Intel's $1000 Ultrabook: The Dream and The Reality

I would take a bet and say that you aren't crushed about news that Asus and Acer may not be able to sell you an ultrabook for less than a grand in the near future. That is, if you have been waiting for such a computer, bad news but could be completely irrelevant: If you really want an ultrabook, you could simply buy a MacBook Air, which is already available for a dollar below $1000.

Expectations And Reality

I have to admit that I haven't been a big fan of the ultrabook idea since its very first pitch, simply because I don't believe it is a product that deserves the name "ultra" (at least not yet). From what we know so far, an ultrabook is defined by being super slim, super fast (startup and response time) and a decent amount of battery time. It's a matter of your perception if that is enough to justify the description "ultra". I would say, though, that thinner and faster is exactly what we have been getting for the past 15 years - and this pitch is getting a bit long in the tooth.

I have been asking friends what they would expect from an ultrabook for several weeks now. The best response so far was "something that is beyond 'better'", meaning that "ultra" is not just one step into the future, but at least two. When compared to the actual device pitch of an ultrabook, most people I talked to were disappointed as they expected something different than what they have today. They expect a notebook (a notebook, not a tablet or hybrid device) that is decidedly better than the notebook they use and know today. I am not a market researcher, but I believe the name ultrabook carries a substantial risk to disappoint consumers if it is simply a copy of the MacBook Air.

Cost: Does it Matter?

We will read quite a bit about Apple's ability to already sell ultrabooks for less than $1000 today, while other manufacturers cannot. The answer is likely somewhere between Apple's ability to dictate hardware prices in the supply chain, its capability to design computer systems incredibly well and the fact that it may have planned its systems for a much longer time than Acer, Asus and others have. However, I would question the significance of a $999 price point and would argue that you would buy an ultrabook for $1099 or $1299 just as well, if it carries the value to back it up.

What we don't need at this time is another notebook that is simply thinner and lighter. If I am shopping for a workhorse notebook today, I am aiming for a $600 price tag, simply because I believe that such a device is good enough. Quite frankly, a $600 device will do most of the work I need to do just as well as a system that costs $1200 or $1500. I don't think I am alone with that opinion: I consider my work computer as a commodity product that should be as affordable as possible. However, that does not mean that I would not spend more money, if there was a reason to do so. If a $1200 or $1500 notebook was not only much more portable and faster, but also offers significantly different features that make my life a lot easier, I would have no problem making the extra stretch.

When the ultrabook was announced, representatives from Intel told me that they are considering the ultrabook as an innovation platform - a platform that is merely the foundation for what they hope vendors are coming up with, especially in the way users interact with their ultrabooks.

Thinner and faster notebooks aren't innovative enough to justify a $1000+ price tag. However, if, for example, a vendor could finally make audio input work with 100% accuracy or if a vendor could bridge the gap between tablets and notebooks without forcing the user to make unreasonable compromises, then I'd bet that there would be many buyers who could be willing to pay $1200 and more for such a notebook.

Adjusted Reality: The PC Distortion Field

PC vendors will have to take risks to find out what features could be compelling enough to reach a $1200 - $1500 price tag. One feature they are almost always missing is design and general appeal. Where the Mac succeeds, the PC usually fails. I am still astonished that there is no major PC maker that is challenging Apple with a PC design that could be considered being unique and equally attractive as Apple's notebooks. Sure, some have tried and may have come close occasionally, but if we are honest, it's Apple that sets the benchmark for industrial design especially for portable computing devices.

Could the PC industry also create Windows PCs that are as attractive as Apple devices and offer them in a way that you would be willing to wait in line for it? Could the PC industry adjust the expectation for a new type of (Windows) computing device and create a reality distortion field that would surround a product with the appeal that is necessary to create an actual form of consumer excitement for a new PC?

Of course, it can - as soon the PC industry is dropping the goal of building the best Apple product copies and as soon as it is finding its way back to create desirable products that take innovative risks. Any computer vendor today should be aiming for a product people are willing to line up for. Anything less will be just another forgettable computer design.

The Dream: Ultrabook

I don't think that missing the $999 price tag is a big deal. Missing the promise and opportunity of the implication of the "ultrabook" could have far greater implications. There is a good chance that marketing has over-promised what the first ultrabooks will really be, but the category name still offers a tremendous reward for the vendor who can deliver on the promise and deliver an ultra-product that differentiates itself not just by its form factor, but by its overall package that delivers a vastly better computing experience that the notebooks we have today. A simply thinner and slightly faster notebook won't cut it.

