Intel's Slim Bid to Revive the Notebook

At the Computex trade show in Taiwan, Intel sketched out some of its mobile future with a new name for old devices and comments on chip strategies. The company plans to improve the energy efficiency of its Core processors and leverage a previously announced 3D chip technology in the first half of 2012. This silicon will power a class of notebooks called Ultrabooks, which Intel expects to account for 40 percent of the overall notebook market by the end of next year. Atom processors, currently used in netbooks, will see redesigns on a yearly basis—twice as often as previously.

Here's how Intel defines the Ultrabook category: "These computers will marry the performance and capabilities of today's laptops with tablet-like features and deliver a highly responsive and secure experience in a thin, light, and elegant design. The Ultrabook will be shaped by Moore's Law and silicon technology in the same way they have shaped the traditional PC for the past 40 years."

Intel suggests that device manufacturers keep such Ultrabooks to a thin 20-millimeter-or-less profile and a price point starting at under $1,000. Intel is touting "instant on" functionality and background connectivity through features called "smart connect" and "rapid start." These features check for application updates immediately prior to sleep mode and just after resuming and they take advantage of flash memory for faster wake times. The first such Ultrabooks should greet the holiday season this year. ASUS has already announced the UX21 in this category; it is indeed thin and light, as shown by a hands-on video from Netbook News.

While Ultrabooks may be a new notebook title, the tune sounds familiar. Visually, the ASUS UX21 reminds me of numerous laptops I saw two years back, when Intel was pitching CULV—or consumer ultra-low-voltage—processors.

Not Surprisingly, More Power

Back in May 2009 these energy-efficient chips were set to power thin notebooks such as the $899 MSI Slim X340, which looks much like the new ASUS UX21 on the outside. Granted, the new Ultrabooks will feature faster flash memory storage and peppier processors, but I'd expect as much. Based on the specs of the chips that will power Ultrabooks, the devices won't be as underpowered as the CULV notebooks were, which could help stimulate sales.

Still, sales growth potential isn't likely to be in the cards for notebook computers, whether you call them netbooks or Ultrabooks. Smartphone sales surpassed those of personal computers around the start of this year and Intel isn't yet in that market. As the company watches chips based on the ARM architecture power virtually all handheld devices, it still has no answer to meet the challenge. Instead, Intel continues to buy time with new notebook features and chip designs while it tweaks its handheld platform, currently known as Medfield, to compete with ARM processors in smartphones and tablets.

While Intel-powered tablets will be up for sale in 2011, I wouldn't expect these to take the lion's share of the tablet market: I'd be surprised if Intel can capture share in double digits this year because big-name tablets from Apple, Motorola, Samsung, HTC, LG, and others all use ARM processors. Nor does it seem that ARM's progress will slow soon.

Just as Intel is expecting to advance its chips with 3D Tri-Gate technology next year, mobile chipmakers will be readying the next-generation of ARM chips, using the Cortex-A15 architecture. According to ARM Holdings, a quad-core version of such a chip running up to 2.5 GHz will move beyond smartphones and into "mobile computing." One could read that as referring to more powerful tablet devices, but Microsoft has already demonstrated a version of Windows that runs on ARM chips. Between that and Google's Chrome OS, which can also run on ARM processors, I suspect that the first usable notebooks running on ARM processors are in store for 2012. By then it may not matter what Intel calls notebooks with its chips.

Also from GigaOM:

Report: The Future of Netbooks (subscription required)

Biofuel Maker Gevo Starts Retrofitting Old Ethanol Plant

Web Work SciFi: Floating Avatars for Telecommuters

German Rights Holders Go After 300,000 P2P Users Per Month

What to Expect From Apple's OS X Lion, iOS 5, and iCloud

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.