Ultrabooks: Progress a Year Later?
One year ago almost to the day at Computex 2011, Intel introduced Ultrabooks to the world. The first generation of Ultrabooks was nice, but they were also homogeneous (exception Dell XPS 13) and very expensive, limiting access to many demographics. So are things any different a year later? After seeing what Intel’s Ultrabook partners launched so far at Computex, it’s only fair to characterize it as impressive. Design wins and choice don’t guarantee sales, but you cannot have sales without it. OEMs at Computex launched some serious innovation with new form factors and usage models while lowering price points which I think deserves a deeper look. It also gives us a good indication how far Intel has come and where this is all going.
First generation Ultrabooks came with 13” displays. Display size is one of the most important purchase criteria and the fact is, consumers like varying display sizes to match their primary use case. Generally speaking, those who want to travel prefer smaller displays and those who want to replace desktops or do more content creation prefer the larger screens. Here are a few examples:
- HP ENVY 6t- 15.6” display, .78” thick and up to 9 hours battery life
- Gigabyte U2440- 14″ display, 22mm thick
- Dell XPS 13- 13″ display in a 12″ chassis, 18mm, up to 9 hours battery life
- Sony Vaio T- 11.6” display, .71” thick, and up to 7.5 hours battery life
Most Gen 1 Ultrabooks came with a 13″ display with 1,366 x 768 display resolutions. That is still the case today on average, but if consumers want more, they can get HD resolutions. As a reference, the highest supported MacBook Air resolution is 1,440 x 900, 48% less detail than full HD.
- Acer Aspire S7- 1,920 x 1,080 with a 13.3” display, with capacitive multi-touch.
- ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31- 1,920×1,080 resolution with a 13.3” display
- Toshiba U840W- 1,792 x 768 resolution with a 14.4″ display
- Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon- 1,600 x 900 resolution with a 14″ display
- Lenovo IdeaPad YOGA- 1,600 x 900 display resolution with a 13.1″ display
Even though the first Ultrabooks were light, OEMs are even challenging each other on weight. This is a good thing because in the future because when Windows 8 and convertibles arrive, these systems need to be a lot lighter as to operate as decent tablets. Here is the lightest, or at least the lightest claimed:
- Gigabyte X11- at 34.3 oz. with an 11.6″ display, claim to be the lightest (10% lighter than 11.6″ MacBook Air)
- NEC LaVie Z- 35.2 oz., with a 13.3″ display (26% lighter than 13.3″ MacBook Air)
Machined aluminum is nice, but it also exactly what Apple uses. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because it looks upscale, but in some ways unoriginal and also expensive and heavy. OEMs have gone out of their way to be different in this with chassis materials. Here are just a few that I think deserve highlighting:
- Dell XPS 13- carbon fiber bottom, machined aluminum chassis with rubberized palm rest
- HP ENVY- soft-touch, slip resistant base
- Gigabyte X11- carbon fiber
- Sony Vaio T- magnesium with aluminum lid
- Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon: carbon fiber
- NEC LaVie Z- lithium magnesium alloy
Touch didn’t make a lot of sense with Windows 7, but Windows 8 changes all this. As I am an avid tablet + dock user, I am constantly trying to touch my Ultrabook display. As long as the display doesn’t push back as it is being touched, I think it will work well. Even better will be convertible designs.
- Acer Aspire S7- the 11.6″ or 13.1″ display folds back 180 degrees
- ASUS Transformer Book- the 11.6″, 13″, or 14″ display detaches from the keyboard to use as a tablet
- Lenovo IdeaPad YOGA- the 13.1″ 1,600 x 900 display bends back 360 degrees to use as a tablet
- ASUS TAICHI- dual sided HD display in 11.6″ and 13″ form factors. Open the clamshell and it’s a notebook. Close it and it’s a tablet.
Original Ultrabooks came with Intel HD 3000 graphics. Second generation Ultrabooks come with HD 4000 graphics which, while improved, just won’t cut it for everyone. Discrete graphics attach rates in Western Europe, China, and Russia are all above 50%, so the need is there, and the new Ultrabooks deliver. With Nvidia launching the GeForce GTX 680M yesterday, things will be getting even more interesting. Discrete graphics are not available on the Apple MacBoook Air. Here’s what consumers can order today:
- Asus Zenbook Prime UX32VD- NVIDIA GeForce 620M and is 18mm thick
- Lenovo IdeaPad U410- NVIDIA GeForce 610M, up to 9 hours battery life, 21mm thick
- Gigabyte U2440- NVIDIA GeForce GT 630M, 21.5mm thick
First generation Ultrabooks were 100% consumer-focused. As we are one year into the Ultrabook initiative, commercial and even enterprise-grade solutions are available:
Premium price points aren’t necessarily a bad thing; just look at Apple. BUT, if you don’t have Apple’s brand, then as an OEM in the short-term you will need to live with lower volumes. Generally, the opening price point for the first gen Ultrabooks was $999 and for second generation, this will be much lower. Intel and their partners invested in alternative chassis designs, hybrid hard drives, display technology and the inclusion of Core i3 processors to lower opening price points. One important point to keep in mind is that these same, lower-priced Ultrabooks still provide the minimum acceptable bar of experience on vectors like battery life, responsiveness, fast resume, and built-in security features. Here are just a few:
- Lenovo U310 – starting at $749 with 13.3″ display, 500GB hybrid hard drive, 3rd Gen Intel Core i3 Processors, unknown case material (42% less than MacBook Air)
- Sony VAIO T- starting at $769 with 13.3″ display, 3rd Gen Intel Core i5 processor, 320GB hybrid hard drive, magnesium/aluminum case, (41% less than MacBook Air)
So have Intel and its partners come a long way in a year? Absolutely. In one year everything has changed; from design diversity and differentiation, user interfaces, improved usage models and price points. These are all good future indicators for solid sales, because in the end, this is exactly what consumers really want. To be clear, design wins don’t guarantee sales but you cannot have sales without them. The traditional notebook market will continue to grow but I believe many consumers will choose to pay a bit more for an Ultrabook as they are looking at a better experience for a $100-200 increased investment. In many regions and demographics, that isn’t a lot to ask for, but in many, it’s not. For those who need a new notebook, want a tablet, but cannot afford both, I believe many more will choose an Ultrabook than ever before. As touch and convertibles become more pervasive and more affordable given many of the huge Intel touch investments, even more consumers who want it all will choose a touch Ultrabook. This will be an interesting 12 months, that’s for sure.