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Meet Intel’s Answer to the iPad Air

Consumers will never be able to buy it, but Intel's Llama Mountain could be the most influential PC of the year. A prototype 2-in-1 tablet / laptop powered by the chipmaker's upcoming Core M processor, Llama Mountain shows PC manufacturers and consumers that a Windows system can be even thinner than Apple's iPad Air while delivering serious performance. We had a chance to spend a few minutes with the hybrid and were intrigued by its slim form factor and high-res display.

At just .28 inches thick and 1.4 pounds without its keyboard dock, the 12.5-inch version of Llama mountain is actually a hair thinner than the 9.7-inch, .29-inch thick iPad Air, though Apple's smaller-screened device weighs just 1.05 pounds. Intel also briefly showed us a 10-inch version of the device, which weights just 1.2 pounds and looks identical but for its smaller dimensions.

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The 12.5-inch demo unit we handled was so thin that there was hardly any room for ports, with only a single micro USB 3 and a docking connector on its bottom surface. The back of the device was made of a tasteful dark gray metal with a strip of soft-touch material at the top. The front surface had a plain black bezel, adorned only by a capacitive windows button.

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Because the Llama Mountain tablet is fanless, it made no noise at all during our hands-on. Despite its passive cooling method, the back of its chassis remained cool to the touch, even when playing a video. According to Intel, Llama Mountain's Core M CPU cycles its clock speed up or down depending on the how well it is being cooled.

An Intel rep explained that the tablet uses its accelerometer to tell when it is laying on a table and will lower its speed because having its back blocked is worse for heat dissipation. When held aloft or placed in its keyboard dock, the CPU speeds up 30 percent because of increased airflow to the back. The keyboard dock itself offers no additional cooling, but there's also a fan dock that allows for even higher performance.

The new Core M CPU inside of Llama Mountain operates at 60 percent lower TDP (Thermal Design Point) than current-generation Intel Haswell Y processors that appear in today's fanless PC tablets. It also promises 20 to 40 percent more performance and one to two hours of additional battery life. 

Though Intel doesn't make screens, the chipmaker has set a good example for its partners by using a 2560 x 1440 display on Llama Mountain. The colors on the display seemed fairly vibrant but not quite as rich as some we've seen. 

Llama Mountain's keyboard dock seemed competent in our brief experience, but it's nothing to type home about. It has large keys and a decent-sized touchpad. The tablet slid into a crevice on the keyboard and docked physically, but there's no hinge to move so the device is not a clamshell that you can open and close.

On the plus side, you can snap the keyboard dock on top of the tablet screen to use it as a cover. An Intel rep balanced the system delicately on his lap, but we're not sure if the tablet would have stayed firmly docked if he had moved around a lot. He told us that the reference design is meant to show what's possible with thin and light designs. It's really up to OEMs to figure out how to deal with potential tipping uses on their own products.

ASUS is one company that has already announced a Core M-powered hybrid in the Transformer Book T300 Chi.  However, with Llama Mountain as a guide, we can expect to see a new generation of lightweight, fanless hybrids that are as thin as the iPad Air, but as powerful as a mainstream PC.