Ultrabooks: the ultimate computer?

Published in The Market, 2012.

Ultrabooks: the ultimate computer?
Sleek, light and powerful – the ultrabook knows how to seduce. We take a look at this up-and-coming class of laptops, and consider some of the products launching this year.

Combining elegant design with power and portability, the ultrabook makes an attractive proposition. Dozens of contenders in this new technology category are set for launch this year, each one seemingly better than the last. As the ultrabook brings together the best elements of laptops and tablets, is this the future for portable computers?

Just consider the evidence: not only are ultrabooks beautiful to look at, with their sleek, elegant exteriors, but they are also incredibly thin and light. Traditionally these features have come at the expense of power, but ultrabooks boast both superior performance and impressive battery stamina. The only niggle is that they are a bit pricey, launching around the $1000-mark, however technology cost trends suggest this should come down over time.

Thin and light
“This is an extraordinarily interesting new area,” says Peter Winkle, director of product marketing at Dell Europe. Dell, one of the world’s leading computer manufacturers, is launching its XPS 13 Ultrabook in the UK in March. “Media and high performance were the focus areas when we designed the XPS, but ultimately we wanted it to be thin and light,” says Winkle. “It is targeted at the professional user, who looks for speed, power, design, portability and battery life.”

A key feature of an ultrabook is a solid-state drive, which makes for a powerful and quick machine. In addition there is a energy-stingy Intel processor, ensuring an impressive battery life of six to eight hours. Most of the ultrabooks are set in slim aluminium cases, weighting three pounds or less.

“The ultrabook very much fits in with the trend of IT consumerisation. It is a product that people are proud of owning; they can use it at home or while travelling but it also fits in at work,” says Winkle. Employees are increasingly bringing their own computers into the office, and the Dell ultrabook is set up for this with the option of additional security measures and the option of pro-support.

“The way we use computers are a reflection on the way we live and work,” says Mike Jeremy, head of equity research at Daniel Stewart. “The ultrabook sits in the sweet spot between work and play, between fashion and the clunky laptop format.”

A key enabler of the ultrabook trend is the proliferation of the internet, which means we can get connectivity almost anywhere. This is significant because the ultrabook comes with only a fraction of the memory of traditional laptops; this is the price to pay for a fast and light machine with an all-day battery life. “But people are increasingly comfortable using the internet to store data, download new software or stream film or music,” says Jeremy. With the ultrabook, the selling point is not how much memory we can keep in our laps, but how seamlessly the gadget hooks up to the internet and the data stored there.

Work and play
Ultrabooks were the talk of the town at January’s CES conference, the annual consumer technology fair where manufacturers present the year’s gadgets. Last year it was all about tablet computers, a category with plenty of mileage still left. While forecasts from Juniper Research has ultrabooks growing three times faster than tablets over the next five years, to 178 million shipped, tablet volumes will still be higher, at 253 million in 2016. Where ultrabooks trump tablets is for people who want a computer they can use for work, not just primarily for play. As pretty as tablets are, it is near impossible to do any real typing on them, let alone work up a spreadsheet or presentation.

Ultrabooks also have several advantages compared to its other competitors, the classic laptop and the netbook. While the netbook is better for price, the mini-laptop has little to write home about when it comes to processing power and battery life. Price and storage are the key reasons traditional laptops will stick around as well, but as we are increasingly carrying our computers with us, to work at home, on the train, or in a café, a feather-light machine with an all-day battery capacity should start to sound increasingly compelling.

‘Ultrabook’ is a trademark owned by Intel, whose chips sit at the core of all the devices in the category, but it was arguably Apple who invented the actual concept. Just as the 2010 launch of the iPad spawned a whole industry of tablet computers, it would be the MacBook Air that is responsible for inspiring the ultrabook trend. The Air lacked certain features which people had become accustomed to in a laptop, such as a disc-drive, but a lot has happened since the Air saw the light of day in 2008. As the maturation of the internet means media content can be streamed, consumers are becoming less worried about not being able to run discs on laptops. In the same vein, users are increasingly accessing data remotely, meaning we are less bothered about memory capacity when the internet can be used for unlimited storage.

“While Intel’s control of the brand ensures that ultrabooks stand out from traditional notebooks, vendors face a balancing act in terms of product strategy,” said Daniel Ashdown, analyst at Juniper Research. In his report on the growth of the ultrabook, Ashdown pointed out how it is difficult for any manufacturer to elbow in on an area pioneered by the mighty Apple without offering something significant, either in terms of features or price. This is the main problem with the challengers to the MacBook Air: “Several of today’s ultrabooks are too expensive for many consumers.”

Best of several worlds
In all likelihood, ultrabooks will co-exist with laptops, netbooks and tablets for a while to come, because these products meet four different user needs.

“Take tablets, they are doing very well at the moment, but there are still ten times as many laptops being sold,” says Dell’s Winkle. While companies are starting to incorporate iPads and other Apple products into their office IT systems, Winkle points out that ultrabooks are easier to integrate because they run on the Windows operating system, which is used by the vast majority of businesses.

“Ultrabooks are not replacing the laptop, because they have traded reduced features for power,” says Daniel Stewart’s Jeremy. “While people are getting used to tablets, they are mostly for media access and viewing content. Ultrabooks have keyboards, meaning you can use them to work.”

But already there is a convergence at play. A few ultrabooks already incorporate touchscreens, and Winkle expects touch to become a prominent feature as this niche develops. Voice and gesture will likely to be next in line for integration; these technologies have already popped up in mobile phones and games consoles and should make their way into the next generation of laptops. Concludes Winkle: “Ultrabooks are solving several of the problems the industry have been keen to fix.”

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