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.

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9 replies on “CES 2012: PC makers really want you to like ultrabooks”

  1. What do you mean they want you to give it back …did they tell you that b4 you got it and why would intel tape a new ultrabook to the bottom of your chair if you could not keep It. I don’t know…. first intel fakes the graphics portion of the press conference and now they are faking giveaways ?

    1. I’m going to chalk this one up to a really big miscommunication. 99 percent of the time when a company sends me a review unit they expect to the get product back and I’m happy to return it. In fact, I usually insist on returning items since I don’t want it to look like anyone is “buying” coverage on Liliputing.

      I was willing to make an exception for a product I *won* because nobody selected me or communicated with me directly about what I could or couldn’t do with the product before I *found* it. But it turns out I didn’t win anything other than the opportunity to borrow and review a notebook that was released several months ago.

      If Mooly Eden had taken to the stage and said “we’re going to loan review units to 50 people in the crowd, reach under your seat to discover if you’re one of the people that will get one today” then that would have been fine. Instead, they just said, 50 lucky people will get one today. Reach under your seat to see if it’s there.

      Then we had to drop off a business card in order to pick up a box with the charging cable, VGA and Ethernet adapters. This was Monday.

      On Friday I got an email saying that this was a loaner that would need to be returned in 1-2 months.

      I’m not particularly bitter about having to return it. I didn’t expect to walk away from CES with an $1100 laptop. But Intel really should have made it clear what was happening from the get-go. If they had, I wouldn’t have thrown out the box immediately in order to make room for the laptop in my backpack as I continued to cover the Consumer Electronics Show that day.

      Now when I send back the ultrabook I’m going to need to wrap it in bubble wrap and newspaper to make sure it’s not damaged during shipping.

  2. Apple is selling an many 13″ MBA’s as they can make at well over $1K.  If Intel can stick to its script and get the prices of these notebooks a couple of hundred $$ less than the Air, I would guess that we will see a lot of folks replacing their current notebooks a lot earlier than necessary.

  3. Brad, given all the wireless/GPS problems with the Prime’s all-metal back, can you do a comparative wifi test with this unit against your other non-metal shell laptops? RF performance may end up being the Achilles’ heel of ultrabooks.

      1. Also not all Ultrabooks will be using all metal casing.  It’s just easier to design a thin and light to spec using metal than other materials like plastic but with increasingly thin system components becoming available means they can add some thickness to the casing without making the whole system thicker.

        Some of the alternate casing materials can also help reduce production costs and makes it more likely we will see less all metal designs.  At least for the cheaper models…

  4. Brad, the reality is that price is what killed the radio star. Who needs all the premium aspects of an ultrabook? A select few but not the masses. Oh how Intel wished the netbook never happened. The next gen netbooks will be more than enough for most people specs wise for secondary computer.

    1. I should mention that it will take this “next generation” Atom for people to upgrade their existing netbooks. People simply don’t need to upgrade like they used to.

  5. Here’s a thought: Do we really want to always buy the cheapest computer with such-and-such a processor, such-and-such a hard disk/SSD, and such-and-such a weight?

    There are a lot of intangibles that a quality computer can have — a keyboard comfortable to type on, a screen that can be looked at four hours without causing eye fatigue, a good responsive touchpad (or even trackpoint for ThinkPad users), etc.  There isn’t an objective spec out there for, say, “comfortable keyboard” — but for a computer someone uses every day, the difference between an uncomfortable and comfortable keyboard can be the difference between an unpleasant and pleasant day of work.

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