Ultrabooks are big news at CES this year. Acer, Samsung, Dell, Lenovo, and Toshiba all introduced new models. The Intel booth looks like ultrabook Central this year, with tablets and netbooks relegated to a tiny corner of the show floor, and other devices virtually non-existent.
And Intel kicked off the Consumer Electronics Show with a press conference on Monday where the company showed concepts for upcoming ultrabooks with touchscreens, see-through touchpads, digital sensors, and gesture support. Intel and Asus also
gave away loaned 50 ultrabooks to attendees.
I happened to be one of the lucky folks that found an Asus Zenbook UX31 taped to the bottom of my chair. I’ve been using it to write articles, edit photos, transcode and upload video and keep you up to date during CES week.
I’ll have a full review soon, but in a nutshell it might be one of the best laptops I’ve ever used. It’s fast, it’s light, it has a high resolution 13.3 inch, 1600 x 900 pixel display, but doesn’t weigh much more than my 3-year old, 10 inch Asus Eee PC 1000H.
Sure, I have a few nits to pick. I wish the battery was user replaceable. The keyboard isn’t as responsive as it could be, and I don’t love the touchpad. But I’ve only been using the laptop a few days. I might get used to some of its quirks, and it gets decent enough battery life that I’m not too concerned about the fact that I can’t swap out the battery.
But here’s the thing. I doubt I would have ever bought this laptop… because it sells for about $1099. That’s a lot of money to spend when you can find a cheaper model that’s just as thin and light, or one which has just as fast a processor.
I’m not saying ultrabooks aren’t worth a thousand dollars or more. That Sandy Bridge processor, aluminum frame, 128GB solid state disk and high resolution display don’t come cheap. But it’s not clear if an ultrabook like the UX31 offers enough of an advantage over other models to justify that premium price.
A few years ago all thin and light laptops carried huge price tags. If you wanted a 3 pound laptop you were probably going to have to pay $2000 for it. Netbooks changed that, driving down our expectations for thin and light laptops.
Ultrabooks are designed to raise our expectations again. Whereas netbooks were positioned as secondary computers that you would pick up to use in addition to a notebook or desktop computer, an ultrabook really could be a primary PC.
But as netbook prices fell, so did the cost of all computers. Between 2008 and 2011, the number of low cost notebooks hitting the market skyrocketed, and I can’t help but feel like Intel isn’t only pushing the ultrabook platform because it fills a need identified by consumers — but because it fills a need identified by Intel and it’s partner PC makers: to convince shoppers that computers are worth spending $1000 or more on.
That said, we’re seeing tablets follow a path paved by netbooks. They first hit the market for $500 and up, but now the market is flooded with decent tablets for under $300, and slightly less decent tablets for under $200.
Right now most ultrabooks look a lot alike. They’re all based on Intel’s guidelines for thin, light, and powerful machines. PC companies are trying to compete in little ways, some by offering a DVD drive, for instance, or a 14 or 15 inch display. But eventually I suspect they’ll start competing on price — and if people start buying ultrabooks in sufficient quantities the cost of components will drop as well.
So it might not be that long before we start to see ultrabooks selling for $499 or even less. And once that happens, the profit margins on this class of computer could drop and I kind of wonder whether computer makers will then rush to find the next premium product to push in lieu of netbooks, tablets, or ultrabooks.
So as I look around CES and see ultrabook after ultrabook I try to remind myself that CES isn’t necessarily a show where companies come to display the products that people want. It’s a show where they display the products they want you to want. And right now, they want you to want ultrabooks because they’re shiny, new, and potentially profitable. And as I mentioned, they are quite nice… but they’re not the only mobile computing devices around.
Netbooks are still selling, but according to Intel sales in the US have dipped, while sales in emerging markets are growing. Overall, though, there’s definitely been a decline in netbook sales — but Intel says millions of netbooks with Atom processors continue to ship each year.
Over and over I’ve heard exhibitors at CES this year acknowledge that nobody by Apple has had much success selling tablets. Android 4.0 could turn that around. Windows 8 could turn that around. The game isn’t over yet. But ultrabooks really feel like a solution looking for a problem, from a consumer standpoint. From a manufacturer standpoint, it feels like that problem has been identified: People aren’t buying enough computers, and tablets didn’t help… so maybe this will?’
Update: It turns out that Asus and Intel didn’t give away 50 ultrabooks to attendees, but rather loaned them. Five days after the event I received an email letting me know I’d have to send the laptop back within 1-2 months… which I wish I’d known when I threw out the packaging because I didn’t have room for it in my suitcase.