Small businesses should proceed with caution on ultrabooks

Small businesses should proceed with caution on ultrabooks

Summary: Are you sure you should commit to a still-emerging system design and form factor, or will a really thin and light notebook do?

TOPICS: Tablets, Apple, Dell, Intel

Put aside, for a moment, all the sturm und drang being generated (and to be generated) this week and month about the Apple iPad 3, including plenty of digital inches here on the ZDNet commentary site. March will also be an important month for the emerging ultrabook category, with the release of the Dell XP 13 notebook, which the company calls its most mobile Ultrabook laptop yet.

I am still extremely skeptical about the state of the ultrabook category, mainly because right now it is very difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons about the various products being hawked under this name. Most consider the Apple MacBook Air to be the prototypical example of what the ultrabooks want to beat, but the notebook's pricetag and that Apple logo on the outside of its case have made it a tough sell among some small and midsize businesses.

The Dell XPS 13 notebook is a well-built introduction to the ultrabook category, although some reviews have criticized its battery life. The computer boasts a 13.3-inch screen, and it weighs 2.99 pounds. The computer is designed to be less than one-quarter-inch thick at its thinnest point, and the price for the system starts at $999 depending on the innards you decide to specify, according to the Dell product specifications and information.

Dell's entry into this category is by no means a surprise, since pretty much any vendor with a notebook or netbook offering has been falling all over itself to define its ultrabook offering.

Intel has staked a lot on the category, by creating what it believes to be guidelines around which the next generation of non-Apple ultrabooks should be based. But the problem with the category, for me, has been that there are many interpretations of what should be in a base package as well as many, many choices that aren't quite ultrabooks but might be a really good choice of light notebook. Don't get me wrong, innovation and variety are exactly what are needed in a nascent category like this one. But it means SMBs are pretty much on their own when it comes to figuring out whether or not ultrabooks are a worthwhile addition to their computer hardware mix.

Personally, I think that confusion should convince small businesses to proceed with caution when making an ultrabook investment, because the form factor is bound to change a great deal throughout the course of the next 12 months to 18 months.

Some recent data from a Zoomerang survey for Microsoft of 261 SMBs with less than 500 employees found that only 7 percent were using an ultrabook while 87 percent didn't know how to to define the category. So, you are in good company if you feel confused.

Still, some analysts are pretty optimistic about the ultrabook category. A report released in late January by Juniper Research suggests that shipments of ultrabook computers will grow at three times the rate of tablet computers between now and 2017. During that timeframe, approximately 178 million ultrabooks will be shipped, according to the Juniper Research projections.

If you are in the market for a new notebook this year and really can't afford to wait around for the ultrabook category to become better defined, then here are are 6 factors you should examine really closely to decide if you should opt for what is officially designated as an ultrabook or whether a really thin notebook would do for your business needs. Intel points to these systems as current examples of the category, if you want a starting point of systems to consider. But here is what you should think about long and hard.

Power efficiency: One big hallmarks of Intel's official ultrabook designation is the promise of "all day" battery life (about 10 hours). The reviews I've been reading about the Dell entry into the category peg its life at closer to five hours. The Lenovo IdeaPad U300s apparently gets about seven hours. I'd be thrilled with the latter, but the all day thing just isn't there yet. To be fair, Intel offers a pretty big range "officially" of between five and eight hours.

Performance: The specification for the ultrabook form factor is the Intel Core i5 or i7 processor line, which is the same architecture that the Apple MacBook Air uses. You should actually be pretty well served in this regard.

The thinness factor: According to Intel, ultrabooks should be no more than 0.8 inches thick, so get out your ruler or you'll just be buying a really thin and efficient notebook. Maybe this really doesn't matter.

Weight: Ultrabooks are supposed to come in at less than 3.1 pounds, partly because they do away with optical drives and use solid state drives for all data storage needs. This weight might mean you have to sacrifice screen size, though.

Price: The magic number for Intel's definition is $1,000, but the sort of high-end features you need for a small-business notebook computer won't necessarily be available in that price range. Be prepared to spend closer to $1,300 (which is about the price of an Apple MacBook Air, ironically).

Integrated broadband wireless: You know and I know that this is a big deal. Wi-Fi support is pretty much a given and the extent to which your next notebook is a good potential wireless broadband citizen -- with 3G or 4G capabilities -- could be the make-or-break thing in the small-business decision making process. That is especially true not just because many small businesses are distributed and on-the-go but because they might not always have the wherewithal to invest in wireless network infrastructure. Definitely study the wireless connectivity options for your next notebook carefully.

(Product image courtesy of Dell)

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Topics: Tablets, Apple, Dell, Intel

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  • Err, what?

