New MacBook Air meets its match: the Ultrabook

If you’re a Windows/Linux user who looked with envy at the new MacBook Air models and wondered why PC makers don’t build anything like them don’t despair. Intel’s newest processors are helping create a new ultraportable category of notebook called the Ultrabook and whether by design or not the MacBook Air is squarely in the Ultrabook’s sights.

The first example of an Ultrabook by Taiwanese maker ASUS is nothing short of spectacular. Yes the new MacBook Air is desirable but if we were to choose we’d pick the ASUS UX21 Ultrabook each time. Not only does the UX21 offer a a powerful Intel Core i7 processor in its 11.6in netbook-like frame (the MacBook Air only offers it in the larger 13in model) but it also shows ASUS understands what makes Apple products work: SEX of the industrial design kind.

Simply the UX21 is stunning: made of an aluminium alloy machined to give a spun polished finish it employs the same kind of rigid unibody construction used by the MacBooks. ASUS say the inspiration for the metal look was precision Swiss watches and the UX21 certainly conveys that expensive finely machined metal look.

The UX21 is so striking that it was one of the standout products at the Computex computer show in Taipei in June a show not short of other outstanding new technologies. The date of its release worldwide is yet to be determined said ASUS Australia marketing head Vivian Wang after she took possession of a pre-production example of the UX21 recently. She stressed however that Australia would be one of the first countries to receive it which is just as well because we can announce it’s the first notebook that’s actually excited us in a very long time.

The problem with most PC notebooks these days (one which Steve Jobs has taken full advantage of with his stylish MacBooks) is that they have been turned into appliances – typically boring conformist stodgy commodity boxes that make it hard to excited about mobile computing. The Samsung Series 9 might be an exception but in general the notebook-as-an-appliance has ruined the romance of the technology. 

The ASUS UX21 however is a different story. Finally. This is the notebook that brings sexy to the non-Apple laptop world. But its beauty is not just skin deep. The UX21 and the Ultrabook category it introduces also reflect significant advances in mobile processor and storage technology. This year Intel introduced a new generation of Core processors with lower power consumption and superior integrated graphics. This meant notebooks could be made smaller (less graphics subsystems and cooling needed) and have longer battery life. The result is that the MacBook Airs swapped out their ancient Core 2 Duo chips and bulky graphics chipsets for the new Core i5 and i7s and ASUS was able to build the UX21. The other enabler was the improved reliability and speed of solid state drives which allow notebook makers to replace bulky power-thirsty hard disks with thin solid flash ones.

In fact the MacBook Air and the Ultrabook are really the blueprint for the mainstream notebooks that we’ll start seeing in a year or two. They deliver the kind of power and storage found in the current “heavy” notebook models but with dramatically reduced weight and longer battery life.  The trend is only going to accelerate when Intel brings out its next generation of processors in 2012. Dubbed “Ivy Bridge” these use the so-called 3D “Tri-Gate” 22nm technology which will dramatically reduce power consumption but increase performance further. There will then be no excuse for anyone to build big fat ugly notebooks.

But back to the UX21. The example we looked at packs an Intel Core i7 2537M processor into an aluminium wedge that’s 3mm at the front and 17mm at the back. It’s one of only a few 11.6in notebooks we’re aware with a Core i7 in it. RAM is 4GBs and it combines with a 128GB SATA 6Gbps SSD to give the UX21 superb system performance judging from the limited time we had with the pre-production model courtesy of ASUS Australia. HD videos loaded almost instantly and also highlighted another feature: great sound.

The UX21 also has two USB ports (one a fast USB 3.0) a chiclet keyboard and glass trackpad. Another nice feature – due largely to the ultra fast Sandisk SSD – was the  2 second resume from sleep.

ASUS would not say what it plans to charge for the UX21 but one thing is for sure it will be competitive with MacBook Air models on the pricing side. Depending on the model (there will be variance in CPUs and storage) some UX21s could even be cheaper. All quite astonishing really considering that until recently the only things you found in something with an 11in screen was an Atom chip (or similarly ultra-low voltage – and low power -processors) 1 or 2 GBs of RAM and graphics that could barely play a video full screen.