Ultrabooks™ Explained

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You may have heard the term Ultrabook™ tossed around like a ship in a storm. Everybody wants to sell you their Ultrabook—but what is the difference between an Ultrabook and a regular notebook or laptop computer? You’ve come to the right place for a complete breakdown on what an Ultrabook is, and what to look for when buying one.

Forget about "Googling" Ultrabooks. You’ll be left adrift on a sea of sales pitches, product descriptions, and hard sells that won’t tell you much, and may even contradict each other.

For argument's sake, we’re going to go with Intel® on their definition (which changes almost annually): “The definition of an Ultrabook is a high-end subnotebook defined by Intel. Ultrabooks are designed to be lightweight without compromising performance and battery life. They use low-power Intel processors with integrated graphics and unibody chassis to fit larger batteries into smaller cases. Besides being lightweight and having longer battery life, Ultrabooks provide a large set of new features. Most of these features are found on smartphones.”

Other Intel specs include baseline performance factors, like the weight (widely regarded as being in the less-than-three-pound range), the thickness (less than 23mm), at least a five-hour battery life, wake/boot times of less than 7 seconds, and Intel Anti-Theft and Identity Protection included. Intel constantly ups the ante every year and, for 2013, has included screen sharing (via WiDi), touchscreens, longer battery life, more than nine hours of idle using Windows 8, and more. Meeting those specifications is not easy.

All that sounds pretty, but what does it mean? Why would you want an Ultrabook instead of a tablet? Or why not stay with a laptop? We’ll explain every single component of an Ultrabook and go into detail about what sets an Ultrabook in a class by itself.

The Processor

The world’s leading chip maker, Intel, is responsible for the whole Ultrabook category, which was in direct response to the overwhelming popularity of the MacBook Air. If your lightweight and sleek laptop meets any of the other specifications, it’s still not an Ultrabook unless it's powered by an Intel Core processor. These processors used to come in three varieties: Intel Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7. Intel Core processors are unique in two ways—they are far more powerful and faster than the last generation of Pentium processors, and the graphics controller is set into the chipset. Because of this latter attribute, even the most powerful Intel Core processor has difficulty processing high-end gaming graphics. For that you need a dedicated graphics processor, or the newest generation of Intel Core chips, code-named Haswell. These chips have a slightly better graphics processor and extend the battery life of your Ultrabook by as much as 50%, in some cases.

You can also find Ultrabooks with a wide variety of variations within their class. Pay attention to the following when considering the purchase of an Ultrabook. The processor speed is of paramount importance. A clock speed tells you how much speed the processor is capable of (3.2GHz is faster than 2.3GHz, for example). A higher speed is better, but there are other factors to consider.

Turbo Boost

You may also see another speed listed alongside the clock speed that is even higher. This is known as the overclock speed. Intel has built in a process called Turbo Boost, which can increase the factory clock speed of a chip. Overclocking a chip’s speed is risky, however—it can cause the chip to malfunction and void the warranty. Turbo Boost is only available for Core i5 and Core i7 chipsets.

An Intel Core i3 chip is the least powerful of the three chips. When purchasing an Ultrabook with an Intel Core i3, you should only be using it for basic productivity such as light Web surfing, some word processing, maybe watching a movie or two. An Intel Core i5 chip is where the mid-level productivity rises. With an Intel Core i5, you can multitask better and faster, view multimedia files more quickly and smoothly, and process data at a steady and fairly brisk pace. With an Intel Core i7 processor, everything runs better, faster, and smoother (more RAM helps as well) and levels of productivity, boot times, data and application process, and multitasking increase exponentially.

Cores

Whether or not the chipset is dual core or quad core makes a difference. When computing with a dual-core chip, two cores are used simultaneously to process tasks (known as threads), giving you two open channels in which to multitask. When using a quad-core chipset, the number is doubled, and productivity and throughput are doubled as well. Therefore, you would be best served by a quad-core chip. Please note: when using HT (hyper-threading) technology, you allow two threads per core. This is NOT the same as doubling the cores. Read a little more about hyper-threading further along in this article.

