Are Ultrabooks and tablets really a match made in heaven?

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A couple of days ago, the CEO of the company that owns this site stopped by and shared his experience with using a tablet and an Ultrabook for travel. As a business man, he’s the kind of guy who is less concerned with whether or not a device can play Angry Birds, and more concerned about whether or not it can help him be productive. The Ultrabook is a relatively new computer segment, and a subject we haven’t really touched on much here on NBT. So, are they really the perfect companions to tablets?

Ultrabook is a term that makes sense. The way you divide portable computers these days is basically into five categories, depending on who you ask. The biggest laptop is the desktop replacement, normally huge laptops 17+ inch screens, or more-than-usually-heavy 15-inchers. A normal laptop would be your 15-inch device, once considered standard, or even the more uncommon 14-inchers. An ultraportable laptop is generally around 13.3 inches, often more battery efficient than the larger laptops, but with weaker components. Netbooks are then even smaller, with screens as large as 11.6 or 12.1 inches but normally 10.1, packing budget hardware in a package that looks like a scaled down laptop. An Ultrabook is sort of in between an ultraportable laptop and a tablet, having the same screen size and general width and length of the former, but being closer to tablets in thickness. They’re also far more capable than netbooks, especially in the resolution department, where e.g. the Asus Zenbook UX31‘s 1600 x 900 pixel display makes 1024 x 600 pixel netbook displays look like calculator displays. The Macbook Air was one of the first of this type of laptop, being released perhaps before the segment was ready, but in the last year in particular the market has exploded and expanded to Windows. Your typical Ultrabook is actually thinner than a Transformer Prime with keyboard dock, despite having a larger screen, and the weight isn’t far off either. Battery life is about 5-7+ hours depending on use, which isn’t bad for something that is that thin and light yet runs Windows.

Despite being closer than any other in size and weight, I’m very hesitant at calling the Ultrabook a direct competitor to tablets. As Sanjay wrote in his article, the two fill each other out, they don’t replace one another. One of the big advantages of an Ultrabook is Windows, which is quite crucial in many environments, especially business. Despite generic Office suits, MS Office coming to tablets, and services like OnLive Desktop, it’s hard to replace a native version of Windows and Office in the business world.

Heck, despite having shown it can be done, I myself isn’t overly eager to update this site from anything but a Windows computer. That’s also why I drag my ultraportable laptop with me when I go somewhere overnight, as frankly everything else I do can be handled by a tablet. At the same time, I certainly wouldn’t hand over an Ultrabook to the ticket controller on the train, or ever mess around MS Paint when I have my iPad 2 with Penultimate. Perhaps one day we’ll have a device that is truly all in one, but that day is not today…and let’s face it, that device won’t be running Ubuntu, and that’s coming from someone who isn’t exactly Microsoft’s biggest fan.

Based on that, I wouldn’t mind one of these new Ultrabooks myself. Even though the ultraportable Asus UL30VT laptop I have isn’t exactly a heavy weight either, it weighs a nicely sized tablet more than e.g. the Zenbook UX31 Ultrabook. That’s half a kilo I wouldn’t mind leaving at home, and perhaps just as importantly, the power adapter on the UL30VT seems to have been forgotten when the weight issue was discussed. The UX31’s AC adapter is more like what you’d find on a tablet, and that in itself is something I really wish I had on my portable computer.

So basically we’ve established that having a computer and a tablet serves a purpose by having them handle different tasks, but I’m just as excited by what you can do with both of them combined. Splashtop’s XDisplay comes to mind, allowing an iPad 2 to be used as an external display. This is different from normal remote PC systems as it actually adds another monitor, it doesn’t just control the existing one. XDisplay is only one example, as there are similar apps for other devices too.  I’m a dual screen addict myself and feel helpless when put in front of a single screen computer. Carrying a monitor around with you isn’t exactly practical, but having a thin and light tablet that you’re already carrying double as a secondary monitor can be extremely useful.

