HP’s chic ‘ultrabook’ adds ability to read ‘smart tags’

LAS VEGAS — Thin, light laptops —known as “ultrabooks”— are a much-hyped category at this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show, an annual showcase for the latest smartphones, tablet computers and other consumer-electronic devices.

Deep-pocketed chipmaker Intel Corp. created the term to push PC makers to make laptops that are more like Apple’s Macbook Air, and help them market them. Practically every PC maker is showing off at least one ultrabook at the show. Hewlett-Packard Co. is talking up its own ultrabook, dubbed the HP Envy 14 Spectre, this week. The HP model has a few features that set it apart.

Why it’s hot: HP’s Envy includes a sensor for Near-Field Communications, the radio standard used by security cards and so-called “smart tags,” which are small chips with flat, stamp-sized radio antennas. That means that it can read information from NFC tags and upcoming smartphone models when they’re bumped against the laptop. For instance, a promotional flyer might include a tag with a special Web address that appears on-screen when touched to the laptop.

The upside: There’s a movement to make NFC the basis for tomorrow’s payment cards, and to build NFC into smartphones. That means someone with an NFC-enabled laptop could, in the future, pay securely for an online purchase by tapping a payment card to the computer. Intel Corp. demonstrated this procedure at a press conference at the show, with a prototype laptop.

The downside: The Envy’s NFC capability may never progress beyond the ability to grab Web addresses from phones and promotional materials. The business relationships and networks needed to make NFC-enabled payments ubiquitous have been slow to emerge, as many different players are jockeying for position.

IDC analyst Williams Stofega said NFC has a lot of potential as part of the trend of “tangible computing” — getting the things around us to talk to each other intelligently, to make our lives easier. But the lack of standards is a big obstacle.

“If NFC is not integrated with everything else, it’s going to die,” Stofega said.

What else makes it hot: The Envy 14 comes with super-fast “solid state” hard drives. It includes a chip that can communicate wirelessly with some stereo headphones, with an audio quality that’s much better than Bluetooth. The Envy is also covered in scratch-resistant glass.

Availability: Starting Feb. 8 in the U.S., at $1,400 and up.

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