Ultrabooks and MacBook Air

Over the past year or so, the word ‘Ultrabook’ has been slowly but surely forcing its way into tech parlance. You might have seen laptops calling themselves Ultrabooks, read reviews or even bought one.

But what is an Ultrabook? The answer depends on who you ask. Some might say it's the Windows equivalent of an Apple MacBook Air, while others might proffer it's simply a modern ultraportable. Intel, which came up with the concept, says an Ultrabook is a thinner and longer-lasting laptop that doesn't compromise on performance. See also: Group test - what's the best Ultrabook?

The truth is that there are few definitive specifications for an Ultrabook, so they vary widely in size, weight and capabilities. You've no doubt seen the 'Inspired by Intel' tagline associated with Ultrabook ads, and this means several things.

Primarily it means that Ultrabooks are Intel's idea, and that manufacturers which want to use the moniker must use an Intel processor rather than an AMD alternative. It’s said that Intel's specifications for Ultrabooks change with each new processor range, defining not simply which processors must be used (the Ultra-Low Voltage versions), but also the maximum height, minimum battery life, maximum time to resume from hibernation and which Intel software and firmware must be used.

Just about everything else is up to the manufacturer, including style. Although we've seen some attractive Ultrabooks, there are an equal number which look no different from a bog-standard laptop. None, yet, can truly claim to rival the MacBook Air.

Part of the problem is that Intel didn't set any requirements for storage or connectivity for the original Ultrabooks in late 2011, and battery life had to be a minimum of just five hours. That meant an Ultrabook could have a slow hard disk and no USB 3.0 ports, and five hours between charges isn't going to worry any Apple product.

The only spec which prevented huge laptops was a maximum thickness of 21mm for 14in or bigger screens, and 18mm for smaller displays. Weight, though, isn't restricted, so while most Ultrabooks tip the scales well under 1.5kg, others are closer to the 2kg mark.

The current generation of Ultrabooks uses Ivy Bridge chips, must have a hard disk (or SSD) capable of at least 80MBps and USB 3.0. Maximum thicknesses stand, with a new 23mm spec for convertible touchscreen laptops. It won't be until Ivy Bridge's successor - Haswell - launches in mid-2013 that minimum battery life jumps to nine hours.

The whole point of Ultrabooks is to shore up slumping laptop sales as tablets rise in popularity, as well as to offer an ultraportable alternative to the MacBook Air. For most people, though, Ultrabooks are still too expensive and it's only the £1,000+ models that truly impress with snappy performance, long battery life and stylish design.

Unfortunately, so does the MacBook Air, and at a similar price. It can even run Windows.

What manufacturers seem to fail to understand is that they need to build laptops that people actually want. That's something Apple has had nailed for a while now. The hysteria surrounding iPhone and iPad launches happens for a reason - the products are the best you can buy.

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