Ultraportable laptops and Ultrabooks have become the new machines to have. They are smaller, thinner, and lighter making them the preferred choice for most engineering and IT professionals over the older clunkier notebook workstations. Even before the push by Intel with their Ultrabook, branding the desire to have these well-designed machines could be seen in the purchases of Apple systems throughout the years.
The fact that the majority of ultraportable laptops come with solid state drives also adds to the desire to have one. Not only does the drive significantly speed up a notebook compared to more traditional drives, it also reduces the risk of damaging the device by moving. The reduction in moving parts is a great benefit as a large cause of traditional hard drives failing is movement while the device is in use. While additional portability can be seen as a benefit, it does have its downsides.
In order to cram as much as manufacturers do into an ultraportable package, they make choices that can impair the ability to upgrade or repair the machines. One way these laptops have been shrunk down is with the use of soldered-in RAM, which keeps users from being able to upgrade or change the amount of system memory the device has.
While the amount of memory you have initially may be fine, eventually you might need more as programs are updated, or job requirements change. In this scenario, you will be stuck with lower performance as a result of not being able to upgrade.
On the solid state drive end, there is an issue of connector type and capacity. A number of ultraportables still use traditional SATA connectors, but a lot of them have shifted towards mSATA and the scarcer PCI-E based interfaces. The newer hard drive or disk drive interfaces, while faster, tend to have a higher cost associated with them, and do not always come in larger capacity sizes, which leaves users with a reduced amount of storage.
With these, it is not as big of an issue for replacements while under manufacturer warranty the issue comes up after the warranty has expired or if the user is running out of storage. Ultraportable machines, as a whole, also tend to be a lot more difficult to pull apart if a part does need changing, leaving you with a higher risk of damaging the machine when trying to repair it outside of the warranty period.
The other big problem area comes from performance issues. While you can get ultraportables with high-end non-mobile processors, they tend to be rare; rarer than that though is the ability to get dedicated graphics inside of your machine. While some systems cater to gamers and provide discrete consumer grade graphics, there is a lack of workstation level graphics systems for engineering programs.
While this software can be run without workstation graphics, on the larger assemblies being worked on this will lead to a significant amount of loading wait time impeding productivity. HP recently showed off a new line of workstation Ultrabooks in September 2013, but it will take time before the new units are more common and as portable as their consumer counterparts.
In trying to save space, many of these devices have also been pulling parts out, such as video out ports and Ethernet ports; in these cases the manufacturers will provide dongles as a replacement. With video out, one might receive a micro HDMI or DisplayPort slot, which can then have a dongle connected to it to connect to other video input types such as standard HDMI or a DisplayPort to HDMI converter. While this is not a huge loss as you still have the capabilities of using these features, having to keep track of the dongles is just an extra inconvenience.
While the setup at one’s desk might have the proper connections, taking the device elsewhere might provide roadblocks when attempting to connect to extra outputs. With USB based ethernet dongles, network speeds might become constrained to sub- gigabit speeds, which can be problematic when using network-attached storage or NAS devices.
While the majority of this has been negative, ultraportable devices do have their places. Not everyone needs to run CAD based or system intensive applications. A large number of people just need a device that can give them access to monitoring software, webpages, Microsoft Office, remote access to workstations, or VM farms. There are also users who travel a lot, and need a device that is easy to use and carry around without having to clear a desk just to setup. In those situations, these devices are great, but currently as a standalone device for engineers, they tend to fall short. Thankfully, the ultraportable craze is still new, and is getting pushed further and further. With the increasing interest in APUs and external graphics ultraportables might be able to become all purpose solutions.