Trends of 12: Ultra-Thin Notebooks Are Coming Everywhere

Notebooks Go on Extreme Diet with AMD Ultrathins and Intel Ultrabooks

by Anton Shilov
03/20/2012 | 11:25 PM

We continue to publish family of news-stories called "Trends of 12" with some of the things that we expect to come alive this year. In many cases, stories in the series rather emphasize trends, but not exactly predict something. In other, we try to tell you something new.


Ultra-thin notebooks have existed for many years now, but only recently those systems became truly thin and light. Traditionally, ultra-thin laptops were very expensive and aimed at executives or road warriors, but featured reduced performance and capabilities and could hardly serve as true mobile workstations. This year everything is going to change with both Advanced Micro Devices and Intel Corp. launching their new platforms tailored specifically for ultra-slim laptops.

Although laptops powered by AMD Fusion "Trinity" and Intel Core i-series "Ivy Bridge" will be very slim in a lot of cases, AMD and Intel will take different approaches to make ultra-thin notebooks more affordable. If Intel wants to make premium laptops less costly by making some trade-offs, but still using premium materials and implement advanced technologies; AMD simply intends to enable cost-effective ultra-thin personal computers, a plan that involves usage of plastic cases and save on advanced components like solid-state drives. Nonetheless, the result will be pretty positive for the industry in general: there will be loads of slim-and-light mobile PCs on the market in the second half of the year. Moreover, eventually all notebooks will become ultra-thin in today's classification.

Intel Ultrabook: When Performance Meets Style and Quality

Intel believes that the ultrabook computers will marry the performance and capabilities of contemporary laptops with tablet-like features, such as instant-on, increased responsiveness, high power efficiency as well as enhanced security, in a thin, light and elegant design. Intel considers ultrabooks as a vision, not just as another product category and therefore it expects ultrabooks to evolve as quickly as its microprocessors. The ultimate goal is projected to be achieved sometimes in 2013 or even 2014.

Intel wants ultrabooks to cost from $700 to $1000, which should be in line, or little less, than Apple MacBook Air. Some PC makers will price their products in accordance with demands from Intel, but many PC makers will use premium materials - such as stainless steel, Corning Gorilla glass, carbon fiber and other, therefore, price if their ultrabooks will be higher than $1000.

While Intel's intention to make stylish, high-performance more or less affordable systems deserve a praise, the plan may not turn into widespread success immediately. A lot of potential customers who can afford and are willing to buy ~$1000 personal computers buy Apple Macintosh systems instead of Windows-powered machines. As a result, Intel will have to convince those people that ultrabooks are better than Macs, which may be pretty hard in many cases as some PC brands are not recognized for high-quality. A good thing is that when ultrabooks hit mass production, their price will drop to around $700 - $900 level and they will not compete against Macs in terms of price.

AMD Premium Ultrathin: When Value Meets Slim Form-Factor

AMD attempts to offer better pricing on Trinity-powered ultra-thin machines in order to successful compete against Intel Corp.'s ultrabook initiative. AMD-based ultrathin notebooks are projected to be at least $200 cheaper than machines powered by Intel Core i 3000-series “Ivy Bridge” microprocessors. AMD expects to bring the ultra-thin form-factor into $600 - $800 price-point.

Back in early February, AMD demonstrated a prototype of a laptop powered by a unique quad-core AMD quad-core A6 ULV "Trinity" accelerated processing unit (APU) with 17W thermal design power. The prototype was actually a reference design jointly developed by AMD and Compal and was a 13" wide-screen laptop just 18mm thick. Compal, a contract maker of electronics, may start producing notebooks using this design for interested parties, whereas other notebook makers may create their own ultra-thin mobile computers powered by AMD Trinity. According to AMD, 18mm thickness is what many OEMs are looking at.

In fact, 18mm thickness for a reference design of an inexpensive laptop is a remarkable achievement. For comparison: Apple Macbook Air is up to 17mm thick, Lenovo ThinkPad X1 is up to 21.5mm thick, the world's thinnest notebook available now - Samsung Series 9 900X3B - is 12.9mm thick, the legendary Dell Adamo XPS was 10mm thick. Unfortunately, AMD's reference design is made of plastic, whereas typical ultra-thin mobile PCs are made of metal. It is likely that AMD specifically recommends its partners to use inexpensive materials as well as hard disk drives instead of solid-state drives to ensure low price of its ultra-thin notebooks, but that will clearly affect quality and performance.

Lower price of AMD-based ultra-thin notebooks is supposed to compensate lower x86 performance of AMD’s Trinity compared to Intel’s Ivy Bridge. At the same time, AMD-based ultrathin machines will offer faster and more capable graphics engine. Moreover, based on AMD promises, it will offer 17W quad-core microprocessors, which should provide decent responsibility. What is regretful is that the majority of such ultra-thin machines will be made of plastic; but on the other hand this will allow AMD to avoid direct competition with both Apple MacBook Air as well as Intel-based ultrabooks.

Notebook Makers Choosing Ultra-Slim Path

It is not really hard to make a microprocessor with decent performance that consumes 10W - 20W of power. What is extremely hard is to create very slim screen, very thin battery, slim storage device and put it inside a rugged case. The good thing is that notebook makers and suppliers of components are taking this path, hence, eventually ultra-thin laptops will become standard and therefore affordable.

Notebooks are no longer devices for road warriors, businessmen and professionals. Those are consumer devices and consumers demand, among other things, style, rich multimedia functionality and light weight. Therefore, manufacturers of personal computers are destined to build such systems and sell them at competitive price-points. Since tens of PC makers are planning to offer Intel-powered ultrabooks and ultra-thin AMD-based systems, there will be a good choice of thin-and-light mobile computers already this year.