What is an Ultrabook? A look at Intel’s slimline laptop platform

Intel defines the Ultrabook as an ultra-portable notebook and owns the trademark for that name. Indeed, one can trace the name back to the CULV platform (Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage) which is the predecessor of choice in Ultrabooks. It was supposed to compete against Apple’s MacBook Air, which many consider to be the original Ultrabook (even though it doesn’t carry that label).

Two generations of Ultrabooks have already been announced. Huron River was the first and Chief River is the current platform that you'll find many new Windows 8 laptops using. A third platform, Shark Bay, is due to launch towards the middle of next year although we'll probably see samples at CES in January 2013.

It’s worth noting that the lead time between Huron River and Chief River was eight months which means that a seven month gap between the 2nd and 3rd Ultrabook generation is entirely possible.

There was little to separate both “River” platforms specification wise. The first one was based on the Sandy Bridge architecture while Chief River runs on Ivy Bridge. Both sport a 17W TDP and have similar height and weight specification (18mm for a 13.3in and 21mm for a 14in model) with Ivy Bridge adding another tier (23mm for convertible tablets).

Battery life and boot time are two other areas where Huron River and Chief River share common points. Both stipulate that an Ultrabook should be able to resume from hibernation (or S4 state) in less than seven seconds and have a battery life of at least five hours.

Last but not least Intel made it compulsory on both platforms to have Intel Management Engine, Anti-Theft Technology and Identity Protection Technology, an indication perhaps that Intel saw Ultrabooks primarily as businesses devices.

Chief River also introduced three separate requirements, a minimum transfer rate of 80MB/sec, at least 16GB solid state storage and Thunderbolt or USB 3.0 ports.

There are clear signs that Intel and its partners are working hard to bring some Ultrabook features to mainstream and entry level devices. First generation Ultrabooks cost at least £600 while second generation ones can be had from as little as £400. And already companies like Lenovo and Acer have unveiled slim models that adopt Ultrabook physical properties but opt for affordable components to keep prices around £300.

The third generation of Ultrabooks, Shark Bay, will run on the new Haswell microarchitecture, a major step change which will boost battery life as well as graphics performance. Intel is expected to unveil Haswell-based system-on-chip solutions for Shark Bay in mid-2013.

The minimum battery life is also expected to be almost doubled from five hours to nine hours, a boost that is accompanied by a drop in TDP by as much as 55 per cent (down to 10W). Details for Shark Bay are still very scarce but expect it to be the first Ultrabook platform to fully support Windows 8 devices in their many form factors.

As more manufacturers adopt Intel's Ultrabook standard, we'll see more affordable, powerful, slimline laptops hitting the market.

Check out our list of the best value Ultrabooks in the UK with prices starting from less than £400.