Tag Archives | Laptops

The Case Against Thin


Over at the Atlantic, Robert Wright is being sacrilegious. He says he’s unhappy with the trend–seen in phones, laptops, and other products–to make gadgets as thin as possible:

Remember when Jobs first unveiled the Macbook Air? I do, because I had long been a fan of the small, lightweight computers that had until then been available only on the Windows platform. Jobs brought the machine onstage in a manila envelope, because the thing he wanted to wow the audience with was its thinness.

I thought: Who cares how thin it is? Thickness isn’t the dimension that really matters when you have to fit a computer into a tiny backpack or use it in a coach seat on an airplane. And, anyway, more important than any spatial dimension is weight. Sure, to the extent that thinner means lighter, thinness is good, but if you make thinness an end in itself, you start compromising functionality.

Bob has several specific beefs with whisper-thin gizmos. He points out that all things being equal, a thin case leaves less room for the battery, thereby leading to shorter battery life. He says that overly svelte devices are harder to hold and easier to drop. With laptops, he says, engineering for thinness leads to compromises in keyboard quality.

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Netbooks: The Beginning of the End

Back in 2008 and 2009, I spent a lot of time defending netbooks. (At the time, PC makers were selling them by the boatload–but also kept saying they were lousy products which would surely go away soon.) Netbooks are still with us, and still have their place. But it looks like one big manufacturer–Samsung–might be giving up on them, at least if you define netbooks as laptops that have low-end processors and screens that are no bigger than 11″ or thereabouts.

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Air Apparents! Ultrabooks and Other Slimmed-Down Windows PCs

For the longest time, Apple laptops lived in their own world of stylish design, while PC makers remained steadfast in their focus on beefier specs for lower prices. I remember looking two years ago for a Windows PC that aped Apple’s style–awesome keyboard, smooth trackpad, sturdy aluminum build, decent specs–and being disappointed that such a computer simply didn’t exist.

How things have changed. Apple’s revamped MacBook Air became a runaway hit while the rest of the PC market stagnated, and suddenly every computer maker wants to make thinner, lighter and prettier products. Intel calls these creations “Ultrabooks,” and provided PC makers with strict criteria for weight, thickness, battery life, processor power and pricing to qualify for the marketing jargon. This new wave of notebooks run the latest Intel Core processors, cost around $1,000, and go toe-to-toe with the MacBook Air in physical measurements.

Over the next few months, a bevy of these machines will strut their stuff for laptop shoppers. Here’s what we know about every Ultrabook or similar product that’s on the market or on the way.

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HP’s Ultrabook Isn’t a MacBook Air Clone

I’ve been thinking of the “Ultrabook” category of laptops–devised and named by Intel–as being pretty much synonymous with “MacBook Air  lookalikes that run Windows.” But HP’s new Folio (no relation to the Foleo) is an Ultrabook that isn’t that Air-like. It aspires to be practical and portable, not super-sleek and sexy.

The Foleo 13 is a 13″ system with an Intel Core i5 processor. It’s pretty thin (.71″) and pretty light (3.3 pounds) but thicker and heavier than the Air and Toshiba’s Portege Z830. It has, however, a fuller complement of ports than the Air, including Ethernet, HDMI, and USB 3.0, with no dongles required. HP claims up to 9 hours of battery life vs. Apple’s 7 hours; that’s impressive if independent testing backs it up. And the price–$899.99 for a machine with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of solid-state storage–undercuts the most comparable MacBook Air by $400.

Buyers of Windows laptops have historically had a limited appetite for systems that emphasize portability rather that offering as many specs as possible at a low price. I don’t think it’s a given that Ultrabooks will catch on–HP’s press release for the Folio quotes IDC saying that it expects sales of 95 million Ultrabooks a year by 2015–but I like the compact form factor and am happy to see PCs with solid-state disks getting affordable, so I hope the category thrives.



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Toshiba’s No-Glasses 3D Laptop is About to Hit Stores

Last year, Toshiba showed me an experimental laptop that could do 3D without special glasses–and even do 3D on one part of the screen while another part was in standard 2D. Back them, it was just a technology demo. But the company has announced the Qosmio F755 3D, a model based on the tech I saw. It has a 15.6″ display and an Intel Core i7 CPU, and arrives on August 16th for $1699.99.

