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The Philadelphia Inquirer Jeff Gelles column
[November 15, 2012]

The Philadelphia Inquirer Jeff Gelles column

Nov 15, 2012 (The Philadelphia Inquirer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Once upon a time, Wintel referred to a seemingly invincible alliance -- some used harsher terms -- linking two of the biggest names in computing: Intel Corp., the leading maker of microprocessor chips, and Microsoft Corp., whose Windows operating software dominated the personal-computer market.

Then came the remarkable hitting streak of Apple, whose innovative devices and software strategies transformed the marketplace. "The PC is dead" became an Internet meme, ponging round the Net on iPhones, iPads, and the Android devices Google championed as alternatives.

Game over Not according to either half of Wintel, and both are fighting back. One salvo came last month, when Microsoft unveiled both its new Surface tablet -- after 37 years, its first foray into computer-making -- and its long-promised Windows 8 operating system.

Another, based on Windows 8, is hitting the market just in time for holiday shopping: Intel-based "ultrabook" convertibles, designed to marry a laptop computer's productive capabilities with a tablet's capacity to keep you connected and entertained.

Courtesy of Intel, I tested one of the new touchscreen convertibles -- a Dell XPS 12 Ultrabook due to start shipping next month -- and tried out several similar designs already on sale from Acer, Lenovo, and Samsung.

The XPS 12 offers an impressive combination of features, though it's not for everyone -- a description that Intel, at least, would say is more a feature of the fledgling Ultrabook market than a bug. This is not a straightforward, symmetrical battle.

By making its own devices and operating software, Apple maintains a high degree of control over its products and customer experience. It has relinquished some by inviting outsiders to develop apps. But its vetting process has kept problems such as hardware-software incompatibility and malware to a minimum.

Still, Apple's strategy has some downsides, and one is a limit to customer choice. The iPad now comes in two sizes, either its standard 9.7-inch screen or the new 7.9-inch Mini. Same for the MacBook Air, the notebook that uses Intel Core chips and that likely inspired Intel to promote the Ultrabook concept to PC makers as a "reference design." A MacBook Air with an 11.6-inch screen and a 64-gigabyte solid-state drive weighs 2.38 pounds and sells for $999; with 128 gigs, it costs $1,099.

With those devices as the benchmark, what do the new Ultrabooks offer, beyond what Intel's Merlin Kister calls two defining features -- "instant on and off," meaning that an Ultrabook must start within 10 seconds, and "all-day battery life," which means it must deliver at least five hours of continuous use Here are some basics on the XPS 12, which starts at $1,200 for a unit with a 128-gig solid-state drive: Out of the box. Intel likes to call the Ultrabook a tablet and laptop's "love child." The XPS 12 drives home the point, with a "flip hinge" design that switches quickly from one configuration to the other.

Open, it's a laptop with a full-function QWERTY keyboard. Closed, the keyboard disappears, and it's a tablet with a 12.5-inch touchscreen display. Either way, it's powered by an Intel Core i5 processor -- cousin to the chip controlling the MacBook Air.

One obvious drawback is weight: 3.35 pounds, nearly a pound more than the MacBook Air and more than twice an iPad's weight, albeit with a significantly larger screen.

Live tiles. Intel may focus on power and efficiency, but to anyone switching from an Apple device or even from an earlier Windows laptop, the Ultrabook's defining characteristic will be Windows 8 itself, a sharp departure from two decades of Microsoft interface design.

The basic idea is a single operating system that works on laptops, tablets, and smartphones and that all feature Microsoft's new "live tile" icons.

Unlike familiar Apple or Android icons, live tiles don't just symbolize what's behind them, they show you a stream of updates. Headlines, new e-mails, tagged postings on Facebook -- all at a glance.

Windows 8, despite backward compatibility to Windows 7 and access to a semitraditional desktop interface, has caught a lot of flack. But live tiles are a worthy innovation. For that alone, don't count Wintel out of the game.

-- Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or

___ (c)2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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