When talking tablets around the PC & Tech Authority editorial room we often come back to the fact that when a design is honed down to a flat rectangle there isn’t a tonne of difference that can be made. Its part of the reason for the headscratching behind Apple’s lawsuits against Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, and it exposes one of the big problems with the patent system as a whole.
Just as its hard to vary the styling of a millimetres thick rectangle, Intel’s Ultrabook concept is already running headlong into comparisons with Apple’s Macbook Air. Again we have a situation where the physical dimensions of products define just what can be done with them. But curiously enough, after having both ASUS’ UX31 and Acer’s S3 in our hands it is clear that we are in for more variety than we initially expected.
ASUS is still to launch the UX31, but Acer lifted the local lid on its S3 Ultrabook yesterday. Set to turn up on shelves in October, the S3 is actually quite radically different to the UX31 despite many publications reducing them to the rank of Macbook Air clones.
Keep in mind that manufacturers don’t exactly have much wiggle room when it comes to design. At some point the chassis needs to be thick enough to support USB and HDMI ports, while the addition of something as simple as an Ethernet port requires serious consideration. ASUS has mounted its expansion ports and SD reader along the sides of the UX31, while Acer has opted to put most of its ports along the rear, in and around the screen hinge where the S3 is at its thickest. This has enabled Acer to squeeze in that elusive Gigabit Ethernet port.
The second major factor in design is cooling. This is a major challenge when trying to incorporate cutting edge processors into such a tight form factor, and is again approached quite differently with the two designs. We have to admit ASUS won our nerdy hearts with its design, which is cleverely mounted inside the screen hinge. If you don’t have this writer’s unnatural obsession with finding cooling vents then you’d likely never even realise that it was there. Acer’s approach has been much more traditional, taking the form of venting located near the ports at the rear of the laptop.
The reason for such different location of cooling and expansion ports again feeds back into design. Acer has opted to go for a fairly traditional screen hinge, which juts up a little from the body and means that the lid doesn’t obscure the rear of the ultrabook. ASUS on the other hand has a design where the screen rotates around the rear of the body, meaning it can’t mount any ports there.
Each company has gone with different materials as well. ASUS, who started work on the UX31 three years ago, has opted for a unibody Aluminium chassis, with a stylishly circular polish pattern on the lid. Admittedly the sample we played with was an early engineering model, but the UX31 generally looked and felt much shinier and wedge-like than Acer’s S3.
Acer’s Magnesium Alloy chassis is more rounded, but is still a joy to handle. It really isn’t until you get your hands on one of these ultrabooks that you truly appreciate the sturdy yet impossibly thin design. For now our aesthetic judgement is split over the two brands, each of them has a product that is striking and beautiful in its own right.
And this is why ultrabooks excite us so much. These are products that were unthinkable a few years ago. Sure, the concepts of thin and light, ultraportables and the like have been around forever, but there is one key difference. Rather than being priced out of the reach of mere mortals, Ultrabooks are designed to be within the reach of the masses, which means prices starting around $1000.
It also means that, despite the fact that the basic processing guts of Ultrabooks (and the Macbook Air for that matter) are the same, there is choice. Different designs allow consumers to pick something that suits their needs – despite SSDs being the go-to storage for Ultrabooks, Acer is offering mechanical hard drive models for example.
From the news out of IFA last week we also know that other players like Lenovo and Toshiba have other spins on the concept. Neither company has shown product locally, but a few photos and spec lists confirm the difference. We’ll have a much better appreciation once Intel's Developers Forum kicks off next week in San Francisco.