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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]