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Ultrabooks: Hardware Pop Star or Has Been?

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Ultrabooks are the market's answer to a shrinking laptop market being crushed by tablets and premium notebooks, like the Macbook Air.

At the consumer electronics show (CES) in Las Vegas in early 2012, the main goal of many a laptop manufacturer was to show that they could make PCs that weren’t like PCs.

The result was a few new slickly designed machines and lots of buzzwords, such as "convertible," "flexible," and "ultra." Remember that last word; it will come up later. Unfortunately, these glossy PCs were just product releases.

Meanwhile, the release of Apple’s iPad 3 in March of 2012 was less like a product release and more like a red carpet entrance – a long-anticipated album release or a blockbuster movie. The iPad itself marks a new era in computing that sees technology hardware as a pop star in its own right.

In fact, consumers and analysts were in such a tizzy about the iPad release that technology research shop Forrester Research revised its earlier forecasts, predicting that 112.5 million U.S. adults will have a tablet by 2016, a sharp rise from an earlier estimate of 82.1 million

And just like with a movie release, an album hitting shelves on your favorite actor posing for picture gains in popularity, critics gawk, analysts analyze and competitors scramble. That’s exactly what is happening as the market for tablets chips away at the traditional PC market.

As of 2012, the only perceived – if ultimately futile – antidote to Apple’s fevered fervor is what word technologists and consumers alike kept hearing in the early days of 2012: Ultra.


Enter Ultrabook

Enter Intel with its Ultrabook, a product the company hopes can fill the gap between the waning market for PCs and the white-hot market for tablets. The Ultrabook claims to fall somewhere in between.

What separates Intel from the pack, at least initially, is its position as a dynamo in the microprocessor market and its ability to work with manufacturers such as Toshiba, Acer, Samsung and Asus, to take the chunkiness out of laptop design, making the machine lighter to carry and increasing battery, processing power and random access memory (RAM).

Intel believes that what it has described as an "ultra responsive" and "ultra sleek" device, can make waves in a technology market that is increasingly event-based – a market that also responds to and relies heavily on the cool factor. To that end, the company even enlisted Black Eyed Peas front man Will.I.Am for a demonstration on the technological applications of its new product. Clearly, Apple isn’t the only company with a penchant for generating buzz.

A Release for the "Books"

Intel, one of the hardware makers coming out of the CES show with nominally positive reviews on its strategy – if not its actual products – has decided not to go head to head with Apple by taking a page out of the Mac book.

On the heels of the CES conference, Intel continued to push its own answer to Apple in the form of a netbook-meets-laptop PC. To do this, Intel has taken the Mac out and replaced it with – there’s that word again – "ultra."

In that vein, as many reviewers have pointed out, the Ultrabook is a fresh take on Apple’s Macbook Air.

Lauding the Ultrabook’s fast boot times, stronger network connectivity and the likelihood that it will be sold at a lower price, Intel hopes to cut into Apple’s market share in Macbooks.

Biography: Macbook Air

The Macbook Air was formally introduced in January 2008, with an updated CPU, increased hard drive and battery capacity, and enhanced graphic components.

More tweaks followed in late 2009, with faster processing and more battery juice. Then in the fall of 2010, the 13.3-inch screen model improved on monitor resolution and added a flash storage function, thereby replacing the traditional hard drive.

By the summer of 2011, the addition of Intel’s Sandy Bridge dual core processors and a backlit keyboard and upgrades in Bluetooth compatibility made the latest iteration of MacBook Air a prototype of what later would be the PC’s answer to this machine. (Read more about Apple’s history of product releases in Creating the iWorld: A History of Apple.)

Dimensions: Addressing the Three Little Cares

Marketing blitz and technology nomenclature aside, the focus on mobility is what both the Ultrabook and its Macbook counterpart bring to the fray. Ideally, both manufacturers are looking to eliminate the three little cares that are actually big concerns among business users and personal technology enthusiasts alike.

For one, no one, be it for work or personal use, wants to lug around a heavy machine. Second, even if the machine itself is light, up until now many light units were considered light on processing power and memory as well. And last but not least is the question of utility in an increasingly Web-borne, app-driven and media-player influenced world. Before the Ultrabook, Macbook Air was leading the pack here. Actually, it was the pack. Now it might just have a competitor in the Ultrabook.

Most Specs Similar Except Storage

The biggest criticisms about Ultrabook are aimed squarely at its name, which, prior to its formal launch in the fall of 2012, was not defined by any formal standards. What makes the machine "ultra" is the biggest question. Intel is so excited about the moniker ("ultra" excited, you might say) that it has trademarked it. However, so far, there isn’t much to set the Ultrabook ahead of the Macbook. Check out this comparison of some of their specs:

  • Both the Ultrabook and the Macbook come in at nearly three-quarters of an inch in height and just under 13 inches in width.
  • Weight for both models is well under three pounds, with the heaviest Ultrabook computer from Acer tipping the scales at 2.98 pounds and the Macbook Air at 2.38 pounds.
  • Both have monitor screens that measure 13.3 inches diagonally, although Intel promised 2012 would see the release of models, pending cooperation with manufacturers, of a 14- or 15-inch screen on select models.
  • The CPU on both the Ultrabook and MacBook Air is an Intel I5 processor with between 1.6 and 1.7 GHz and both come equipped with Intel HD Graphics 3000.
  • With RAM the same across the board at 4GB and battery life between six and seven hours on both models, the only truly divergent characteristic is storage. While the MacBook Air has a 128 GB solid-state disk-drive (SSD), the Acer Aspire version of the Ultrabook combines a 320 GB with a 20 GB SSD to help speed up some operations.

And the Winner Is… Intel…Sort Of

The Ultrabook is no game changer; it’s just a lighter PC. Regardless of how "ultra" these machines are, as of early 2012 the Mac had outgrown the PC in market share for 19 straight quarters, or five years in a row, and with all the similarities in design and performance Apple loyalists will likely stay home.

But for Intel, there is a consolation prize in that its hardware architecture and microprocessor components such as Sandy Bridge and the newer Ivy Bridge will be key to the growth of both Macs and PCs and, by extension, the Ultrabook and Macbook Air.

In that sense, Intel has positioned itself quite well for both the ongoing consumerization of IT and an enterprise space made more limber by the need to stay mobile. For Intel, having its hand in both pots on the PC and Mac side is what will help it keep pace and remain – for lack of a better word – "ultra" competitive in the technology arena going forward.


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Jabulani Leffall

Jabulani Leffall is an award-winning journalist and writer who attended journalism school at the University of Missouri. His work has appeared in the Financial Times of London, Dow Jones Marketwatch, The Baltimore Sun, Investor’s Business Daily, Variety, CFO Magazine, Compliance Week, Black Enterprise, the Los Angeles Business Journal and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications. He has also appeared on ABC World News and CNN as a commentator of business and world affairs. He has been a George Washington Williams Fellow for the Independent Press Association, where from 2002 to 2004 he studied the effects of subprime lending on poor communities.…