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Do Ultrabooks stand a chance, or are they destined for failure?

The potential pitfalls of Ultrabooks

If Ultrabooks have all these points going for them, what’s to prevent them from capturing 40 percent of the notebook market next year?

The first obstacle may be price. Although Asus and Acer are expected to jump out of the gate with low-end Ultrabook models priced a bit under $1,000, most of the first generation of Ultrabooks are more likely to land between $1,200 and $1,500. And, as neat as it is to have a super-thin notebook, plenty of customers will opt for far less-expensive traditional notebooks instead. As computer makers ramp up production and refine their Ultrabook designs, prices will eventually come down, but the same is true for traditional notebooks.

Toshiba Portege Z830 series Ultrabook

The second obstacle may be quick obsolescence—at least for the first generation. Some major PC makers, like Sony, Dell, and perhaps even HP, are expected to wait until mid-2012 and Intel’s forthcoming Ivy Bridge processors before launching their first Ultrabooks. That means the first generation of Ultrabooks (based on existing Sandy Bridge processors) will have a market window of just six months: By mid-2012, they’ll be obsolete. Computer makers may find it difficult to sell businesses and consumers on a brand new super-cool technology platform that’ll be supplanted in a few months’ time. If customers wait for Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks, that means fewer first-generation Ultrabooks will be sold, and that makes it less likely Intel will reach that 40 percent goal.

A third consideration is what customers will be giving up for an Ultrabook. There are distinct segments of the notebook market that value portability above all else: Business travelers and students in particular have long favored ultraportable notebooks that are easy to carry. On their own, Ultrabooks definitely meet anyone’s requirements on weight and portability, and will outperform traditional ultraportables. However, with battery life starting at five hours, many users will still be carrying around power adapters to get through their days. Traditional ultraportables and netbooks will still handle day-to-day stuff and run longer, and they’ll probably be cheaper, too. Folks with extreme lightweight needs will almost certainly be lured by tablets. Plus, most Ultrabooks won’t have swappable batteries, so if customers need more than five hours away from an outlet… too bad.

Ultrabook customers will also have to consider whether giving up screen real estate and optical drives are worthwhile compromises. At least initially, Ultrabooks will likely feature screens ranging from 11.6 to 13.3 inches. Although there’s some wiggle room with native resolution, Intel’s pressure to keep price tags low means most of those screens will top out at 1,366 by 768 pixels, especially in first-generation units. It’s also highly unlikely UItrabooks will have integrated optical drives: they’re too big, too heavy, and almost impossible to manage in that 21mm of depth. Users will certainly be able to connect external optical drives as peripherals, but for folks who need a drive more than once in a blue moon, that really reduces portability.

However, many Ultrabook customers may not care: They’ll purchase their software online, purchase or stream video via broadband, and purchase or rent games and other content online. Apple’s MacBook Airs have never included an optical drive, and the company has even dropped optical drives from its desktop Mac minis. Ultraportable makers have long omitted optical drives from their system, opting to offer external drives as options. Plainly, many computer users are ready to part with CDs and DVDs the same way they bid adieu to floppies over a decade ago.

Upshot

At least initially, Ultrabooks seem destined to appeal mainly to users looking for high-performance ultraportable notebooks: Ultrabooks may be ideal for some, but folks who need the longest possible battery life, discrete graphics performance, or reasonable screen real estate will have to look elswhere. Sales of first-generation Ultrabooks will almost certainly be constained, meaning that if Intel is hoping to have an Ultrabook holiday hit on its hands, it needs to be looking to the 2012 holiday season.

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