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Ultrabook, round two: can Intel control the future of the laptop?

Intel Kirk Skaugen interview

There aren't many companies that can set a new direction for the entire computer industry. Right now, three come to mind: PC manufacturers march to the beat of Microsoft's Windows drum, and many follow Apple's design. The third is Intel, which influences the market behind the scenes with ever more powerful processors and aggressive marketing campaigns.

In 2011, Intel told every PC manufacturer that it needed to have an answer to Apple's MacBook Air, and offered $300 million, among other persuasions, to help OEMs develop and market new designs. Intel called it the ultrabook, and specified a set of ultrabook requirements in terms of thickness, responsiveness, and battery life. The manufacturers complied. While some PC vendors champed at the bit by selling machines that were visually identical to existing ultrabooks but that didn't meet the specification, the new laptops still made a splash at first.

Intel is pushing the ultrabook slightly beyond its Apple inspiration

Now, for the first time since its inception, Intel is pushing the ultrabook slightly beyond its Apple inspiration. Specifically, with the new Haswell chips due in late 2013, Intel will require that every ultrabook have a touchscreen. They'll need to support Intel's proprietary Wireless Display (WiDi) screen-sharing technology. Intel's promising all-day battery life as well, and a feature called Connected Standby that lets apps check email and pull down updates even when a computer is in sleep mode. With these new features, Intel is all but mandating what the high-end laptops of the future will look like in 2013 and beyond.

At CES 2013, we sat down with Intel's consumer PC boss Kirk Skaugen to find out if Intel is truly driving the industry forward this time around. Let's tackle each new feature in turn.

"All-day battery life"

The holy grail of laptop computing, Intel's been working on the so-called "all-day battery life" for over a decade. The company founded the Mobile PC Extended Battery Life Working Group back in 2002. Since then, Intel and its partners have announced any number of times that they've achieved the goal, but we've learned to take those claims with several grains of salt.

Technically, we've tested quite a few laptop computers that can last over eight hours, and seen some that can go a full 24 hours on a charge, but we're usually talking about devices that are running completely idle, with the screen brightness turned down unnaturally low, and often with a sizable extended battery bolted onto the bottom. In the real world, we're lucky to see five or six hours of use from a lightweight machine.

And yet, Intel's Kirk Skaugen says this will change:

On 4th-gen Core, we are going to have the largest battery increase generation on generation in Intel's history. So that will deliver the ability to leave your power brick at home, truly, once and for all.

So, you really mean it this time?

We really mean it this time. There'll be some details in the specification in terms of what that means across a range of workloads.

Should we take him at his word?

Touch

While Intel just made touch a requirement for the next generation of ultrabooks, it's not clear that consumers even want touch at all. Sure, we found it exceedingly useful for Windows 8 laptops, even ones that don't have fancy convertible hinges, and we also found that Windows 8 doesn't make as much sense without touch, period. Yet it's hard to say whether Windows 8 will succeed in the first place, which could make an added touchscreen irrelevant. So why require touch now?

"Driving our fourth-gen ultrabooks to include touch is really been part of industry pull as much as it's a push from Intel," Skaugen told us.

The retailers want higher-end ultrabooks, and convertibles and detachables will need touch because they convert to almost a tablet form factor. But they want a consistency. With the OEMs, things stall when they're second-guessing touch, non-touch, "do I have to do both," so this provides them some clarity and some consistency in the higher end.

Skaugen had a lot to say about how much touchscreens are being appreciated, citing excellent results from a huge survey of 220,000 individuals trying Windows 8 machines with touch at the helm... but when it came to the "why make it a requirement now" question, the closest thing to an answer was this: "Windows 8 obviously being designed around touch makes it a natural time for us to do this."

WiDi

Intel's Wireless Display (WiDi) has been around since 2010 — predating Apple's AirPlay by quite a bit — but the screen-sharing technology hasn't had much to show for the lead time. You not only had to have an Intel-powered laptop with integrated Intel graphics and an Intel Wi-Fi chip inside, but also buy a $100 dedicated TV adapter or one of an exceedingly small number of WiDi-equipped televisions to make it work. So what's changed now?