Remote control is another way these two devices can be used together. Unified Remote has a front and center spot on both my Android devices, and lets me use my portable devices as remote controls for my computer. Simple keyboard and mice functionality or more specific PowerPoint or media player controls, it’s your choice. Go to a meeting, hook up your Ultrabook to a projector, and run around the room controlling the presentation. Stop by a coffee shop, set up your dual screen setup, and get some work done. Come back to the hotel, connect to the room’s TV with HDMI, and control video playback from the tablet. Heck, with the IR remote built into my Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, I wouldn’t even need the remote control for the TV. All of this in a package that – if you take the 7.0 Plus (or 7.7 for that matter) and the UX31 as just one example – takes up less space and weighs less than my current 13.3-inch laptop does.

Yet another use for this combo would be internet sharing. 3G/4G-enabled tablets are common, and can often share their internet connection over WiFi. Even if you have a smartphone for that, someone who travels a lot might want the security of service from different carriers, and a tablet and smartphone with different carriers that can both share the connection increases the chances of proper coverage.

For business people, or others for that matter, document scanning is yet another job that a tablet can assist with. Again this is something that a smartphone is perhaps a more natural choice for, but with tablets now coming out with fairly decent LED-enabled cameras, scanning documents using apps like Scanner Pro (iOS) or CamScanner (Android) is perfectly possible, and should provide a good enough result (by far) to minimize the amount of paper one has to bring out of a meeting.

Speaking of meetings, tablets are actually pretty decent virtual presence devices. Even though web cams in Ultrabooks make video conferencing perfectly possible, a tablet allows someone who is at a meeting to set up a connection to someone who should have been at the meeting and then simply point the screen and the front facing camera out into the room. Trust me, it works. It also allows you to “outsource” video conferencing from the computer, freeing it up for more important things than displaying someone’s face.

Lastly, I don’t think I could live with myself if I published this article without dragging my iPad Education Guide into the picture. While I used only my iPad for lectures for a year, there were certainly moments where an Ultrabook would have come in handy. It is perhaps ironic that I stopped bringing my ultraportable laptop because it was (compared to the iPad) big, heavy and slow to start up. An Ultrabook might have changed that, being lighter, smaller, and much faster to wake up and power up due to the SSDs you find in those things.

In that manner, Ultrabooks certainly are as much for education as for travel, and that is perhaps even more true this year with digital textbooks being pushed forward by Apple. Multitasking on the iPad made it relatively easy for me to switch between digital textbooks (PDF files, this was before iBooks 2) and notes, but there were certainly times where my dual screen addiction came to the surface. If your tablet is going to be tied down to displaying a book, having another device nearby is very handy. I mostly did handwritten notes (that no one else could decipher…) on the iPad itself, but I have a feeling that I’m the exception rather than the rule in that case. With services like Evernote and Dropbox allowing you to effortlessly sync between a computer and a tablet, it doesn’t really matter if you switch between the devices a lot either. I only wish that Microsoft’s tablet version of OneNote wasn’t so pointless compared to the PC version.

So, bottom line, I can definitely see a lot of use for this new Ultrabook type of PC. While a lot of what I’ve described here is as much a “laptop and tablet” deal as it is “Ultrabook and tablet”, I simply cannot underscore enough the importance of the size and weight difference. As I just wrote above, I simply stopped bringing my 13.3-inch laptop anywhere because it was too heavy, thick, and slow to turn on, despite being considered a small laptop compared to many others. Anything that runs Windows has always been rather oversized compared to other devices for many years, but the last couple of years things have started to even out. It is perhaps not surprising that these new Ultrabooks use Intel chips, as that’s what made the netbook revolution possible as well. Between power efficient parts, great build quality, SSDs and compact components you do pay a premium to get this kind of portability, but as I sit here staring at an ultraportable laptop that has become more or less a desktop computer because it wasn’t small enough, I have a hard time seeing that as a deal breaker.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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