Accordion Al - image by Ivy, age 10

Business in Vancouver

Canadian Freelance Union- CEP

Another Air war: ultrabooks vs. MacBooks

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2012 First published in Business in Vancouver March 20-26, 2012 Issue #1169 High Tech Office column

Question: I’m lighter than average and fashionably slim - thin enough to slide comfortably into a manila-mailing envelope. My battery lasts longer than average, and I’m quick to get up and running. Even though I’m missing an optical drive I cost around $1,000. What am I?

If you answered “MacBook Air,” you’d be right, but you wouldn’t make Intel or any of the variety of PC manufacturers happy. They’re hoping that increasingly your answer will be “an ultrabook.”

Intel registered the name to refer to a PC notebook that, well, mimics Apple’s hot-selling notebook (over a million sold in 2011’s last quarter). In the hope that PC ultrabooks could beat Apple’s pricing (starting at $1,000 for an 11-inch model), Intel is reportedly subsidizing PC manufacturers (even though Apple is also an Intel customer). The company hopes that ultrabooks will account for 40% of all notebooks sold by 2013.

What’s the difference between an ultrabook and a netbook, you might wonder? Netbooks – the wonder child of 2009 – are small notebook computers, typically with screen sizes between 10 and 12 inches, generally using a low-powered Atom processor and with a price in the $350 to $500 range. While netbooks were popular a few years ago, many users found the small screens, keyboards and track pads awkward and the systems underpowered for anything other than casual web browsing and email.

Both Apple’s Air and the various PC manufacturers with new ultrabooks run on full-powered current model Intel Core processors and have larger screens than netbooks (11 to 13 inches in most cases), full-sized keyboards and track pads in more stylish, though lightweight designs. Prices run at least double that of netbooks, hence the appeal to manufacturers and retailers.

January’s CES consumer electronics show was packed with new ultrabook models from Toshiba, Lenovo, Asus and Acer. I recently had loan of an HP Folio 13. It boasts a 13-inch display, like the larger of Apple’s two Air models, though its 1368x768 pixel screen has lower resolution and is dimmer than the 13-inch Airs.

While its 3.3 pounds will be a pleasure for users of full-sized laptops, it’s not the slimmest of ultrabooks – Intel hopes they will weigh less than 3.1 pounds. (The MacBook Air weighs 2.9 pounds.) Like the Air, the Folio offers chiclet-style keys that are illuminated in dim light. The lightly brushed, sturdy aluminum case is one of HP’s more attractive recent designs.

With its 128-gigabyte (GB) solid-state drive (again, like the Air), boot up and application start times are fast – Windows 7 started in less than 20 seconds. Return from sleep takes less than five seconds. Unlike the Air, however, which offers an optional 256 GB SSD drive, HP offers customers no option to increase the built-in storage, in fact, there are virtually no available options at all.

Battery life, at about six hours, is strong – on par with Apple’s. Unlike the Air, there’s a built-in Ethernet port.

While Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air costs $1,300 with a 128 GB drive and $1,600 with a 256 GB drive; the Folio 13 costs $950 for a consumer-oriented model and $1,350 for a business model. HP’s Smart Buy program offers the business Folio 13 model to small businesses for $1,050.

Like all ultrabooks, the Folio 13 is not particularly innovative, but I liked it a lot, perhaps the most of any ultrabook.

But unless you’re in a hurry you may want to hold off buying any of this generation – including Apple’s MacBook Air. All are so-called Sandy Bridge models - built on Intel’s current generation of processors and chipsets. The next generation, code-named Ivy Bridge is expected in the next few months, promising higher performance (and much-enhanced video performance) along with better battery life.