Cache

The cache is used like a piggy bank. Every time the CPU accesses data, it remembers the most frequently accessed data and stores it in the piggy bank (cache), which  prevents you from having to travel all the way downtown to the regular bank to get your data. The larger the piggy bank (cache), the more data can be saved there, making accessing the data faster and easier. Core i3 chips have a 3MB cache, Core i5 have 3-6MB, and Core i7 packs 6-8MB.

Hyper-Threading

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So, you have a dual-core i3 processor. You're accessing both cores and speeding along in your daily tasks. Intel then introduces something called Hyper-Threading, which allows you two threads (or tasks) per core or four threads simultaneously. Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processor support hyper-threading as well, which is why you should shoot for the moon when considering the processor purchase. An Intel quad-core i5 or i7 processor can use all four cores, with two threads per core, for eight simultaneous tasks.

RAM

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RAM is always important in any computer, but extremely important in the smaller frame sizes of Ultrabooks. 4GB of RAM is plenty for multitasking, watching videos, and surfing the Web. If you’re considering doing post-production audio, video, or photo work on your Ultrabook, try to find one that has at least 8GB of RAM. Always make sure to find out up front if the RAM in an Ultrabook is expandable; many models have the RAM soldered in, making upgrades impossible. Also, when upgrading your RAM, make sure to use at least 1600MHz DDR3 RAM, considered the standard for 64-bit operating systems.

The Screen

Ultrabooks come in many screen sizes and configurations, but the caveat is that a larger screen adds more weight, as does a touchscreen. If you can live without the touchscreen, at least spring for something that has a higher resolution than the 1366 x 768 HD resolution, like the Toshiba KiraBook or Sony Ultrabooks. Their screen resolutions can go beyond even 1080p resolution. Expect to pay a premium though; high-resolution screens are expensive.

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If you do see an Ultrabook marketed with an IPS screen, here’s all you need to know. An IPS (in-plane switching) screen basically does two things: gives you a clearer, more vibrant resolution even in strong light situations (like outdoors), and increases your field of view when looking at the screen from an angle. IPS claims that you get a 178-degree viewing angle, which is a significant jump from the standard 160-degree view you get from a standard TN panel.

Storage

Almost all Ultrabooks come with a solid-state drive, which is smaller, lighter, and produces less heat and, most importantly, is much faster than spindle-based hard drives. The boot-up times from cold start to desktop function is less than 7 seconds, which means your access time for other programs is significantly increased as well. SSDs are a bit pricier than hard drives, and they fill up fast. Look for an Ultrabook with at least a 256GB SSD, for starters.

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Most Ultrabooks also nix the optical DVD drive in order to keep price and weight down. Fortunately, almost all include an SD card slot to augment the storage capacity of an Ultrabook. Look for microSD card slots that accept SDXC cards. They add up to 64GB of extra storage, and if you don’t mind carrying them around, they are an inexpensive way to add storage without adding bulk.

Ports

Non-technical consumers may be swayed by the addition of numerous ports on the Ultrabook, and rightfully so. Salespeople pitch ports like they are fabulous extras that you can’t live without. Well, that is partly true. Here’s a breakdown on what ports you should be looking for when purchasing an Ultrabook.

USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt

Ultrabooks are phasing out the USB 2.0 standard. You may find some that have 3.0 and 2.0 ports, but what you really need is USB 3.0. It’s a faster transfer speed (5Gbps) and almost every peripheral can be purchased in a USB 3.0 version. Remember that if you have a USB 3.0 port, the attached peripheral (i.e., hard drive) must be rated for USB 3.0 use in order to gain those speeds. Slowly making its way to the PC market (and a favorite among Mac users) are Thunderbolt ports. These bi-directional transfer ports boast speeds of 10Gbps, twice the speed of USB 3.0.

HDMI Out

HDMI out is also pretty standard on Ultrabooks these days. An HDMI out simply lets you share content from your Ultrabook on a bigger screen or HDTV via a cable (not included). If you share your content with the family, or just sometimes need a bigger screen to view multimedia files, an HDMI port is a good thing to have.

