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Why ultrabooks actually could be the Next Big Thing

Forget notebooks. If Intel has its way, and if the buzz at this week’s Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas is any indication, everyone will be craving ultrabooks in the near future.

Now, as my colleague Greg Crowe so elegantly pointed out recently, being the darling new technology at CES does not ensure mainstream acceptance. However, I think ultrabooks might be different, and have a good chance of being embraced by the public.

An ultrabook is not a reinvention of the wheel. It’s a notebook design that attempts to add together components that people find cool and useful without the headaches that people don’t want or need. In that sense, it’s more of a reinvention of what a notebook is and has become in recent years.

So what is an ultrabook? Based on the descriptions and specs, we can put one together. To start with, every ultrabook will need to be thin and fast. That’s kind of a no-brainer that people want a sleek notebook.

The ultrabooks displayed at CES tended to have 13-inch or 14-inch screens in thin-bezel formats, thicknesses of a half-inch to 0.78 of an inch and weights of less that 3 pounds. They mostly run low-power Intel Core i5 chips and have solid-state drives, which makes for fast start-ups. Prices for the early models (and most if not all notebook-makers are producing ultrabooks) range from about $800 to $1,400.

But the real appeal of ultrabooks will be in the user experience. For starters, ultrabooks should all have touch screens. (And you thought Windows 8 was going to be just for tablets?)

People seem to like the touch-screen interface. But lots of folks, myself included, don’t want to give up their keyboards. Typing is part of my job and a keyboard is the perfect tool for that. Although I enjoy and appreciate programs that are optimized for touch screens, I feel more comfortable using a physical keyboard for those long-haul, late-night writing sessions. So thankfully, an ultrabook won’t be another tablet, and the keyboard is safe.

There may be some other inputs, however, that will make an ultrabook easier to use. Intel has tapped Nuance Communications to provide voice recognition on all ultrabooks. It will be interesting to see how native voice recognition works. Intel has even hinted at a Siri-like interface like that on the new Apple iPhone 4S, which would give ultrabooks intelligent personal assistants. Obviously, a lot will depend on the quality of the voice recognition.

And in a nod to gaming, ultrabooks will likely have gesture recognition, which is already doing quite well as part of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Kinect gaming system. Microsoft announced during CES that the retail version of Kinect for Windows, along with a free commercial software development kit, will arrive Feb. 1.

Reporters were only given a few minutes with an ultrabook at CES, but the main feature everyone seemed to enjoy most was the gesture ability. Wave your hand to page through your contacts, expand and close windows and do pretty much what you could with a touch screen, only without touching the screen. Ultrabook ultimate dance games can’t be too far behind.

But seriously, gesture recognition combined with voice technology will be a powerful tool, yet we aren’t asked to forfeit our beloved keyboards just yet. So while ultrabooks don’t reinvent the wheel, they improve it quite a bit, kind of like adding inflatable tires.

For that reason, I actually believe Intel when it predicts that 40 percent of notebook sales by 2015 will be ultrabooks. If the new devices are as cool and functional as they might be, the numbers could even be much higher.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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