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Ultra Bust? Intel's "Ultrabook" Now Cheaper, Even Less Impressive

After four generations of attempts, Intel just made its failed and inconsequential ultrabook concept less expensive, but more pointless.

In the world of PCs, hardware makers have made a habit of dreaming up new ways to describe and market their devices. There are all-in-ones, netbooks, hybrids and convertibles, entertainment PCs and gaming notebooks—titles nearly as dubious as the names real estate brokers invent for New York neighborhoods (NoMad, SoBro). More or less, these designations are simply euphemisms to divide computers between those that are good, and those that are... not good. Okay, bad.

One of the worst offenses of this PC marketing? Ultrabooks, the term Intel hyped in 2011 to encompass higher-end PCs. The company set aside a $300 million fund to boost the ultrabook segment, which Intel defined with strict set of standards to force PC makers to create faster and more robust machines to compete with Apple. But after three generations of attempts at capturing the market, Intel's experiment has failed to see the pickup the company had anticipated. And this week, in showing off the latest line of ultrabooks at CES, Intel finally demonstrated how pointless and inconsequential the ultrabook designation always was.

Essentially, ultrabooks were designed to take on MacBooks, Apple's line of ultra-popular, lightweight laptops. In theory, Intel had the right idea: To earn the "ultrabook" badge, PC makers had to meet a certain set of criteria—for battery life, processor speed, and so forth. These thin devices typically retailed at roughly $1,000, and usually eschewed traditional optical drives and Ethernet ports.

Yet despite top-notch standards, ultrabooks failed to take off. One analyst at research firm IDC estimated that only 500,000 ultrabooks were sold in the first half of 2012, a figure which may have reached a million units by the year's end. As Digital Trends points out, that's nowhere near the 2.8 million MacBooks Apple sold in a single quarter of 2012; it would also account for less than one half of 1% of worldwide notebook shipments. Keep in mind, at last year's CES, Intel boldly predicted ultrabooks would account for 40% of notebook sales by the end of 2012.

This year? Intel is singing a different tune. On Monday, at CES, the company promised new standards for its fourth-generation ultrabooks, all but making the already arbitrary "ultrabook" distinction even more pointless. At the Las Vegas tech conference, Intel boasted that by the end of 2013, consumers would start to see $599 ultrabooks on the market. Ultrabook devices, originally designed to foster higher-quality PCs, will soon be competing in the low-end and mid-tier market. In other words, the company has cheapened the ultrabook concept, and it sounds as if Intel has almost ceded control of the high-end market to Apple. While low-end ultrabooks used to cost $800, we're now seeing default prices starting at $599, meaning hardware makers are returning to the historical PC strategy of selling cheap Windows PCs at high volumes.

But in a world increasingly dominated by low-cost tablets and other mobile devices, it's unclear whether that strategy will work. Simply put, a $599 ultrabook can't possibly compete with a $1,000 MacBook on specs, design, or features. And while PC makers hope Windows 8 and touch-enabled convertibles—hybrid devices that convert from laptop to tablet—will attract customers, it's questionable whether that style of ultrabook, which starts at $799, will sway consumers away from a $329 iPad Mini (or $159 Kindle Fire, for that matter).

After all, there's really nothing ultra about those devices, no matter what Intel names them.

[Image: Flickr user Intel Brasil]

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  • Tecchie

    I am not sure who the author is but, I think he has no idea about supply and demand. The prices are not dropping because of cost reduction by intel processor but because of more adoption on ultra books the supply chain becomes more productive.

    And why does Intel want to introduce a product that complete with its own product Mac Book  Air. Instead it is trying to bring the goodies that are only available to9 high end laptops to all. The simple was to interpret this is the ultra book features didnt drop(infact they specs became more stringent), it is just the cost that is going down.

  • Suman

    Dear Author, I pity your knowledge on Ultrabooks. Macbook is one of the OEM customers of Intel and Macbook is an ultrabook though Apple doesnot call it one. More Macbooks sold means more ultrabooks sold!. And what the heck, where did 4 generations of ultrabooks come from? I own an ultrabook ASUS Vivobook which i purchased for 500 bucks. It has an i5 processor with touchscreen and Win8. I like it much better than my IPAD.

  • RSE

    Yeah, tuned out from this author when he claimed Intel "ceded" the high end to Apple....I'm sorry what?

    Uh, Mr Carr, you do know that ALL Macbooks are Intel powered right??? 

    Apple can sell all they want, believe me, no one at Intel's crying.  They're trying to reinvigorate the PC market with other price points.

    How do I become a writer for Fast Company?  Looks like logic isn't required.

  • Ryan L

    I purchased a HP Envy ultrabook - it was about 600 bucks I think. The near instant boot is nice, do all PCs have that now?  

    It has decent sound, a backlit keyboard and a HD cam for skyping.  The only real downside is it has a fake brushed aluminum case. 

  • Nik

    The problem is not with Intel, but with the manufacturers (HP, Dell, Acer). They are too scared to push their ultrabooks through for fear of loosing sales in their traditional (low end pc) stronghold areas. The idea of "ultrabook" is right, and it would be foolish for intel to give it up only after a year.

  • Smith7

    I'm sorry, but what?  Intel hasn't had "four generations of" Ultrabooks; they've been on the market since October 2011, or y'know, a year and a quarter.  They announced their fourth generation of Core processors yesterday, so maybe you're thinking of that?

    Either way, you're mixing brand value and success.  Lowering the price of Ultrabooks doesn't make them "less impressive" at all, if anything it makes them more enticing for consumers.  You're understanding of the Ultrabook brand is completely wrong here.

    "Ultrabook" isn't a name for a thin computer; it's a name for laptops that follow strict spec requirements.  From this point on, they must have a touchscreen, be extremely thin, have a Core processor, use an SSD, use Siri-esque navigation, have certain sensors, and last at least 9 hours on a battery.  These laptops NEED to follow these specs so it doesn't matter if the brand is being devalued due its price because the laptops will consistently have high-end features.  Not to mention that the hybrid PC market has just began and you can hardly judge the PC's future by looking at a month of sales.  An interesting point to base your beliefs on will be after Haswell comes out; let's see how people buy thinner, longer lasting hybrid PCs that run Windows 8 and have a brand new processor.

    (Typed on my Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro)

  • JDM

    Sorry I have to differ, bought my son an ASUS X202 for Christmas and to say that he has "extensively" tested it from streaming video to gaming would be an understatement, for the $499 including its touchscreen I paid, I would put it up against any Apple product for twice the price any day. 

    Just because its not an Ultrabook does not mean it does not have what 90% of people need, and that device certainly meets the vision of an Ultrabook even if its not classified as one. (just make sure you buy a i3/i5/i7 and not Atom based device)