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Intel 'Ultrabook' touts tablet-like features

Chipmaker's Ultrabook will attempt to mainstream designs similar to Apple's MacBook Air. Like the Air, Ultrabooks will also have tablet-like attributes.

Intel will try to mainstream thin laptops that take design cues from tablets, company executives said, as the chipmaker launches the new blueprint at the Computex trade show on Tuesday.

The "Ultrabook" will combine the performance of a laptop with "tablet-like features" in a "thin, light and elegant design," Intel Executive Vice President Sean Maloney said in a statement, implying that Intel hopes to blunt some of the market momentum of tablets like the iPad. Maloney, the newly named chairman of Intel China, is scheduled to speak at Computex on Tuesday.

Attributes of the Ultrabook design--which Intel is advocating as guidelines for PC makers--are enticing. The thickness cutoff for an ultrabook will be 20 millimeters or about 0.8 inches. With 20mm as the upper limit, designs that exceed these guidelines are emerging already at Computex. The Asus UX21 Ultrabook (below) debuted at Computex, is 17mm at its thickest point.

At just over two pounds, laptops like the UX21 will mimic the portability of tablets. Designs will be highly responsive with instant-resume too, not unlike tablets.

And they won't break the bank. Pricing is targeted at under $1,000. Systems based on these chips will be available for the 2011 winter holiday shopping season, according to Intel.

"Many of the super-sleek devices today are quite pricey. The price points need to become more mainstream," Intel marketing chief Tom Kilroy told CNET. "And as volume ramps, say by the end of 2012, we think as much as 40 percent of the volume will be in this ultra category."

Prices will come down even more when Intel moves its laptop chips to a design dubbed "Haswell"--Intel's system-on-a-chip for the mainstream laptop market, offering more evidence of tablet-like silicon in a mainstream laptop. "And as the volume picks up, the price points will come down. And we think by 2013 with 'Haswell,' which is our system-on-a-chip implementation, you'll see ultrabooks in truly mainstream price points of $599," he said. System-on-a-chip designs, referred to as SoCs, are currently used in tablets such as the Apple iPad and Motorola Xoom.

On top of thinness and reduced pricing, security is also important, according Kilroy.

Asus' UX21 will be one of the first Ultrabooks to appear later this year.
Asus' UX21 will be one of the first Ultrabooks to appear later this year. Asus

The Ultrabook comes on the heels of a largely unsuccessful effort to seed a category of laptops that were typically referred to as "ultrathins," or what Intel internally had been calling CULV, or consumer ultra low voltage. Launched roughly two years ago, CULV ultrathins proved not to be popular. Though attractive, designs like Dell's Adamo or the Acer Aspire Timeline AS1810T were either pricey or lagged the mainstream laptop market significantly in performance--or both. A criticism the MacBook Air faced originally.

But fast and power-efficient Core i5 and Core i7 Sandy Bridge processors should go a long way toward remedying this performance gap, according to Intel. The Asus UX21, for example, can use Intel's latest Sandy Bridge Core i7 chips.

And Intel is hoping that guidelines will yield a steady stream of svelte designs. "We are working with [PC makers]. We have some rough guidelines. The target will be below 20 millimeters and you'll see designs in the fourth quarter that will certainly be down to 17 [millimeters]," Kilroy said.