Skaugen hinted at a coming ubiquity in the marketplace for WiDi, as well as "some interesting announcements across the wireless industry that will beef that up as well." WiDi will support Miracast now We think we might know what he's talking about: in September, the company announced that WiDi 3.5 would add support for the Wi-Fi Alliance's Miracast specification — which is seeking to be an AirPlay alternative for PCs and mobile devices — as well as cheaper WiDi receivers. Theoretically, there will be a host of chips that can beam video, audio, and pictures to televisions via Miracast in the near future, with Intel's WiDi only responsible for a small sliver of that pie.

That actually sounds pretty good: we love the idea of interoperable standards that guarantee laptop screen-sharing will simply work. That assumes Intel can and intends to pull it off seamlessly, though. Intel probably wants to sell as many wireless chips as possible and perhaps even take one last crack at monetizing the proprietary WiDi standard before its chances fizzle out. Back when it was developing Thunderbolt, the company took its sweet time supporting the competing USB 3.0. Why jump headfirst into Miracast if it thinks WiDi still has a chance to make money?

Connected Standby

Here's another feature from the Mac that Intel helping to push into the Windows realm. Power Nap — which allows Apple computer applications to check email, download updates, and perform other internet tasks — is coming to Windows 8 ultrabooks with Microsoft's "Connected Standby" mode.

Connected Standby lets devs sleepwalk with apps of their own

Skaugen makes the Windows PC side sound potentially even more useful, though: unlike Power Nap, which only works with Apple's own programs, Connected Standby will allow developers to get computers to sleepwalk with apps of their own. "Even on the world's fastest tablets today, you power it on and you have to wait for your email, wait for Facebook to update. This will give you instantaneous access," Skaugen says.

Screen resolution

Finally, we asked Intel's consumer PC boss about screen resolution, which has given us no shortage of difficulty with recent Windows 8 touchscreen convertibles and ultrabooks. Why? High-res screens are more desirable for a number of reasons, but on a small convertible laptop or tablet, it becomes difficult to control the tiny interface with your fingers, or even read when you're far away enough that your hands can rest comfortably on the laptop keys. And yet if you lower the resolution, images get fuzzy when you put the screen up to your face.

On the CES stage, Intel showed off the North Cape reference design, a prototype convertible laptop with a neat trick: it has a 13.3-inch 1080p screen, but it uses a feature called Smart Frame that artificially lowers the size and resolution of the display when it switches to tablet mode, by blacking out the edges. In our interview, Skaugen told us that such solutions are definitely in the cards for real devices, too:

What we're trying to do with the software community... We're making the software more intelligent so that it knows which mode it's in, so that when you move into tablet mode you get bigger icons that act like nice buttons for the touchscreen. Whereas if you're editing and you want to go to the creation side, clamshell mode, you might get much smaller buttons. The software is going to get more intelligent as this new category grows to know when it's in clamshell versus when it's in consumption modes.

Wrap-up

Intel’s expanded ultrabook initiative, while self-serving, definitely highlights some laptop features we want. It’s just hard to see from here how they drive the industry places it wouldn’t have already gone. Manufacturers haven’t been shy to embrace touchscreens for their premium Windows 8 devices so far, and while screen sharing might have taken a while to catch on, every laptop sold comes with a Wi-Fi chip that could theoretically embrace the Miracast standard given time. The key elements of the original ultrabook spec were responsiveness and battery life at a given thickness, as they forced manufacturers to embrace speedy solid state storage and rigid, durable materials to succeed... but faced with the additional cost of SSDs in particular, several vendors decided to drop the ultrabook spec and name from all but their priciest creations.

The funny thing about names is that they stick, even when they don’t belong. Manufacturers are already taking advantage of consumer confusion to sell cheaper (but visually identical) computers. If it looks like an ultrabook and feels like an ultrabook, it could be a Sleekbook, after all.

A delicate balance

Intel is still caught between a need to keep improving the ultrabook spec in meaningful ways — like battery life — to keep manufacturers on their toes, and the need to keep PC manufacturers satisfied that they can profit from the credibility the ultrabook brand offers. If the balance stays true, Intel can influence the industry to raise the bar for computers across the board, train consumers to take those features for granted, and rinse and repeat ad infinitum. If not... if OEMs, faced with the additional cost of touchscreens and Wi-Fi chipsets, decide to reject the ultrabook brand and cut corners building look-alikes instead, the brand could disappear. And yet if Intel fails to keep a step ahead of the performance and features consumers want, the ultrabook could become just as irrelevant as the netbook before long.

You can read our full interview with Intel VP Kirk Skaugen here in our forums.

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