by Rob Enderle

iPad vs. Ultrabook: Picking the Perfect Next-Gen Laptop

Mar 28, 20124 mins
Computers and PeripheralsLaptopsMobile

A trip to Central America (packing both an iPad and a Toshiba ultrabook) reveals that the best of both worlds might combine features of the two category-defining devices.

I spent an extended weekend at Sanctuary Belize where we are in the process of building a vacation home and eventually plan to retire. I left my tablet at home (I did bring my Kindle Fire) and my wife left her laptop at home and brought her iPad and Kindle Fire. We both wanted to stay in touch and work on the house project.

What we found was rather interesting — it was the Kindle Fire we couldn’t live without, and while the iPad proved the better product for communication, for actually getting the job done the Toshiba ultrabook we brought won out.

Let me explain.

FaceTime Fill the Gap

In Belize, the authorities block Skype, and though my T-Mobile phone connected just fine, voice calls cost $3 a minute and texts were a whopping 35 cents each. On top of that, the local telephone service doesn’t do data, so our phones could use email only when we could connect to Wi-Fi. Fortunately, the hotel and airports had free Wi-Fi; unfortunately, it wasn’t particularly reliable.

But when it came to talking long distance, Apple’s FaceTime filled the gap because my wife’s sisters and our neighbor who was watching our house all have iPads, which kept our phone bill out of the stratosphere.

Ultrabook in a Flash

However, when we tried to do work for the house, like look at examples of flooring, countertops or electrical devices, we found that most sites use Flash. That meant that we were constantly running back to the room for the ultrabook to actually see what our architect was talking about and respond with critical suggestions or decisions.

We also noticed that the iPad often had trouble connecting to the network. In fact, there were people running around the resort complaining that their iPads weren’t working while the ultrabook, phones and Kindles seemed to have few issues. This has turned into a common problem when we travel with the iPad: Wi-Fi connectivity seems iffy.

I had lunch with a Cisco engineer a few weeks back and he said that this is a known problem with Apple products and most wireless routers. The fix is to use Apple routers, which apparently provide the best connectivity of any home-class router in the market. Enterprise-class routers from Cisco and others evidently don’t have these problems, but hotels and small foreign airports often use home or small-business products which is why, according to the Cisco engineer, we were seeing this problem.

As you would expect, the ultrabook, because it has a keyboard, was vastly better for writing longer, even though we brought along the Bluetooth keyboard that we have for the iPad. The much larger screen helped, as well. However, jumping back and forth often had us trying to control ultrabook by touching its screen because we had gotten so used to how the iPad worked.

In the end, it became clear that what we wanted was a blend of the two products — the utility, connectivity and practicality of the ultrabook, and the iPad’s touch capabilities coupled with FaceTime.

The Perfect Future Product: Microsoft vs. Apple

We already know that the ideal Windows 8 hardware is likely to be some variant of an ultrabook and a tablet, and Apple is signaling it plans eventually to converge its operating systems to create something similar. If Microsoft can get the Skype blocks lifted, or if countries start blocking FaceTime, Microsoft has a shot at closing Apple out of this opportunity.

But as FaceTime remains unblocked, if Apple gets this done right first, it will take an even more impressive share of this market than is currently enjoys. But to win in the corporate market, it will need to make FaceTime more of a business solution than it currently is — Skype already has broad business penetration, but that does no good if Skype is blocked.

In the end, the fourth quarter is likely to be quite interesting, because whichever company gets this done right first is likely to own the mobile laptop segment.

Rob is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance, and Security. Currently, Rob writes on emerging technology, security, and Linux for a wide variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.