisingly, tests of these prototypes in both the Brazillian and Chinese markets were compelling

More than meets the eye

Eden also showcased another prototype ultrabook that used a clever sliding screen design to convert from a traditional notebook PC into an ultra-slim tablet.

The normally tough audience was already impressed, but he upped the ante by showing off a concept system that incorporates a clear touch panel at the base of its keyboard that serves as a touch pad when the notebook is open, and transforms into a see-through touch-enabled display when the notebook is closed. Being transparent, the touchpad takes full advantage of Windows 8 tiles to provide at-a-glance views of notifications, alerts and news feeds.

Talk talk

Intel also announced a partnership with Nuance, the makers of Dragon Dictate software to bring speech recognition to the ultrabook. According to Nuance CEO Peter Mahoney, natural speech recognition will be deeply integrated into future generations of ultrabooks. Intel and Nuance are aiming for headset-free operation, and in a not-so-subtle dig at Apple, Mahoney also said that speech recognition options won't use the web and cloud servers, but will all be processed entirely on the device.

Dragon speech recognition, claims Mahoney, will gradually learn the user's speech patterns and should adapt to specific accents (which is good news for Kiwis) and out of the box will support nine languages including English, French, German, Japanese and Mandarin.

Even if only half the speech recognition hype is true, it could hold some tantalising prospects going forwards with difficult tasks like real time translation (which Mahoney confirmed is in the works) also looming. In addition to translation, ultrabooks could be transformed into 'personal assistants' along similar lines to Apple's Siri.

Staying on the natural interface theme, Intel's Eden also announced that the company will bring gesture-based computing (think Minority Report) to utilising the built-in webcam.

Being able to drive Windows using some simple hand gestures could render the usual grief associated with fiddly touchpads a thing of the past.


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