Listen to this article
Two years ago, Steve Jobs, the late chairman of Apple, unwittingly gave the PC industry its inspiration to combat the threat from Apple’s iPad, as he announced that the notebook had been reinvented with the second-generation MacBook Air.
The Air, priced from $1,000, in 11in and 13in screen versions, was a sliver of aluminium that turned on instantly with the lift of its lid. It had a battery life of up to seven hours and could remain, lid closed, in standby mode for 30 days. Instead of a spinning disk drive, it had solid-state flash memory for storage, just like the iPad.
In fact, the iPad had been a big influence on the Air’s design and functionality. The same touch gestures could be used on the Air’s trackpad and the programs and interface of the iPad were imitated as Apple went on to introduce the Mac App Store and update its Mac OS X operating system.
Two years on, Apple’s PC rivals have caught up and even overtaken Apple with thin-and-light laptops that in many cases cost less and have more features and a longer battery life. The only thing they have lacked – a comparable operating system to Apple’s – is on its way this October: Windows 8 is spawning new hybrid devices that challenge the MacBook Air and the iPad.
The PC’s comeback has been stage-managed by Intel, whose microprocessors end up in four out of every five computers sold.
Worried about the threat to the PC from smartphones and tablets – products where Intel had close to zero market share – it came up with the concept of the Ultrabook, modelled on the MacBook Air.
Producers of notebooks that were thin, quick to boot and had a minimum five-hour battery life, according to Intel’s specification, would qualify for marketing incentives from the chipmaker.
The first such machines began appearing in October 2011, with Asian manufacturers Acer, Asus, Lenovo and Toshiba leading the charge. Of this first crop, I found Acer’s Aspire S3 a little too flimsy in its construction, while the Asus Zenbook and Lenovo’s IdeaPad U300s were a little pricey at over $1,000. The best of the crop was Toshiba’s Portégé Z835, costing just $870 and being around 0.25kg lighter than the MacBook Air.
Over the next few months, more Ultrabooks appeared, including HP’s Folio 13, a heavier 1.5kg machine, HP’s Envy Spectre and Dell’s XPS 13.
The trends in 2012 have been away from the Air’s screen sizes, to 14in and 15in, an upgrade to third-generation Intel processors, faster USB 3.0 ports and attempts to reduce prices to give Ultrabooks more mass market appeal.
Cheaper machines tend to feature a traditional hard-disk drive rather than the more expensive solid-state flash drives, although some flash is included to enable “instant-on” features. Of these value-priced Ultrabooks, I like Lenovo’s IdeaPad U310 with its excellent construction and Toshiba’s Satellite U845, both available for around $750.
Not wanting to be tied down to the Ultrabook brand, HP has come up with its Sleekbook range, which allows it to use lower-priced AMD processors as well as Intel ones. I have been impressed with the HP Envy 6 Sleekbook, which uses an AMD A6 processor and is available for as little as $600.
There are still entries at the higher end. Lenovo has just launched its $1,300 ThinkPad X1 Carbon – an elegant, thin and very light Ultrabook with its carbon-fibre casing.
Apple, meanwhile, has outdone everyone again with the MacBook Pro with Retina display, a 15in MacBook launched in June starting at $2,200. The screen has some 5.2m pixels – approximately 3m more than HD television – and may eventually appear on lower-priced MacBook Pros and perhaps the Air, which has been marking time relative to its stablemates over the past two years.
Apple’s only improvements to the Air have been to add a backlit keyboard and improved webcam, and to update the ports, processing power and operating system.
The company must feel it can afford to do so, with its Ultrabook rivals’ weakness being the Windows 7 operating system, which seems old-fashioned next to the gesture and app-rich OS X.
This should change with Windows 8 – a dual operating system in that it has both the traditional Windows desktop and a new tile-icon interface optimised for touch. The tappable tiles can give a live window on new apps that lie behind them – flashing up sports scores, stock quotes and weather updates, for example.
Ultrabooks will soon be appearing with touchscreens that take advantage of this, while motion-sensing is expected next year, allowing a laptop to be controlled with a wave of the hand.
In the meantime, my hands have been able magically to turn a notebook into a tablet with HP’s newly announced Envy x2. With magnets in the casing, it is easy to correctly dock and undock the 11.6in screen from its keyboard base and use it as a tablet running Windows 8’s tiled interface, or to turn it back to a notebook with the regular Windows desktop.
Such hybrid devices could give PC makers a key advantage over Apple, although Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, says hybrid devices are as satisfying an experience as combining a toaster with a refrigerator. He may be right, but Apple knows far more about apps than it does about appliances.
Get alerts on Special Report when a new story is published