Intel gives Ultrabooks a $300M investment boost

Intel hopes to generate interest in the Ultrabook, a thin and light laptop that bridges the gap between tablets and PCs

Intel on Wednesday said it would invest $300 million in companies that develop new technologies for Ultrabooks, a class of thin and light laptops promoted as an alternative to tablet PCs.

The Intel Capital Ultrabook Fund will invest in companies developing hardware and software in areas such as sensors and touch, longer battery life, thinner designs and improved storage capacity, Intel said. It will invest the money over three to four years.

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The company disclosed its Ultrabook idea at Computex in June. It said the devices would be a new type of laptop with "tablet-like" capabilities such as instant on, touchscreens and batteries that last all day. The first wave is expected toward the end of the year, with more advanced designs appearing in the next few years.

Intel's push for Ultrabooks comes at a time when the chip maker is trying to rejuvenate interest in the PC market, where shipments have slowed due to the popularity of tablets. But beyond competing with tablets, building thinner and lighter products should give laptops more appeal.

"It's a good counter to pretty much everything. They just look at it as enabling the market," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

Laptops and tablets have different characteristics and Ultrabooks are an attempt to harmoniously merge the two, said Greg Welch, segment director for the mobile client platforms at Intel, in an interview last week.

On an Ultrabook, people will be switching between using a cursor and touching the screen without thinking about it, he said.

Ultrabooks may also be a way to draw users to Intel's higher-end Core chips and away from its Atom and Celeron processors, McCarron said. Atom sales dropped during Intel's second quarter, primarily due to a slowdown in netbook sales, which were hurt by demand for tablets and low-cost laptops with larger screens.

Intel has said Ultrabooks in the future will resemble Apple's MacBook Air, with models less than 21 millimeters (0.8 inches) thick, and at mainstream prices. The company has showed Asus' upcoming UX21 ultraslim laptop as an example.

Intel may look to price Ultrabook at around $800 or lower, McCarron said.

The first models will come later this year and have new chips based on the Sandy Bridge microprocessor. The second wave of Ultrabooks will be released early next year and have Ivy Bridge chips, which are faster and more power-efficient.

The first Ultrabooks later this year will not have touch capabilities, but will boot quickly and be always connected, to continuously receive e-mail and Facebook updates, said Kevin Sellers, vice president of investor relations at Intel, during a presentation earlier this week.

Starting in 2012, Ultrabooks will get touchscreens that can also swivel or slide out. They could be used in full PC mode and then converted into a tablet-like device to watch movies, for example, like convertible tablets today.

"Starting next year with our Ivy Bridge product line and with Windows 8 is when you'll start to see tablet form factor, tablet capability integrated," Sellers said. "This is the importance of combining this technology with something like Windows 8, which will give you the ability to do both."

Windows 8 will be Microsoft's first operating system designed for touch interfaces.

Intel advances its chip architecture every year, and graphics will be enhanced in a new microprocessor code-named Haswell, due for release in 2013. Intel also hopes to cut the power consumption on Haswell chips by half compared to Ivy Bridge chips.

"The graphics engine that we're putting in here for 2013 will be integrated graphics that will ... be greater in performance than any currently shipping mobile discrete card on the market. It will do it at a 15-watt envelope," Sellers said.

The security features will also improve as Intel releases chips based on new microarchitectures, Intel officials have said.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.