Warning: 'Ultrabook' laptops are all hot air

That Ultrabook label on thin Windows laptops has no real meaning, so be careful when you buy a new laptop

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But even the use of IPT in Ultrabooks is not guaranteed, as Intel isn't enforcing any parameters nor defining what it believes qualifies as an Ultrabook (its website is painfully vague on that score). As a result, the Ultrabook label means nothing.

Therefore, don't pay extra for a laptop with the Ultrabook label, and be sure to check out the specs for the "Ultrabook" you do buy. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad Intel is trying to spur PC makers to deliver better products, and I credit it for bringing to the PC platform some of the innovation Apple has done on the Mac side. And I get that unlike the Mac situation where Apple can optimize both the OS and the hardware, Intel can't do more than offer advanced products and hope that PC makers (who sadly tend to do little true innovation) do the right thing with them. Finally, I get that Intel has to rely on Microsoft to optimize Windows' use of the hardware. So Intel can't do the soup-to-nuts advances for the PC industry as Apple can for the Mac.

I just wished Intel was using the Ultrabook moniker as a licensed, minimum-required-specification brand to provide a real incentive for PC makers to do the right thing in terms of meeting the Ultrabook goals. After all, other than Microsoft, no other company has that ability in the PC space.

Therefore, when evaluating Ultrabooks -- as well as thin laptops that don't use the meaningless label -- keep the following facts in mind, based on the specs of the MacBook Air they are trying to copy:

Power usage. Battery life is never as high as the vendor rates. A MacBook Air gets between two and seven hours of battery life. Apple advertises "up to seven hours" when used for Web surfing -- which is an accurate claim despite the fact that it uses a power-hungry Core i5. Intel says Apple's engineers have done a remarkable job optimizing the MacBook Air's hardware, so it gets the same battery life from a current Core i5 as Intel expects unoptimized Ultrabooks to get when they run the 22nm "Ivy Bridge" Core i5 processors that match the energy efficiency of today's MacBook Air -- but the new Core i%s aren't expected until 2013. Meanwhile, the so-called Ultrabooks will use the power-hungrier 32nm "Sandy Bridge" Core i5 that the Air currently uses.

Note that the seven-hour estimate assumes you're working just in your browser, not using local apps. The Air's battery life plummets when you run Adobe Flash (the highest user of CPU power and battery life, even when it's idle); running muliple local apps simultaneously also reduces battery life. The same patterns should be true on Ultrabook laptops.

Processing power. Ultrabooks will use the same "Sandy Bridge" Core i5 (and i7) as today's MacBook Air, but likely won't have the optimized performance of an Air as most PC makers use the components provided by Intel and others as is, and cannot tweak the operating system. By contrast, Apple designs and optimizes both the hardware and the operating system, which is why the MacBook Air's performance keeps pace with the full-on MacBook Pro. Intel is working on reference models for manufacturers to achieve both the Air's performance and battery life, but they require 2013's "Ivy Bridge" Core i5 and other chips to match today's Air. (Intel also plans to release the energy-efficient but less powerful 32nm "Cedar Trail" Atom processors late this year, but this chip is expected to be used in netbooks, tablets, and smartphones -- Intel does not recommend it for Ultrrabooks.)

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