    Where's the risk in going for an ultrabook over a fatter laptop? The only difference is the thinner one has a little bit higher initial cost, but the mechanics are the same. It's not like it's something like the Blackberry Playbook, where if it flops, you're SOL. If ultrabooks eventually flop...well, they're still running Windows or Linux and so shouldn't really have any issues at all.
    • Exactly

      So what if the form factor changes? It is still running a full OS that is not locked to the device and is a regular computer with standard ports. By her claims no one should ever buy a computer again because it could change form factor or a new model may come out that is .01 inch thinner and offer another hour of battery life.
    • The obsession with categories and definitions

      I have to agree with you. If you find a product that meets your needs, this whole discussion is pointless.
    • I know. Funny. I never hear them say

      "Are you sure you should commit to a still-emerging system design and form factor of an iPad or tablet, or will a really thin and light notebook do?".

      I think they all said go for it, if memory serves me.
      William Farrel
    • It's the "name" I object to

      I LOVE the idea of a thin notebook, the point is to avoid the ultrabook marketing hype.
      Heather Clancy
  • You need to give up Heather

    Stop writing about what Businesses should and should not do with technology. First you say they should go All Mac and now this FUD. I would say quit while you are ahead but you are way behind.
    • Exactly

      She is clueless about business/enterprise users. Ultrabook is much much better than Mac in business world. An extra keyboard/mouse and an entra monitor, that is all you needed to do the work. All softwares are already there.
      • Define an ultrabook?

        Hi there,
        Can you define what you mean by "ultrabook"?
        Heather Clancy
      • And a power supply or extra battery.

        If she's right about the battery life.

        "All softwares are already there." Do Ultrabooks include MS Office too? Or do you mean Notepad?
      • RE: Define Ultrabook

        Who cares what it is called. Ultrabook... Thin and Light Laptop (with no ROM drive).. whatever. If it fits a person's needs and price budget who cares what it is called. It is a computer. You folks at ZDNet are way too caught up in what things are called. PCs, Post-PC, Tablet, Ultrabook... Who Cares.
  • Our company was ordering EliteBooks

    and we are transitioning to Folio 13s for the bulk of them. They are amazing laptops, giving great battery life and performance. They retail for about $1000 and we get a significant discount on that. It's pretty impressive. I'm not sure how they're a risk, it's proven tech in a smaller form factor. Our sales staff LOVES them. We're still ordering $1800 EliteBooks for our engineers but the Folio offers a huge cost savings in a very nice form factor.
    • Thanks for your useful comment

      I always appreciate real world examples.
      Heather Clancy
  • y no mention of Asus

    zenbook is one of the best, I dont know why she forgot that
    • Interesting ...

      Actually I point over to the Intel page where the Zenbook definitely is mentioned. The Dell one just happened to ship. Thanks for your insight.
      Heather Clancy
  • -_-

    Small businesses should proceed with caution on ultrabooks, but small businesses should go for Mac and iPad. Even an Apple sales guy would punch himself afterwards by saying this.

    I would rather say that Americans should process with caution on Romney, and it is a great time to consider Hugo Chavez.
    • We already have Hugo Chavez.

      Just half-African-American.
  • Why get a Macbook Air clone

    when you can just get the real thing? This ultrabook thing seems just weird. PC companies need to just go and do their own thing (as for instance AlienWare does so well), rather than just trying to rush also-rans into Apple's newly invented product categories.
  • So Funny

    This website promotes iPads for corporations but warns about ultrabooks? Seriously? Is that keyboard and mouse and the ability to actually do WORK a deterrent? What a joke.
    • It's the name I object to ....

      Hello there,
      If you read the column again, you'll see I don't object to buying a super light notebook, I do object to the term "ultrabook."
      Heather Clancy
  • Yeah, I'll avoid the emerging technology of the iPad, too

    Did you even try the Dell, Heather? No. It's NOT just an Mac clone. Nowhere did you mention these things
    -- It comes up 1 second from hibernate, mere seconds from off.
    -- That the embedded Intel Smart Connect Technology provides instant updates for applications such as calendar, email, etc.-even while the laptop is closed and in sleep mode.
    -- That the nearly borderless screen that utilizes hardened Gorilla glass is bonded to the aluminum and is larger than the 13" Macbook Air screen (because of the edge-to-edge design).
    -- It has bitlocker data encryption utilizing TPM.
    -- It has a unique multi-touch touchpad made of glass.
    -- That the carbon fiber base was meant to not only be light, but cool to the touch (unlike the Macbook's aluminum).
    -- It runs Windows for productivity (versus GarageBand for...).