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India’s $35 Laptop: The Case Gets Curiouser

India’s $35 laptop/tablet, a concept that I’ve been skeptical about since its announcement a year ago, is close to completion — as long as you ignore a few signs that it’s not.

According to the New York Times’ Bits blog, the Indian government will deliver on its promise of a dirt-cheap Linux or Android device in several weeks. “All the naysayers will be unpleasantly surprised,” said Kapil Sibal, India’s minister for human resource development.

But that’s pretty much all that Sibal is saying right now. Here’s why I still won’t believe it until I see it:

  • Sibal claims that a version of the $35 laptop is already in his possession, but he wouldn’t show it to the Times because he apparently left it at home.
  • Sibal’s office wouldn’t say who’s making the device, or whether production has begun.
  • The Times’ story offers no further details on the $35 laptop’s specs or design.

The last time I wrote about the $35 laptop, the Indian government had run into some financial misunderstandings with its hardware vendor. Meanwhile, one government source told India’s Economic Times that the device’s component costs alone exceeded $125, and Gartner analyst Vishal Bhatnagar estimated that $35 wouldn’t even cover the cost of a touch screen and microprocessor. Skeptics may also remember India’s earlier promise of a $10 laptop in 2009, which turned out to be, well, not a laptop.

I’d still love to see India pull this off — the whole point of the project is to sell cheap computers to students — but empty promises don’t inspire confidence.

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The White MacBook, 2006-2011: An Elegy

Among the umpteen things that makes Apple different from other technology companies is this: it makes news by discontinuing products as well as introducing them. Today’s big announcements involve the arrival of OS X 10.7 Lion and updated MacBook Airs. But it’s also decided to stop producing the $999 white MacBook, a machine that had an uncommonly long life as the cheapest general-purpose Mac portable.

As recently as a week ago, the reliably unreliable Apple rumor mill said that an upgraded white MacBook was on its way. Then it decided that no update was imminent. And the truth turns out to be there won’t be an update because the machine is leaving the market.

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Lenovo’s IdeaPad U1 PC-Tablet Hybrid: It Lives

The Lenovo IdeaPad U1, which combines a Windows laptop and an Android tablet into one device, was one of the most intriguing products I saw at CES 2010. It was also one of the most intriguing products I saw a year later at CES 2011.

Indeed, the U1’s path to a U.S. launch has been long and slightly vaporous, but now, it’s nearly here. According to Engadget, the U1 has arrived at the FCC for approval — a decent indication that it might graduate from trade shows to retail shelves.

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Please, Call Them Ultrabooks

Intel’s plan to revitalize the thin-and-light laptop has been out in the open for over a week, but now the company’s going a step further and giving this product category a new name: Ultrabooks. These computers will measure less than 0.8 inches thick and cost less than $1,000 when they hit the market later this year.

For now, I just want to talk about the name. It’s snappy, as far as jargon goes, but it also leaves me feeling cold. The tech industry is littered with marketing buzzwords for new kinds of computers, but not all of them stick, and as history shows, you just can’t force this kind of thing.

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Intel Will Bet Big on Ultra-Low Voltage Laptops

Laptops don’t make for the most exciting news these days, but I’m pleased to hear that Intel’s PC plans call for a big bet on ultra-low voltage processors, as Ars Technica reports.

Ultra-low voltage, or ULV, refers to a range of processors that are more powerful than Intel’s netbook-centric Atom while retaining excellent battery life and allowing for slim figures. (I’m typing on an ULV laptop now, an Asus UL80vt.)

These thin-and-light ULV laptops were pricey when Intel introduced them a couple years ago, and they quickly earned niche status instead of mainstream success. Still, they offer what a lot of people are looking for in a computer — moderate performance and strong battery life in a lightweight frame — and pricing has come down. The company has already launched low-voltage versions of its Core i3, i5 and i7 processors

So it makes sense for Intel to give ULV a bigger role in its lineup. Whereas the the power draw for Intel’s chips previously centered around 35 watts, the company plans to set the center point around 10 or 15 watts, with the goal of making 10-hour battery life a reality for most machines.

On a recent trip to Best Buy, I was surprised by how chunky most laptops look, even compared to my 18-month-old machine. If Intel and PC makers can deliver lots of ultra-thin ULV laptops in the coveted $600 price range, the dreary old laptop could start to look exciting once again.