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Intel North Cape Hybrid Hands-On: First Haswell Ultrabook Has Style

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The launch of Intel's next-generation Haswell platform is several months away, but that hasn't stopped the chip-maker from showing the kind of  Ultrabook hybrid that will house its new CPU. Here at CES 2013, Intel took the wraps off of North Cape, a futuristic-looking reference design that makes today's hybrids look outdated.

We had a chance to go hands-on with North Cape at Intel's CES booth and were impressed with its vibrant screen, responsive keyboard and luxurious soft-touch finish.The 13.3-inch 3-pound North Cape hybrid features a 13.3-inch, 1080p screen with colors that really popped when we looked at Windows 8's start screen. Even better, the display supports 10-point touch and we were able to swipe an entire hand full of fingers in Windows Paint.

The tablet by itself weighs 1.8 pounds and is a slim 10mm thick with a soft-touch white back that matches the back and sides of the keyboard dock. Combine that with a charcoal black deck on the 1.2-pound, 7mm-thick  keyboard dock, to go with the black sides on the tablet and you have a system that reminded us of a space ship from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

We were particularly impressed with the strong tactile feel and key travel coming from the keys and the soft-touch deck which felt comfortable against our wrists. An Intel rep said that the company decided to make the dock 1mm thicker than it could have so that the keyboard would have adequate trael. We didn't get a chance to use the clickpad so we couldn't tell how accurate it was. 

The dock has two USB 3.0 ports, a micro HDMI connector a power jack and a 3.5mm jack. Unfortunately, it does not have any kind of card reader.

We were particularly intrigued by the North Cape's unique latching mechanism. Rather than using a spring-loaded button, the dock has a magnet wire that powers off when you hold down a button on the upper right side of the keyboard. When we held down the button for a couple of seconds, a small green at the very bottom of the bezel lit up and we were able to remove the tablet. When we waited too long and the green light went out, we were unable to remove the tablet until we hit the bottom again and waited for it to light up.

In addition to the green light turning on, the display area of the screen contracts and a border appears on the top on sides of the desktop. Intel calls this mode "Smart Frame" because the frame area does not register your touches and therefore is a good place to put your fingers when you're holding the tablet and don't want it to register any unwanted touches. Though Smart Frame mode enables / disables itself by default, a button on the upper left side of the device will allow you to toggle it manually.

When we held the 1.8-pound tablet in our hands, it felt far lighter than its weight would indicate. An Intel rep told us that the slate feels light because its weight is distributed across the 13.3-inch body. 

Intel did not disclose any details about North Cape's internal components, other than to say it uses a Haswell chip. As a reference design, North Cape is meant to inspire OEMs rather than become a shipping product, though Intel said that it's possible one will adopt this design. We hope they'll take the hint.