Intel's CES kickoff was all about mobile -- but not about smartphones or tablets

(Ed. Note -- Stay tuned for pictures from the press conference.)

If taking on ARM Holdings, Ltd. (LON:ARM) in the mobile space is a bit of a gamble for the world's largest maker of personal computer CPUs -- Intel Corp. (INTC) -- consider ultrabooks the company's way of hedging its mobile bets.

I. Intel Pins Notebook Hopes on Ultrabooks

At its opening press conference at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, Intel and general manager of the Intel PC Client Group, Mooly Eden -- wearing his distinctive beret -- took to the stage pitch Intel's vision of ultrabooks as the next-generation evolution of the notebook.

Ultrabooks are Intel's term for thin notebooks that are under 18 mm, but still pack enough of a computing punch to outwork their netbook predecessors.  

The world's first ultrabook-like notebook was arguably the MacBook Air, which launched in Jan. 2008, using Intel chips.  But Intel differentiates ultrabooks from luxury thin notebooks like the MacBook Air by saying that the idea with the ultrabook is to hit a "mainstream price point".

After cooking up the term and bandying it about in Spring 2011, Intel got official with the ultrabook specification in September 2011.  2011 was not a stunning introduction for the format.  Taiwan's Acer, Inc. (TPE:2353) and ASUSTek Computer, Inc. (TPE:2357) both hoped to sell 200-300k ultrabooks in 2011.  But actual sales came in closer to 100k units, according to sources.

But if ultra-book sales weren't exactly ultra in 2011, reserve your judgements until 2012 rolls around.

II. Penetrating the Market

In 2012 Intel says over 75 ultrabook designs will land, with virtually every major OEM dropping their own ultrabook du jour.  Contrast that to 2011 when only a handful of designs crept onto the market and you'll start to see why Intel is confident 2012 will be a big year for the devices.

Globally laptops in 2011 are thought to have sold around 375-400m units.  So ultrabooks were a mere fraction of a percent of total notebook sales.  But in 2012 Intel expects ultrabooks to account for more like 10 percent of total sales, a trend that will continue in later years until the ultrabook displaces the traditional notebook PC.

Ultrabook banner wide

The big driver of increased ultrabook adoption will be the company's new Ivy Bridge chip line, a chip built on an ultra-tiny 22 nm process and utilizing advanced 3D FinFET transistors for superior power performance.

Using the new chips Intel is able to lose the socket and bulky heatsink of traditional 30 W (average) notebook CPUs, replacing it will a lighter 17 W (appr.) chip soldered directly to the motherboard via a ball grid array (BGA) and with a new ultra-thin heat sink composed of new materials.

Ultrabook bannerUltrabook thin

Intel has also dumped $300M USD in an Intel Capital fund to promote reductions in the weight and thickness of other components, such as the hard drive and optical drives.  The idea is to not just make the kinds of hardware needed for killer ultrabooks, but to make it cheaply via the economics of scale.

By combining its form factor gains with Ivy Bridge with those of its hardware partners, Intel is able to deliver the razor-thin devices it once dreamed of.  "We've been able to translate inches into millimeters," says Mr. Eden.

"People want their notebook to be nice, small, sleek, sexy," and the ultrabook delivers all of those things, Mr. Eden says.

III. Touching and Speaking to Your Ultra-Book Love

If you ask Intel's Mr. Eden, Intel wants you to love your Ultrabook.  To do that it wants to give you new ways to interact with the device.

Mr. Eden says that despite dramatic improvements in transistor counts and computing power, not much has been done hardware-wise to improve the user interface in the personal computer world.  Taking the audience on a trip down memory lane he quips -- "When you look at the man-machine interface we didn't do a lot... I always say, DOS was a very user friendly operating system because you need a lot of friends to operate this operating system."

In 2012 Intel's partners will deploy ultrabooks with touch.  It says that in test cases users used touch extensively to close windows, to select regions of the screen, and to scale content.  Of course touch in Windows currently is a hodge-podge of clunky interfaces built atop Windows 7.  So don't expect touch ultrabooks to really land in full force until the touch-centric Windows 8 drops sometime next fall.

