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Ultra-fast! Ultra-sleek! Ultra-cool!

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As you get to grips with netbooks and tablets, along comes the Ultrabook. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK slims down his laptop wish list.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the computer shop, now that you know the difference between a notebook, a tablet and a netbook, along comes another threat to your ability to cope with hi-tech jargon.

At the Computex expo in Taiwan this week, a brand “new”” category was unveiled: the Ultrabook. It must be new, because the world¬°¬Øs leading computer chip maker, Intel, and the pioneer of the netbook category, Asus, said so.

An Ultrabook is an ultra-thin, ultra-light, ultra-cool notebook computer. As the name implies, this is meant to be the superhero of computing, a mutant device that will leave the rest eating its dust.

Just in case there was any confusion, Asus unveiled the UX21, sporting an 11.6″” screen, a silver aluminium case and a solid-state hard drive. The latter means that it has fewer moving parts and is therefore much faster and boasts double or treble the battery life of an equivalent notebook computer. It also doesn’t heat up as much as a laptop when you¬°¬Øre having a serious argument with deadlines, and is likely to be less prone to crashes.

When the UX21 was pulled out of the bag, however, critics immediately noted its uncanny resemblance to a computer that took the market by storm last year: Apple¬°¬Øs 11.6″” MacBook Air. The Air is the size of a magazine in all its dimensions, from length and breadth to thickness, and almost as light. With higher capacity and a lower price, it should have cleaned up the laptop market. But alas, in its first version, it used an “”old-fashioned”” spinning hard drive, and a very modern price tag of more than R12¬°¬°000. The current version uses flash storage, similar to the type you get in flash drives, making it faster and lighter. But still carrying that hefty price tag.

Both the next Air and the Ultrabook will have solid state drives, and prices more in line with modern tightened purse-strings. Intel expects the Ultrabook to retail at less than $1000, which may well bring it into South Africa at well under the R10¡¡000 mark. They also expect to capture 40% of the computer market by the end of next year, which is far less likely. For one thing, they have to convince the market that this is better value for money than a notebook of similar power at half the price ¨C even if it is double the weight. And they have to contend with the astonishing rise of the tablet computer. Although they are entering that market too, it is with nothing as compelling as the Ultrabook.

Almost any device using the new format will still cost more than any tablet on the market, so it becomes a war not only with competing manufacturers, but also with competing formats.

For the consumer, the choice is not as difficult as it may seem. The Ultrabook or the Air ¨C here you must decide whether your preference is for the Windows or Mac operating system ¨C will be the most portable format yet for a laptop computer that offers the full power and functionality of a normal notebook. A tablet remains a bridging device between phone and laptop. It¡¯s great for consuming content but not for creating it and working on it.

Before long, if you have the budget for it, the Ultrabook will be the no-brainer choice in notebooks.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up the World Wide Worx market research organisation and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. You can follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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