Ultrabooks – Shiny things for the stupid

Part 2: Still not a Macbook, but less functional than you might think

Intel - logoPart I here. Moving on to the CPU, there is one big dark secret that Intel is using to con the press into thinking the CPU and GPU power of the Ultrabooks are adequate. They are not, and the reason is ‘turbo’. If you look at the Intel Core iSomethingmeaningless i5-2467M available on both the Acer and Asus, you will see the specs listed as 1.6GHz CPU, with 2.3GHz turbo. The GPU runs at 350MHz with a top turbo speed of 1.15GHz. The slowest 35W i5 is the 2410M, and it runs at 2.4GHz, 2.9GHz turbo with a 650MHz GPU that spins up to 1.2GHz in turbo mode.

The raw numbers show that halving the CPU TDP, 17W vs 35W, means a CPU that is 67% as fast and a GPU that is 54% as fast. It may not be immediately obvious, but the GPU eats up the majority of the TDP in most cases, it is really a power hog. Spiking to 1.15GHz, over three times the base clock, shows how much Intel has had to dial back that unit to achieve the paper TDP numbers.

Herein lies the problem, the GPU performance for current Sandy Bridge CPUs sucks. In comparison to the past generation of Intel GPUs, it is an amazing advance, but compared to a real GPU, the performance is laughably inadequate. Think Yugo to Yugo Turbo, not Buick to Mercedes here, and this is before taking the still broken drivers in to account.

Turbo works by taking TDP headroom and applying that power to units that need more speed. Basically, if the CPU is idling along at 50% clocks and minimum Vt, the GPU clock can be jacked up, a movie watching is a good example of this. Similarly, cranking away on a spreadsheet with an occasional text screen update gives the CPU more juice while the GPU sits at minimum clocks. Fair enough, but you can’t have both the CPU and the GPU turbo-ing at once, there is not nearly enough headroom.

This later scenario is called “real world use”. Things like web surfing with an animated banner or similar ‘niche uses’ need both CPU and GPU power, and Ultrabooks simply can’t deliver this. Throw in Windows bloat and overhead, and you have a recipe for disaster, something that the MacBook is much better at avoiding.

If you want hard numbers, the best by far is The Tech Report’s review of the Samsung Series 9. This Ultrabook is very close to the Asus and Acer models, with a slightly slower base CPU frequency, slightly higher GPU turbo, and better ancillary equipment in a number of areas. Overall, the two are about a wash. Performance ranges from mediocre to abysmal if you run it on battery power.

The tests that Tech Report ran are a best case for turbo, mostly CPU-centric or GPU centric, and in those cases, the Ultrabooks are solidly a bit below mid-pack. That is the best case mind you, on battery power, things get much worse. When it comes to workloads that demand both CPU and GPU performance, games being the one that Tech Report tested, Ultrabooks fall flat. Painfully flat. An AMD E-350 runs rings around them, putting up almost twice the frame rates for a craptop that costs half as much. This clearly shows off the brutal compromises Intel had to make to shoehorn Sandy Bridge in to this form factor. It may be thin, but the performance aspires to crappy, even if it never manages to achieve it.

To put icing on the cake, we have video playback, something Intel touts as a strong point for Sandy Bridge CPUs. We have long said that the real world performance of the chip doesn’t match up to the PR promoted canned benchmarks, even in those rare circumstances when the drivers work right. Ultrabooks show this off perfectly, take a look at the 9 Series for video playback in Flash, a best case for Sandy Bridge. The Series 9 can’t play back a mere 720p video in a window without dropping frames.

To top it off, battery life is, well, woeful. Anand says the UX21 only beats the MacBook Air, and Tech Report shows similar numbers. To be fair, this is a direct result of the svelte form factor, no volume means no volume for a battery. The Lenovo X-Series’ smallest battery is a 4-cell compared to the 3 cell Ultrabooks, but the X201s weighs half a pound less. With a 6-cell, the X-Series is in a different league for battery life. Pouring salt on the wounds, no Ultrabook has a replaceable battery, users are SOL on almost any plane flight.

To wrap things up, there are a whole lot of somewhat contradictory conclusions. As far as the Acer Aspire S vs Asus UX/Zenbook comparison, both have relative ups and downs. The Aspire is less expensive, at times by large margins, but has a magnetic HD no USB3 ports. Acer also has a design less likely to toast the family jewels, a thigh, or an errant finger, but Asus may be adequate here as well. The Asus is pretty but lacks real ports, forcing you in to dongle hell. Neither delivers anything close to adequate connectivity, battery life, or performance, and are completely non-upgradable.

Which is better? That is easy, buy a MacBook Air, no question at all. It is crippled in all the same moronic ways, is much more stylish and doesn’t have the performance anchor that is Windows dragging it down. If you are shopping on fashion, one of the two prerequisites for looking at this niche, you are guaranteed acceptance at the local coffee shop with a Mac. Acer and Asus can’t say the same, but there is the possibility for acceptance someday. The other prerequisite, multiple instances of closed head trauma, can be satisfied with Boot Camp, you can put Windows on a MacBook Air too, but no OSX for Ultrabooks.

Compared to a real PC, Ultrabooks fail in so many ways that it is hard to fathom. You can get far more functional PCs from just about every vendor out there, Acer, Asus, and Apple included, in almost the same form factor for less money. All crush every Ultrabook in every measurable specification, Z-height and sometimes weight being the only exceptions.

Notebooks that run rings around Ultrabooks can be had for half the price if you are willing to accept slightly more weight or size. Even the most pathetic notebook has double the I/O, and is much more upgradeable as well. The difference is night and day, Ultrabooks lose at everything, every time, to anything more powerful than an Atom. Even the lowly AMD E-350/E450 based craptops are a better real world choice, the graphics trade-offs hurt less there.

There is simply no reason to consider an Ultrabook unless you are desperate for acceptance at the local Starbucks. For you, there are at least two new choices, and more to come. You may spend more, get none of the MacBook Air’s advantages, and end up with something that doesn’t do what it should, at a bare minimum, do. These Ultrabooks are form over function, but you do pay more for them, and they never will be a Mac. That said, they are pretty.S|A

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also available through Guidepoint and Mosaic. FullyAccurate