To show off the potential of touch, Intel played with a prototype device dubbed Nikiski running Windows 8.  The device had a transparent touchpad, which stretched the full length of the non-keyboard region of the laptop.  When your palms were on part of the touch region, it recognized and ignored them, allowing you to type normally.  

Nikiski demo

When you folded the device shut, Windows 8 showed criticial info -- such as appointment times -- through the transparent window.  Better yet, you could interact with this scaled-down interface on the shut ultrabook, by click the two-sided transparent touchpad.

Nikiski demoNikiski demo

Besides touch Intel is also bringing near field communications (NFC) support to the ultrabook world.  In a demo, the Intel CPU interfaced with an NFC reader in the touchpad area of an ultrabook, validating a credit card.  Users simply followed the instruction from the web interface and tapped their card on the TouchPad, when instructed to do so.  Using the compatible web interface Mr. Eden used the NFC to recognize and validate his credit card purchase of a "generous" gift for an Intel employee -- a hotel reservation for a bit of post CES R&R.

Last, but not least Intel is partnering up with Nuance Communications Inc. (NUAN), makers of Siri and the voice-control in Ford Motor Comp.'s (F) SYNC infotainment system.  In 2012 Nuance will introduce 9 language natural speech input to Intel ultrabooks.  The lanaguages supported will be the "best ones" as Nuance quipped -- English, Mandarin, French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Dutch, Italian, and Portugese.

Of the cool upcoming ultrabook features, this was probably the one that went least discussed as Nuance didn't spill much in the way of specifics on where we might see voice hooking in to Windows 7 or Windows 8 interfaces.  But one likely application would be a button-press activatable voice search/query along the lines of the T-Mobile "Genius Button" or Siri.

IV. The Best of the Rest

Here's everything else newsworthy from Intel's press conference...

How powerful Ivy Bridge?  Intel showed off some neat demoes:
  • One of Intel's staffers showed off their dance moves -- dancing to everything from LMFAO to Vanilla Ice... Awkward.

    Intel dance
  • China's Lenovo Group, Ltd. (HKG:0992) showed its new ultrabook running the latest in image processing software from ArcSoft.  Using the turboboost functionality found in Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge chips, the software was able to seamless import over a hundred 3 MB photos from a vacation, allowing for quick edits; a one touch slide show demonstration; and an email option that compressed the images over a hundred times to the size of just a couple megabytes for the entire collection and then deposited them as attachments to the email.
  • Intel's Irish subsidiary Havok showed a physics demo running on Ivy Bridge.  Mr. Eden played the demo, which involved shooting a rocket at a gorge-spanning timber-plank railroad bridge.  Shooting the bridge, Mr. Eden derailed an oncoming train in real-time, spilling its precious cargo of thousands of ultrabooks.  All of the elements were rendered in real time with pseudo-realistic physics.  There was a bit of slowdown when the explosions landed, but overall Ivy Bridge's upgraded GPU looked very smooth.
  • As mentioned Ivy Bridge will be Intel's first CPU to have an on-die DirectX 11 capable GPU.  DirectX -- Microsoft's Corp.'s (MSFT) proprietary graphics API -- is the most used graphics standard in the PC industry.  The demo ultrabook ran the high-definition DirectX 11 game Formula 1 2011, with no noticeable lag or slowdown.
  • Intel showed off a nifty troll demo... TROLLOLLOL!
    Troll demo
  • Intel hints at a "very unique" announcement by CEO Paul Otellini and new vice president Will.I.Am at tomorrow's CES keynote.  Now any announcement featuring Will.I.Am seems likely to be "unique", but we're hoping this is the rumored smartphone announcement.  So if you're more excited about where Intel is going tablet/smartphone-wise, versus where it's going with ultrabooks, stay tuned for tomorrow's press conference.
  • Intel will launch its new advertising campaign -- "A New Era in Computing" in Spring 2012.  The campaign will try to pitch to the public that ultrabooks are the next great thing in mobile personal computing.
  • Intel showed off a humorous commercial from ultrabook partner Toshiba Corp. (TYO:6502).  Check it out: 

Stay tuned for tonight's Microsoft keynote address and for tomororow's keynotes by Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM) and Intel.

All images © of Jason Mick and DailyTech LLC.

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