Looking at this video from 2003, with a then-healthy Steve Jobs talking about tablets being stupid, is surreal given the massive success of the iPad. However, with keyboards being one of the most popular accessories for the tablet, and the best Android tablet I've tested to date being the Asus Transformer - largely because of its wonderful keyboard treatment - it is hard for me to not think that 2003 Steve Jobs might have been right.
Well, I got my first Ultrabook in yesterday from Asus and it is the UX21E-DH71 with an 11.6-inch screen, which is just slightly larger than the iPad's 9.5-inch display. When you add a keyboard to the iPad, it is thicker but still more than half a pound lighter. However, in looking at both products, I come back to that 2003 video and once again ask if that earlier Steve Jobs was right: personal computing products without keyboards just aren't competitive with those that have them. And the Ultrabook is very close to offering the advantages of a tablet without losing the keyboard.
Tablets vs. Laptops
Ironically, it was the Newton, Apple's first failed tablet attempt, that tried the hardest to replace a pad and paper and Steve Jobs himself killed that product as a failure. Later, Windows tablets from companies like Fujitsu, Panasonic and Motion Computing did have some success in health care and insurance as a pad-and-paper replacement, but in small numbers.
Surveys on iPad usage highlight them as devices largely used in bed or in front of the TV to browse the Web and consume content. This is far removed from the pad-and-paper-replacement model that created the Newton and drove early Windows tablets.
Current iPad use, even for taking notes, is with a wireless or screen keyboard (which effectively shrinks the screen size), and the most common complaint I hear is that the keyboard experience sucks, but folks love the weight, battery life and simplicity. Of the new tablets, the new Lenovo ThinkPad Android-based tablet comes closest to one you'd use for business because it includes a digitizer (for pen input) and has a ThinkPad-quality keyboard as an option.
While the Asus I just received is the first Ultrabook I've seen, you will shortly see a wave of others. Variables are screen size (typically 11.6-inches to 13.3-inches), battery life (from sub-4 hours to 10 hours), storage (64 to 256 GB and mostly SSDs), ports (from few micro ports to full port out and mostly HDMI), sound (small speakers to branded sound systems), camera quality, processors (Intel Core i5s and i7s) and weight (from around 2.4 lbs. to 2.9 lbs.). Prices also vary from a low (so far) of around $850 to a high (so far) of around $1,500.
As you can tell, these are full notebook computers and not bottom feeders either. While light on graphics, they initially have Intel's premium processor line in them and are generally defined by having premium features. Initially, these are about as far from netbooks as BMWs were from Yugos.
That takes us to this Asus that I just got in. Carved from a single block of aluminum, which is brush-finished top and bottom and radial-brushed (the brush strokes revolve around the central logo) on top, this has the feel of a luxury product and, at $1,200, it is one of the more expensive offerings. At 2.43 lbs., it is one of the lighter Ultrabooks and it carries both a 128GB SSD drive, has a Bang and Olufsen sound system and an Intel Core i7 processor adding to this premium load-out.
With the 11.6-inch screen, it is on the small size of this class as well and most likely would appeal to people who like the iPad's size and weight but need more of a notebook experience. Where the product falls a bit short is on battery life, which is estimated to be just over 5 hours, or about half the iPad's. However, the charger is one of the smallest I've ever seen - it weighs in at 6 ounces. I actually think the 13.3-inch version of this product might be a better choice; it is $100 cheaper and adds 2 hours of battery life for the cost of about half a pound. Boot time is impressively fast from a cold start as you would expect from an SSD-based product and suspend resume is near instant.
Wrapping Up: Ultrabooks a Better Blend?
Ultrabooks have two hurdles to overcome in this first round: price and battery life, though there are products coming that are closer on both counts. Compared to existing high-end notebooks, Ultrabooks fall into the band, but tablets are typically placed against mid-range products and 10 hours of battery life is the bar set by the iPad. Still, the iPad falls short when it comes to productivity applications, and because it lacks good stylus input it really isn't that good as a pad-and-paper replacement, which is what founded the class. As a result, the Ultrabook, at least for work, may be a better alternative and now it is up to the vendors to convince everyone one else what we just figured out.
Ultrabooks, in short, maintain their productivity advantage and are aggressively closing the price and battery-life gap, and that makes you wonder what will happen when the second generation and Windows 8 hit next year.