Why it's too early to judge Intel's Ultrabook

Ultrabooks seem to be off to a slow start. But it will take some time to see whether these thinner and lighter laptops can really deliver the best of both the PC and tablet, and re-energize the PC.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Depending on whom you ask, the Ultrabook is either off to a slow start or everything is going according to plan. Either way Intel's answer to the post-PC era has a lot of ground to make up if it is to reach the company's goal of 40 percent of consumer laptops by the end of this year.

Nine months after Intel first introduced the concept, the mainstream media is starting to wonder where the Ultrabooks are. The market research firm IHS iSuppli estimated only 1 million Ultrabooks were sold last year, a drop in the bucket in a market that is 350 million strong. And Gartner previously said Ultrabooks barely registered during the holidays because few consumers knew about them and they cost too much.

To be fair, Intel has consistently said that it will take time to bring down prices and implement all of the promised hardware and software features. Further, some of this is simply a matter of bad timing. The floods in Thailand, which decimated hard drive factories, put a crimp in what is already a slow period for PCs. Intel's third-generation Core processors, code-named Ivy Bridge, won't start shipping until later this spring. And the world is waiting on Windows 8, which has several features that should make Ultrabooks more compelling, most notably better touch input.

Despite the poor timing, more Ultrabooks are trickling out. In a blog post this week Intel noted that here are now 26 Ultrabooks available in different markets around the world with another 75 or so in the works. There are now several models to choose form including the Acer Aspire S3, Asus Zenbook, Dell XPS 13, HP Envy 14 Spectre and Folio 13, Lenovo IdeaPad U300s, Samsung Series 5 and Toshiba Portege Z830 series. Some of these have been getting good reviews. Last week Acer announced the Aspire M3-581TG, the first Ultrabook with Nvidia's new GeForce GT 600M discrete graphics.

Still, don't expect to find Kepler GPUs in razor-thin 13-inch Ultrabooks anytime soon. One way to increase sales is to "move the goal posts" by broadening the definition of Ultrabooks. That is what is happening with the Aspire M3-581T and other new models like Samsung's Series 5 and Envy 14 Spectre. Though branded Ultrabooks, these have larger displays, can be thicker and weigh more, and often use standard hard drives paired with a little flash cache-rather than a large-capacity solid-state disk-to keep prices down. In effect, the Ultrabook is simply becoming the evolution of the notebook.

Even with lower prices, Ultrabooks will face lots of competition. AMD is pitching new versions of its E-Series and A-Series processors, due out later this year, as ideal platforms for ultra-thin laptops. And Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments are all plotting a leap to laptops. These so-called smartbooks haven't had much any success in the past. But with Windows 8 on ARM, a compatible version of Microsoft Office and an app store all on the way, this time might be different.

Intel is betting that most people will still want, and be willing to pay for, a full-fledged PC. In addition, by the end of this year, or almost certainly at the Consumer Electronics Show in early 2013, expect to see hybrid or convertible Ultrabook designs with touchscreens, like the Asus Transformer Prime only with a Core processor and Windows 8. Intel promises these will deliver the best of both the PC and tablet worlds. At that point, we'll really be able to judge whether the Ultrabook has successfully re-energized the PC.

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