CES 2012: Intel provides new details on the Ultrabook "experience"

Intel's Ivy Bridge announcement will have to wait. Instead Intel executives devoted its CES press conference to the user experience they hope to deliver with Ultrabooks, which they said are more than just thin-and-light PCs.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Intel's Ivy Bridge announcement will have to wait--at least until later this week. Instead of announcing its third-generation Core processor, Intel executives devoted this morning's CES press conference to the user experience they hope to deliver with Ultrabooks.

But Mooly Eden, the general manager of the PC Client Group, couldn't resist a bit of chip talk. He boasted that Sandy Bridge--the processor family announced last year at CES--was the "fastest ramp" in Intel's history, adding that the company had already sold more than 150 million of these second-generation Core processors. And he hinted that Ivy Bridge would deliver a big boost in graphics performance.

Intel isn't stepping entirely away from its focus on "speeds and feeds" because, Eden said, users want computers that can be used not only to consume content, but also to create it, and they don't want to wait. But he said this is only one part of the overall user experience. Users also wants PCs that are always connected, secure, "sleek and sexy," and affordable--all themes that Intel has been talking about since the Computex tradeshow last June. The first wave of Ultrabooks has been priced at around $900 and up, but he said Intel's goal is to make them much cheaper (the company has previously said prices would come down to around $700 later this year).

To illustrate the capabilities of the current Ultrabooks, Intel gave a quick series of demonstrations on some current models from Lenovo, Toshiba and HP. These included the creation of a large photo album (using ArcSoft Album), a physics demo with the Havok engine, and a graphics demo--all using Sandy Bridge processors. More interesting, Eden then showed a demo of the Microsoft DirectX 11 graphics support in Ivy Bridge using Codemasters' F1 2010, a Formula 1 racing game.

Intel also gave a demonstration of a security feature for online shopping that uses built-in NFC (Near-Field Communications) technology to read a credit card and complete a transaction. The security scheme is tied to both the user and the laptop, so that if your credit card is stolen it can't be used to make transactions on other devices with NFC receivers. Intel did not say, however, when this kind of technology will be integrated into laptops.

On stage, Intel was showing new Ultrabooks from Acer, Asus, Compal, HP and Toshiba, and Eden said that CEO Paul Otellini would be disclosing some new models at his keynote address tomorrow. Getting these systems down to 18mm or less involves more than cooler processors, Eden said. Other system components including the display, battery and hard drive all needed to go on diet. And system designers shifted from using sockets to soldering components directly on motherboards to make Ultrabooks thinner. As a result, the industry has been able to "translate inches into millimeters," Eden said.

Though Eden didn't talk much about Ivy Bridge, he did give some glimpses of what future Ultrabooks will look like beginning with a demonstration of touch interfaces on both Windows 7 and Windows 8 concept PCs. "Lately we've seen people moving to touch which is very intuitive, but for some reason it skipped the notebooks. It was dedicated to smartphones and it was dedicated to tablets," Eden said. "But let me tell you something. It's not going to skip the Ultrabook." Intel believes that users will want the best of both worlds-a "real keyboard" and a touch-enabled screen-in computing devices.

The Windows 8 concept laptop also included GPS sensors and accelerometers, which Intel demonstrated using a flight simulation game. Eden said that even traditional clamshell designs will be light enough that users will be willing to pick them up and move them around to play games, but he noted that there are also many hybrid or convertible designs in the works that will deliver a more tablet-like experience. One of the more novel designs, a prototype called Nikiski, has a transparent touchpad and uses a Reveal application to display the Windows 8 Metro tiles and information such as e-mail, social networking updates and news even when the display is closed.

Intel announced a partnership with Nuance to integrate Dragon speech recognition directly into Ultrabooks. Peter Mahoney, Nuance's chief marketing officer and general manager of the Dragon product line, said the software will use the processing capabilities of Ivy Bridge to deliver a "great, natural speech experience" without a microphone or training--though the accuracy improves with use. The idea is to deliver a sort of Siri for laptops-without the need to use the cloud-so users can ask their laptops questions such as "where is my next meeting" and get answers in plain English. Mahoney said it will be available in nine languages adding that they were working on integrated translation services as well, though not for 2012.

The next step, Eden said, will be input using natural gestures-something Intel has been working on in its research lab on gesture input. Intel gave a brief demo of a casual game that used an integrated camera to let users pull a virtual slingshot back and fire rocks at a building. This is an area that Nintendo and more recently Microsoft have pioneered, and I expect to see more use of gesture input starting in Windows 8.

In all, Intel says it now has more than 75 design wins for Ultrabooks. Most of these will look like standard clamshell notebooks, though some will have touchscreens and/or convertible designs.

When Intel first announced the Ultrabook concept last year, it was targeted at ultraportables with displays measuring 13 inches or smaller. But most people still buy mainstream laptops with 14- or 15-inch displays, and computer makers wanted to offer Ultrabook designs and features in these notebooks as well. So Intel has broadened Ultrabooks to encompass virtually all laptops with the exception of desktop replacements with 17-inch or larger displays. In effect, the Ultrabook has simply become the next stage in the evolution of laptops.

"People don't buy processors. They buy experiences," said Kevin Sellers, Intel's vice president of advertising and digital marketing. "An Ultrabook to us is not a thin and light PC. It will deliver a set of experiences that today you cannot have." He said Intel would turn on its Ultrabook marketing in a "big way" starting in April, and that the real ramp of laptops with Ivy Bridge processors will begin during the Back to School buying season later this year.

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