The key to lower Ultrabook prices? One word: plastics

The key to lower Ultrabook prices? One word: plastics

Summary: Ultrabook pricing could fall as low as $599 later this year as vendors move away from sleek metal chassis and toward plastic-based ones.


With laptop manufacturers struggling to keep costs down as they try to emulate the MacBook Air with Ultrabooks, they may have figured out one way to shave dollars off the price.

Intel's Taiwan chief believes Ultrabook pricing could fall as low as $599 later this year -- though $699 might be a more popular "sweet spot" -- in part because vendors will move away from sleek metal chassis and toward plastic-based ones.

Of course, part of the sexiness of Ultrabook designs is the brushed-metal casing, but there are shortages of those chassis -- perhaps due to Apple's dominance of the supply chain -- driving the pricing up. Instead, manufacturers will use fiberglass-reinforced plastic or possibly aluminum-coated plastic as a replacement. As the image above shows, Intel claims that the plastic chassis can be as rigid as metal ones.

Brushed metal looks great and would probably be the consumer preference -- except not enough consumers are willing to pay $1,000 or more for a laptop that uses it. Considering that most people buy $500 laptops with thoroughly unsexy designs now, it makes sense to use cheaper casing materials in order to get Ultrabooks closer to mainstream prices. Start looking for these plastic fantastic Ultrabooks in the second half of the year.

Would you care if your Ultrabook came with a plastic chassis instead of a metal one? How much more would you be willing to pay for a metal one? Let us know your thoughts in the Comments section below.


Topics: Apple, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • What is an ultrabook?

    If ultrabooks start using cheap plastic chassis in an attempt to bring prices down, then the term loses all meaning. What's next, will they start making them thicker and heavier and still try to call them ultrabooks? Is the term actually intended to mean something or is it nothing more than a marketing catch-phrase?
    • What is the relationship between the composite material and the ultrabook?

      How is it not an ultrabook if it still meets or exceeds the density and weight thresholds found in alloy based chassis?
      Your Non Advocate
      • Agreed

        I agree...I don't recall anywhere in intel's announcement that specifies aluminum body as a requirement, nor when they published the guidelines for the incentive millions of $ they gave to manufacturers to try and come up with a MBA-similar product.
        The specifications were full functionality, keyboard, long battery life, with specific size and weight requirements.
  • light is key

    Ultrabooks are light Notebooks. Why would they need to be metal if plastic can do the job?!
    • Snob factor

      [i]Why would they need to be metal if plastic can do the job?! .[/i]

      Because then you can't go around telling people that your laptop is made from one of the cheapest, most commonly available metals around. Wait, that doesn't sound snobby at all.

      If you want to know what the best modern material is for making laptops, you should look at what Panasonic Toughbooks are made from. Magnesium. They are expensive but then you can go around like a snob and tell people that your laptop is made from magnesium since clearly, that is the most important aspect of owning a laptop. /sarcasm
    • Cooling

      Ultrabooks are supposed to be 'ultra' thin and light. Plastic has lousy thermal conductivity, so with a plastic case essentially all of the heat must be removed by circulating air inside the case. A plastic UltraBook case will require a bigger fan and more 'void' volume for air circulation. As a result, a plastic UltraBook will not only be 'plastic', it will be bigger and noisier as well.
    • Spoken like a IT guy

      I agree, if I was a purchasing agent for a company yes plastic will do that job. But there is no mistaking the sculpted feeling of the all aluminum body.
  • Ultraright

    When I think Ultrabook I compare it to Ultralight... as in the aviation field. I don't care what the material is, I just want a small, functional laptop that is very light, has a full size or close to full size keyboard and nice screen. If it is metal or plastic makes no difference... if you can use plastic to save $100 or $200 retail.. then by all means do it, the cheaper it is the easier it will be to co-exist with an iPad or other tablet...keep the price too high and you will see end users choose one or the other.
    • Definition

      An Ultrabook will be defined by a full keyboard. Once you start making sever compromises like a touch-typing unfriendly keyboard or a tiny trackpad, that's when it's a NETBOOK, not an Ultrabook.
  • Ultralights, etc.