Mini VGA

Some Ultrabooks even offer a mini VGA port for optional monitor hookups. As the technology gets better and cheaper, though, mini VGA will be eclipsed by HDMI ports. Not a deal breaker, but definitely an added extra.

Microphone/Headphone Jacks

Always a must, because sometimes you don’t want to share your digital life with everyone around you. Standard on every Ultrabook.

SD Card Reader

It used to be that SD card readers were not a big deal on laptops, because almost every laptop had an optical drive. But with the slimmed-down specs of Ultrabooks, the optical drive goes bye-bye and the SSD takes up the bulk of the storage workload.

An SD card slot helps to alleviate the stress of a loaded drive. The SXCD format allows for cards up to 64GB in capacity—that’s a lot of room to carry extra movies, music, or files. Long a favorite of photographers, the speed of data transfer is impressive. Although these are now becoming a standard on Ultrabooks, make sure your purchase includes a built-in card slot.

Ethernet

This port, which is becoming more controversial for its absence on Ultrabooks than its inclusion, can be important for Ultrabook users who want a fast wired connection at home or in the office. Keeping the Ethernet port on the Ultrabook frame is a challenge, however, since it does take up room. Some Ultrabooks even offer Ethernet via dongle, but that’s a messy and inelegant way to connect to the Internet. All Ultrabooks are equipped with onboard Wi-Fi, but look for an Ethernet port to make your life a lot easier.

Extras

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Almost all Ultrabooks come with the three standard extras—webcam, mic, and speakers—but not all are the same. If digital photography and video is of paramount importance, you’re going to want an Ultrabook with an integrated Full HD 1920 x 1080 camera (good luck). Another extra to consider is dual-array digital microphones, which make teleconferencing so much easier to handle. As for the speakers, don’t get fooled by expensive name-brand speakers. The Ultrabooks we’ve seen rarely have the integrated sound quality to blow you away. But you will find Ultrabooks sporting Bang and Olufsen or harman/kardon speakers.

Also a great extra is a backlit keyboard. You can settle for any old keyboard setup, but a backlit keyboard makes low-light situations easier to handle. As someone who uses his Ultrabook in the living room while the kids are asleep, the backlit keyboard comes in very handy.

Why an Ultrabook?

So now that you know what’s inside an Ultrabook, why would you want one? There are a number of factors that make Ultrabooks endearing. They’re light, slim, and powerful. Is this as important as it’s made out to be? Carrying around a full five-pound traditional laptop can put significant strain on your shoulders and neck. A study by NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) claims that 75% of undergraduate participants in their study complained about musculoskeletal pain in their shoulders after lugging around laptops. Since an Ultrabook is almost half the weight of a traditional laptop, your shoulders will thank you.

Their unibody design is stylish and looks good wherever you go; many Ultrabooks mimic the design of the MacBook Air, which is a great standard to emulate. Although you won’t find a variety of colors, as you do with traditional laptops, you’ll be just as comfortable in the boardroom as the living room.

Ultrabooks are faster than traditional laptops, when you factor in a quad-core processor, SSD, and 8GB of RAM. Combined, those three features will produce a significant boost to speed in your computing.

And finally, Ultrabooks are advancing in design. Many convertible Ultrabooks are now making their way to market, bridging the gap between mobile computer and tablet. If you want to stay ahead of the crowd, get an Ultrabook.

So, there you have a breakdown of what goes into an Ultrabook, and how to look for the one that’s perfect for you. Be sure to check back with us for our upcoming roundup of awesome Ultrabooks so that you can make your purchase with confidence.

For more information or assistance selecting an Ultrabook, stop by the B&H SuperStore in New York, speak with a sales professional on the telephone at 1-800-606-6969 or contact us online via Live Chat.

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Im sorry, but faster than a regular laptop? Thats just not true. Price to price they are usually significantly slower (besides maybe the SSD drive). This is because more money is spent on the smaller design, battery life takes a hit on performance, and a premium is paid for the "ultrabook" name. Thats not to bash on them, they serve a purpose, but they are by no means faster than an equal priced laptop, because size is no longer an issue. Thats the only thing incorrect with this article.

Great explanation,thank you.Best regards from germany