It’s no secret the market for traditional laptop computers is under siege from tablets, with their lighter weight, near-instant-on performance and extended battery life.
Now Intel Corp. (INTC), whose chips power most personal computers, is working with computer makers to fight back, touting an if- you-can’t-beat-’em, join-’em concept called the Ultrabook. The design borrows liberally from the tablet playbook in an effort to keep PCs relevant in an increasingly post-PC world, with a goal of capturing 40 percent of the consumer laptop market by the end of 2012.
I’ve been trying out two of the first Ultrabooks, Acer Inc. (2353)’s Aspire S3 and the IdeaPad U300s from Lenovo Group Ltd. (992) Both are handsome, impressively thin and lightweight, and attractive choices for anyone in the market for a Windows laptop. At the same time, they leave a bit to be desired on the price-performance front.
To be an Ultrabook -- and qualify for Intel advertising subsidies -- a computer has to be less than 0.8 inches thick, weigh less than 3.1 pounds, have no CD or DVD drive and make use of solid-state storage for zippier performance. In other words, it has to be a Windows-based equivalent to Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s MacBook Air, which more or less invented the category and continues to define it.
Closing the Gap
Several previous entrants in the competition, such as Samsung Electronics Co.’s Series 9, suffered from a marked price disadvantage; a comparably equipped MacBook cost $250 less. From the evidence here, the new Ultrabooks have managed to eliminate the gap with Apple, but can’t beat the price by enough to make themselves an obvious alternative.
Of the two I’ve been testing, the one I like better is the Lenovo IdeaPad, which goes on sale next week. Weighing less than three pounds, it’s just .59 of an inch thick, with a two-tone gray aluminum case that looks a bit plain when closed but is much prettier open. That’s when you can admire the bright 13.3- inch display, comfortable Chiclet-style keyboard and generously sized trackpad.
The base-level IdeaPad comes with four gigabytes of memory and a 1.6-gigahertz Intel Core i5 processor (the one I tested had a more powerful i7). What really makes it fly is the 128- gigabyte solid-state drive, which uses chips in place of a hard drive’s spinning mechanical platter to store programs and data.
On a cold start, it took 20 seconds from the moment I hit the power button until I got to the point where I could do something productive on the Windows 7 desktop; lifting the lid awakened the sleeping computer in about three seconds and shutting it down completely took about seven seconds. Lenovo claims battery life of about eight hours, which is comparable to what I got when I tested the MacBook Air.
At $1,049, the IdeaPad is cheaper than the MacBook. But there are tradeoffs: The screen resolution isn’t as nice; boot- up isn’t as fast, for which you can probably blame Microsoft and the time it takes to load Windows; plus there’s no backlighting of the keyboard. In other words, nice as it is, there’s no compelling advantage to it until they get the price down another few hundred bucks.
That’s just what Acer has done with its $900 Aspire S3, which uses the same processor as the IdeaPad, has the same amount of memory and weighs about the same. But along the way, it’s made even more compromises.
Start with the build quality. Not only is the Lenovo considerably handsomer, it feels far more solid. One good shake of the Acer sends its open screen flopping backward like a wet noodle. Although the screen’s resolution matches the IdeaPad’s, I found the latter easier to look at over long periods of time.
The Aspire’s biggest corner-cutter is in storage. While the Lenovo -- and the MacBook Air -- are all-solid-state, the Aspire is a hybrid. Its 20-gigabyte SSD is supposed to hold important system files and give it a boost at startup, while a conventional 320-gigabyte hard drive gives it far more capacity than is common in its class.
Rather than provide the best of both worlds, unfortunately, the Acer provided the worst. Boot-up times ranged between 37 and 44 seconds, much slower than on the Lenovo; the fact that the hard drive is of the slow, 5400-rpm variety made things feel even more sluggish. Meanwhile, battery life was considerably worse, perhaps owing in part to the greater demands of the hard drive. (Acer claims six hours but I didn’t do that well.)
It was one of Intel’s founders, Gordon Moore, whose formula famously defined the trend of ever-increasing computing power and ever-decreasing price. For Ultrabooks to achieve Intel’s ambitious goals, the manufacturers making them -- which also include Asustek Computer Inc. (2357) and Toshiba Corp. (6502) -- will have to apply a little more of Moore’s Law. What they really need is IdeaPad quality at an Aspire price.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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