Ultrabooks: Intel’s Ultra-Bet on Ultra-Sexy

Ultrabooks are displayed during a press event by Intel Corp. at The Venetian for the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show January 9, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. CES, the world's largest annual consumer technology trade show, runs from January 10-13 and is expected to feature 2,700 exhibitors showing off their latest products and services to about 140,000 attendees.

With the huge shift to tablets and smartphones, it’s a post-PC era as the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show opens in Las Vegas this week.

Or is it?

Intel, whose bottom line depends in large part on PCs, plunked down a $300 million bet last year that it could make PCs sexy again. Seeing the big success of Apple’s thin and light MacBook Air notebooks, Intel embarked on developing the technology to match or better Apple’s offering, trademarked the name Ultrabooks, and set standards for manufacturers to meet before they could label their notebook an Ultrabook.

The result is manufacturers introducing some 60 new Ultrabook models at CES this year, and many indeed are alluring. Intel predicts that by the end of the year 40 percent of all consumer notebooks sold will be Ultrabooks, although some analysts pooh-pooh that sunny forecast.

Whatever the end result, this attempt at cloning Apple’s technical success, much like the Android-based cloning of the iconic iPhone and iPad before it, is a win for the consumer. With some exceptions, full-power PC notebooks have had the same size (too big) and weight (too heavy) for years, with little real imagination going into their design.

The new Ultrabooks are svelte, some as thin as a tablet, lightweight, good looking and just as powerful and fast—faster, even—than the notebooks they replace. And, in the same $600-$1,000 range as those notebooks, and less than the MacBook Air, which starts at $999.

Acer, for instance, introduced its Aspire S5 just before the annual industry show opened. It’s just 0.6 inches thick—nearly the same thickness as the first iPad—and weighs less than 3 pounds, with a 13.3-inch display.

And yet this Ultrabook is not one of those anemic failed netbooks that will be disappearing from store shelves this year. Besides having a full-power, dual-core Intel Core processor, the S5 has a solid-state hard drive (faster, quieter and using flash memory instead of rotating platters like a conventional hard drive) and has state-of-the-art ports for USB 3.0, HDMI and even Apple’s Thunderbolt technology, a superfast input-output port that leaves USB in the dust with 20 gigabits per second throughput.

The specifications for Ultrabooks as promoted by Intel are evolving, but the promise with new technology by the middle of the year is for even faster computers with record battery life.

As of now, Intel’s guidelines call for a notebook no more than 21mm (0.83 inches) thick, with at least five hours of battery life (some are approaching twice that) and extremely fast boot times (from a cold start, something like 17 seconds; from a light sleep, two seconds or less). Intel is encouraging use of solid-state hard drives and state-of-the-art ports as in the Acer S5. The goal is pricing well under $1,000, and while these early models are closer to $1,000 than “well under,” expect prices to come down quickly by spring.

Not on the list now, but likely to follow later this year with the release of Windows 8, will be touchscreens to blur the lines between the traditional notebook and tablets. In fact, in at least one promotional video Intel describes Ultrabooks as tablets, only for people who need keyboards.

Not stated, but readily apparent, is that much of Intel’s gamble depends on the introduction and success of Windows 8, which is designed to run equally well on a PC or a tablet. Both Microsoft’s new operating system and the Ultrabook are an attempt to adapt to all the changes that have come to the computing world: the rise of lightweight apps vs. monster locally based software suites, virtualized computing and storage using the cloud, portability and personalization as king, and always-connectedness.

Even without Windows 8, many of the new models already are designed, for instance, to connect in the background, even while sleeping, and download the latest email and newsfeeds so that the information is completely up to date the moment a user resumes using the Ultrabook.

While there have been notebooks with some of the features of Ultrabooks already in existence, none have brought them together in a way truly competitive with Apple’s MacBook Air, and they typically have commanded a premium price.

While the overall PC market gained just 2 percent worldwide last year, MacBook Air sales from October 2010 to September 2011 jumped by fivefold, and that laptop alone accounts for almost 2 percent of all PC sales, according to industry research firm Gartner.

Intel’s bet is an investment in keeping its x86 processors relevant in the consumer marketplace, as most tablets and smartphones to date use processors made by British-based ARM Holdings. With the help of Microsoft and a little bit of luck, it’s a bet worth making.