    Responding to the comments above... In theory you are correct that it shouldn't matter what material they use if it achieves the same performance, but there's the rub. I am very skeptical of their claims that they can achieve the same stiffness with plastic. Either they are going to have to use some pretty thick plastic, or it will be some sort of high-strength composite, or it won't actually be as stiff. If it is a high-strength composite, I think the cost savings go out the window. Therefore I think they are talking about a thicker plastic that will compromise the thinness and weight. Admittedly I don't know a lot about ultralight aircraft, but I think most of them have aluminum frames, for a good reason.
    • Right

      Intel is trying to pull a fast one on people with fancy graphics representing only torsional rigidity--resistance to bending.

      Where they expect people to be stupid is on this fact: The computer casing's durability is not determined by the torsional performance. Plastics are PATHETIC in comparison, because when it meets it's limits it cracks, shatters, and over time it just becomes brittle and CRUMBLES AWAY!


      This is why aluminum is a FAR SUPERIOR material. You may see a ding or a scratch, but it's resistance to failure is orders of magnitude higher.

      Have you ever seen--and I believe most all of us have--a laptop whose plastic casing is failing near the hinges? Over time, the plastic breaks down and once weakness forms in high-wear areas, plastics crack and crumble.

      Aluminum does not suffer the same wear degradation.

      If you're going to be THIS cheap about your purchase, you should just buy a plastic notebook you consider disposable, and be done with it.
      • Really?


        Makes this a rather useless article then:
      • @toddbottom3

        Perhaps I should clarify, in case someone want to run away with the argument...

        Aluminum is far less likely to crack from repeated stress in laptop components than current pc-industry plastic cases. Is it possible, yes absolutely!

        Just look at the relevant information available from that website you linked to:



        But, I don't see anything pertaining to HOW TO FIX A CRACKED ALUMINUM PC
      • lelandhendrix: fair enough

        It may very well be that the aluminum that Apple uses in their cases is more resistant to cracking than the plastic that has traditionally been used in less expensive laptops by other OEMs.

        Hey, speaking of cracking plastic though, I did run across many articles complaining about the hinge cracking on their MacBook Air. Funny thing about it? Turns out the hinge (or parts of the hinge) was made out of plastic. I wonder if the new MBA cases are actually made of aluminum or did Apple cheap out and build the one part of the case most likely to crack out of... plastic.
      • Aluminum vs Plastic

        Aluminum cracks as well. They are making airplanes out of fiber reinforced plastics now because it is stronger per weight than any metal.
      • Love my plastics

        I've had perhaps six laptops over the years, all plastic, and none of them has failed in the case or hinges. Plastic has the flexibility to not bend and stay out of alignment. My lady friend uses Macbook Pros and boy they sure weigh a lot.
        OK, don't love it, but plastic is perfectly fine for laptops.
      • It's more in the design

        I have in front of me my personal macbook pro 15 and my company issued Dell E6510. Both have 15" monitors. One creaks and growns from flexing the other is a rock. Not saying that someone couldn't make a plastic laptop that is solid. Just saying that there is a long history of evidence otherwise.
  • Love Ultrabooks...

    Why? Because they continue to bring to light the build quality and design superiority that is the MacBook Air, and the cost that's needed to build such a quality Notebook. OEMs continued struggles to get the cost down by cutting corners (now cheaper uglier plastic) only adds to the justification of Apple's current pricing. Beautiful design, solid build quality - durable unibody construction (no cheap plastic), solid battery, multi-touch trackpad that works as it should, backlit keyboard etc etc...

    I said a few months ago that these so called Ultrabooks will gradually revert back to regular old notebooks in the market. Meaning the increase pressure to cut cost just to get these things to sell will naturally force OEMs to cut more and more corners.
    • Interesting

      You wanna know why your post has been 'disliked' , currently at -6?

      It's because you appear to be praising an Apple product. Not because you're wrong, or because something you said is factually incorrect.

      Nope. Just because people who just hate Apple (for being Apple) are click happy.

      Let's see how quickly this post disappears! LOL!
      • :-)

        Thanks TB! ;-)