Though still classified as a niche product, Gartner predicts that ultra mobiles will hit the mainstream market in the very near future. Fewer than 10 million ultra mobile devices were sold off the shelf last year, but unit sales are expected to rise to 20 million in 2013 and then to over 39 million in 2014 – that’s a 100% increase year on year. By contrast, sales of desktop PCs and notebooks will, according to Gartner, fall sharply from 341 million in 2012 to 289 million in 2014. So, what exactly is different about ultra mobiles and where will they be used?
Until now, tablets – chiefly the iPad – have been seen as the successors to the traditional combination of desktop PC and keyboard. And the tablet has certainly established itself in the market, with 120 million units sold in 2012 and Gartner forecasting sales of 276 million devices in 2014. Ultra mobiles have been around for a while too though: Microsoft and Intel first presented this class of device to the market as long ago as CeBIT 2006. It had the dimensions of a tablet PC, a touchscreen, and a few more buttons around the edge than today’s tablets do. The operating system at the time was the tablet version of Windows XP. Samsung also presented an ultra mobile device, which, according to the German online news ticker heise.de, featured a 7-inch screen and 800 x 480-pixel screen resolution, weighed 1.7 pounds, and was just over an inch thick.
A cross between a PC and a tablet
Gartner singles out the Apple MacBook Air – positioned between the MacBook Pro and the iPad in the Apple product range – as a prime example of an ultra mobile. In principle, say the market researchers, ultra mobiles are devices that can perform the same tasks as a PC but that can be used on the move like a tablet. This means that they are both compact and light.
Next page: Definitions still unclear
However, a quick look at today’s market shows that Gartner’s definition does not always allow a clear distinction to be made between ultra mobiles and other classes of device. In terms of their dimensions and function, ultra mobiles fit somewhere between a tablet and a PC or netbook, which is designed for mobile – chiefly Internet – use and does not usually have a CD/DVD drive. The devices that Toshiba markets as “ultra mobiles” weigh in at 3.26 pounds and upwards – and therefore come across more as ultra-light notebooks. The manufacturer advertises them explicitly as a working device for “mobile workers”. The same applies to Sony’s VAIO series of ultra mobile notebooks.
The picture is very different with the Panasonic Toughbook CF-U1, which is used, among other things, to log measurement data and process building plans on construction sites. Panasonic describes its products as “ruggedized”, meaning that they are built to be particularly robust and resistant to both dust and water. With its keyboard built in directly under the screen, the Toughbook CF-U1 does not fold up like a clamshell-style notebook. In that respect, it is more like a tablet – though, at 2.24 inches, it is much thicker than other members of that particular species.
Difficult to define by screen size
This overview illustrates that, in practice, it is still difficult to categorize individual devices. Particularly if you try to define dimensions that classify a device as “very light and small”. German electronics retailer Saturn describes ultra mobiles as devices with a screen size of 7 inches or less. That definition would fit the Panasonic Toughbook CF-U1, which has a 5.6-inch screen, but not the Toshiba ultra mobile family, which has screen sizes ranging from 13.3 to 14 inches.