  • pbrigido
    I think this is right on the money. More PC makers really need to get some good looking products on the market. For me, that begins with slimming down the laptop and ditching the awful painted plastic that many manufacturers use.

    I would love to see a company such as Asus take a risk and streamline a laptop and get it to where it has a really functional design...even if the price may be higher than a competitor with similar specs.
  • decembermouse
    You're right Wolfgang, it doesn't deserve the "Ultra" moniker.

    I think the concept should continue to move forward, but not in this direction. Nobody needs a super-thin notebook with an i7 under the hood. That is a workhorse CPU, paired with "meh" graphics. If the industry moves towards this form factor in the future, I'd love to see them do it with more balanced hardware.

    I'm talking, of course, about Fusion. I don't need 4 cores with 4 more logical cores in a laptop. 4 cores is fine... take the 4 logical ones, and give me a Radeon 6xxx. Plus, I should be able to underVolt Llano, and Intel has locked their i3/5/7 chips from underclocking or underVolting via software, and everyone knows a laptop BIOS isn't going to give you those options.
  • malphas
    Basically form factor, styling and battery life are top of most people's priorities for this kind of device, much moreso than performance; so what manufacturers need to do is stop using i7's and pricey SSDs and instead get one of these slim chassis' and stick in some cheapish components like like a Celeron B847, a 32GB or 64GB budget SSD, and a few GB of RAM, and sell it for something between $600 to $800.
  • Holy Smokes Batman!!

    from hence forth I shall check on the Author first before reading the article!

    Love Apple much!

    Made a little bit of sick come into my mouth skimming this article!

    SHAME on you Toms, This belongs in a personal blog!
  • jrharbort
    It would be much easier for vendors to hit the price points if Intel didn't charge a premium for their ULV platform. Seriously, some ULV based i7s are well over $300.
  • lamorpa
    malphasBasically form factor, styling and battery life are top of most people's priorities for this kind of device, much moreso than performanceWhat? Not everyone is a sucker. A computer is used. Use is its number one feature. Use is directly related to performance.

    I agree there is a (sucker) market segment that buys a computer for bragging rights (thin, shiny, etc.), but those iUsers are not the bulk of the market.
  • cadder
    My wife wanted a 12" notebook, not a netbook, and this was before the airapples were available. I found her a 12" Toshiba, very light, with dual core processor AND a DVD drive. It cost about $1300.

    A couple of years later I bought a 13" Toshiba for $550, almost equal to hers. A little heavier, a little wider, no DVD drive, equal performance. It is great for me for travel. I would like a slightly faster processor, more battery, an SSD and a better keyboard. The styling of the machine is great. ASUS had a competing model that was more money. Today I might be able to get all that I want in some of the business class ultraportables, for a little over the $1000 price. For now I'm just considering putting an SSD in mine and living with it.

    Thinness is really at the bottom of my wish list. I want light, good battery, and good processor in that order. Today's small ASUS is the U31 and it seems to provide 90% of an ultrabook, for a much lower price.
    The styling is generic but sleek enough, it needs to be a bit lighter, and I would prefer an SSD.
  • rockwell61301
    The main issue with any manufacturer putting out a windows based laptop is the bloatware. Dell, HP, Sony, etc. are putting in their own personal tier of software/interface to "better the user experience" or to set them apart from each other.

    How many of you wipe and do a fresh install of Win7 on any laptop, new or used, just to rid of that garbage crapware that is included. This wiping of the HD works for the readers of Toms but for the average computer user it does not. I sympathize with new computer buyers and all the garbage software they have to deal with and I can understand why Apples are an appealing option

    When the manufacturers stop installing the bloat and trial software the end user will have a better Windows experience which makes Windows a better product.

    My $.02
  • lamorpa
    rockwell61301The main issue with any manufacturer putting out a windows based laptop is the bloatware...Bloatware merely fills HD space, the cheapest thing in the system. If there's only a SSD, they leave the bloatware out. Not relevant.
  • lutel
    For me any notebook nowadays would be "Ultra" if they could give it 4:3 LCD panel, which gives much more space and makes much more sense in notebook world. I'm still working on T60 which is latest 4:3 laptop on the market with decent screen. Notebook producers cheeted all users claiming they are giving "wide screens", when actually theses screens are _short_.