Under the hood of Intel’s blueprint for Ultrabooks

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Ultrabooks have dominated the laptop landscape since their arrival at the back end of 2011, but we’ve not yet seen any hardware from Intel – until now. It’s sent us its own blueprint for the Ultrabook and, unsurprisingly, it’s the first Ultrabook we’ve seen to include Ivy Bridge – Apple’s MacBook Air notwithstanding.

The chip in question is the Core i5-3427U, and it’s one of Intel’s lesser Ivy Bridge mobile parts: a 1.8GHz stock speed, an HD 4000 graphics core clocked at 350MHz rather than the 650MHz, and with less than half the cache of top-end mobile chips. The “U” at the end of its name is important, too, as it denotes a low-power chip – and its nominal and peak TDPs of 17W and 25W are both far lower than equivalent figures from more powerful Ivy Bridge processors. It’s also the same chip used in the latest MacBook Air refresh.

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Despite this modest beginning, the Intel Ultrabook powered through our benchmarks to a result of 0.71 – a little ahead of the 0.68 scored by the MacBook Air. That fine score that also outpaces retail Ultrabooks: the Core i7 Sandy Bridge chip in the Dell XPS 13 scored 0.62, the same score as the Asus Zenbook UX31E. Core i3-based machines such as the Sony VAIO T13 propped up the charts with only 0.45. It certainly bodes well for the arrival of Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks en masse, with a host of more powerful parts ready to be used; the Core i7-3820QM, for instance, runs at 2.7GHz, boosts to 3.7GHz, and has four Hyper-Threaded cores rather than two.

The introduction of Intel’s HD 4000 graphics chip provides a healthy leap over its older integrated cores, too. It scored 35fps in our Low-quality Crysis benchmark run at 1,366 x 768 and a still-playable 31fps when we ran the same test at the Intel’s native resolution of 1,600 x 900; the HD 2000 core used on lesser Sandy Bridge chips typically scored 22fps, with this figure dropping below 20fps at an increased resolution. The MacBook Air, meanwhile, ran the Low-quality test at 36fps when loaded at its native resolution of 1,440 x 900.

Intel UltrabookStorage is provided, unsurprisingly, by an Intel 520 Series SSD, and it’s got 240GB of space – an improvement on the 32GB cache drive and hard disk combinations found on cheaper Ultrabooks. There’s 4GB of RAM, too.

Little excites about the exterior: the screen is of middling quality, the keyboard feels cheap and far too flimsy for our liking, and build quality around the rest of the 19mm-thick chassis isn’t particularly inspiring.

Take the base off, though, and there’s plenty more to examine. What’s immediately striking is that Intel’s reference design isn’t as adventurous as many retail models. While the slimmest Ultrabooks – and the MacBook Air – use tiny logic boards that occupy a sliver at the rear of the chassis, the Intel model uses a board that occupies around half of the base. That SSD is also a full-size 2.5in model rather than chips soldered onto the PCB itself, and that leaves less room for the battery, which only occupies around a third of the interior.

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Intel’s Ultrabook won’t be available to the public, but it’s a fascinating peek into the thoughts of the firm that’s pumping hundreds of millions into ensuring its latest brand is a success – and an intriguing look at the sort of performance that’s going to be on offer from Ivy Bridge machines. Intel’s design might seem a little dated in some respects but, when it comes to the power on offer, no retail Ultrabook can match it – and that’s why we’re excited about laptops arriving with Intel’s next generation of mobile CPUs in tow.

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