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Charge of the new light brigade

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HP’s new Ultrabook, the Spectre, stole the show at Showstoppers, where the pick of the Consumer Electronics Show is displayed. But it was only the tip of the new Intel iceberg, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Barely three months ago, the obituaries were being written for HP, the company that single-handedly invented Silicon Valley. In a knee-jerk reaction to the tablet revolution, then-CEO Leo Apotheker declared HP would sell its computer division, throwing laptops, printers and servers out with the bath water. The company’s Board had a different view, and fired him.

Last week, the most visible sign of HP rebounding from its near-death experience came at an event called Showstoppers. It’s an unofficial sideshow to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), where the makers of a hundred or so of the best products on display at CES are invited to give a private showing to the media.

HP was among the chosen few, and they used the occasion to showcase a laptop called the HP Envy 14 Spectre, the name indicating a 14-inch model in their Envy range. But it was the ‚Spectre‚ bit that caught the attention. It’s a name devised to encapsulate the beautiful lines, slim shape and scratch-proof black glass cover of the device. The same glass is used on its screen, trackpad and palm rest, making it a laptop that is almost more glass than metal or plastic. And one more thing: it was only the second attempt by HP to produce a laptop in a “new”” format called the Ultrabook.

The term, trademarked by Intel, describes an ultra-thin, ultra-fast and ultra-powerful laptop with ultra-long battery life. Many argue over the definitions, as the format was in reality first perfected by Apple, with it’s wildly popular MacBook Air. So successful has that device been for Apple, helping it on the way to becoming one of he world’s biggest computer sellers, that it was obvious it was the format where the real opportunity lay waiting for other manufacturers. Intel took up the challenge with a strategy that has combined aggressive marketing, design and standard-setting.

Thus it was that, for the first time, the words “”beauty”” and “”HP”” could be used comfortably in one sentence. As if to emphasize the connection, the HP display at Showstoppers also featured two bejeweled, limited editions of the machine. The original not striking enough for you? Here, have one with diamonds.

The real significance of the Spectre at CES was that it was merely the most visible of the Ultrabooks on show. HP itself also displayed a smaller, cheaper 13‚ model, the Folio.

These represented only the tip of an iceberg being guided by Intel into the choppy waters of changing computing formats.

In a keynote address on the opening day of CES, Intel CEO Paul Otellini announced that more than a dozen new Ultrabooks would be launched at the event.

Acer launched what they said was the thinnest laptop ever, the 13mm thick Aspire S3: Lenovo introduced a head-turning, swivel-screen option with the IdeaPad Yoga, which doubles as a tablet. Asus came up with the Zenbook, ‚a unique combination of artistic craftsmanship and advanced technology‚ : and Dell embraced the format with the XPS 13 to reveal they could still make sexy laptops.

Samsung introduced an upgrade of the Series 9 Ultrabook, the closest any device had previously come to matching the MacBook Air in both size and design appeal. This time around, it also matched it for speed and performance.

The common factor in most of the Ultrabooks, aside from size and design appeal, is that they boot up in 10 seconds or less.

Unlike the flood of wannabe tablet contenders released at CES in January 2011, the charge of the new light brigade is a solid, high-quality assault on the new high ground. Moreover, it has a roadmap for the next wave of attack.

Later this year, even more powerful Ultrabooks will emerge, using an Intel processor codenamed ‚Ivy Bridge‚ . That’s the third generation of Intel’s powerful Core processors to be found in most new laptops today.

Next year the next generation, codenamed ‚Haswell‚ , will arrive to make the third phase of Ultrabooks up to 20 times faster. That means you should be able to switch on a computer and begin working immediately. And that’s one definition of ‚ultra‚ everyone will understand.

* Arthur Goldstuck is editor-in-chief of Gadget and managing director of tech research company World Wide Worx. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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