Ultrabooks, MacBook Air, and the Need for Inspiration

Steve Wildstrom / April 18th, 2012

Inspired by Intel stickerIs the laptop business doomed to slowly ebb away as tablets capture more and more of the mobile market? It’s not hard to see a future where the world is divided into tablets and smartphones for the overwhelming majority of uses and workstations for heavy-duty computing, with very little in between.

This is not a very pleasant world for Intel to contemplate. Its efforts to date to win a share of the phone and tablet market have been unavailing and the success of a new generation of low-power Intel chips is far from assured.

Photo of Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

This explains the marketing logic behind Intel’s $300 million campaign to promote Ultrabooks, its trademarked name for very thin and light laptops. If the past is any guide, a fair chunk of that $300 million is flowing straight to computer manufacturers who produce laptops that follow Intel’s specifications and display an “Inspired by Intel” slogan on their products and in their ads.

Whose inspiration? The problem is that a sticker is a poor substitute for actual inspiration, which has been in painfully short supply for years in laptops designed to run Windows. And it’s painfully obvious that the inspiration for Ultrabooks can not from Intel but from the Apple MacBook Air. Comparing the specifications of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook and the MacBook Air 13″ make it hard avoid the conclusion that the Dell was intended as a sincere form of flattery:

Dell XPS 13 UltrabookApple MacBook Air 13”
Display13.3” , 1366×76813.3”, 1440×900 *
Processor1.6 GHz Intel i51.7 GHz Intel i5 *
Memory4 GB4 GB
Storage128 GB SSD128 GB SSD
Dimensions12.4”x8.1”x.24-.71”12.8”x8.94”x.11-.68”
Weight2.99 lb.2.96 lb.
Price$999$1,299
MacBook Air photo

MacBook Air 13"

A few Ultrabooks, like the $1,399 Hewlett-Packard Envy Spectre with a striking all-glass lid, avoid being Air lookalikes, but even HP admits the Spectre is intended more as a design statement than a mass-market product. By and large, PC makers seem determined to make their products look as much like MacBooks as possible.

Inspired by Microsoft? The introduction of Windows 8 at the end of this year could prove a major turning point for laptops. The problem is that it is difficult at this point to tell in which direction.

One thing that is clear is that Win 8 will cause a major fragmentation in the Windows hardware/software platform next year. There will be:

  • Traditional Windows notebooks, including Ultrabooks, and desktops powered by an assortment of Intel and AMD processors.
  • Intel-powered tablets that, like traditional systems, will be capable of running both new applications designed to Microsoft’s touch-centric Metro user interface and traditional Windows Desktop programs.
  • Tablets that, like the iPad and Android tablets, are based on ARM processors. These will run a separate version of the operating system, called Windows RT, that only supports Metro apps, plus Metro-ish versions of the Windows file manager and Microsoft Office.

Windows hardware will be competing with the iPad, a refreshed line of MacBooks that will probably include an Air-like 15” model, and Android tablets that can only get better. Is there some real innovation that computer makers can bring to the game.

One obvious point of differentiation for notebooks would be touch screens. Apple has made clear its distaste for touch on laptops and desktops, opting instead for sophisticated touchpads that support many of the gestures used on the iPad and iPhone. The latest version of  OS X, Mountain Lion, retains the windows-icons-menus-pointing device design that works best with a hardware keyboard and a mouse or touchpad.

Microsoft, by contrast, is reportedly encouraging OEMs to go for touchscreen laptops. Metro, of course, works with a mouse and keyboard but it screams for touch. I am not convinced that the ergonomics of a touch laptop will ever be very happy (and using an iPad with a keyboard presents the same sort of not entirely satisfactory compromise.)

Touch may or may not be the right answer. But Windows laptops need something –yes, some inspiration–to stay relevant. Just chasing Apple isn’t going to do it.

*–The processor speed and display resolutions were incorrect in the original post. These are the corrected values.

 

 

 

 

 

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • Good post. The Dell-Apple side-by-side is interesting. But in my past experience, anyway, a Windows machine needed considerably more memory than a Mac to operate at the same (user experience) speed. Is that no longer the case, or is the Dell doomed to be sluggish?

    • Steve Wildstrom

      iOS seems to require a bit less memory than Windows 7 for similar performance, but both should do well with 4 GB. Neither of these systems is designed for computationallty intense tasks, such as video editing.

  • Three thoughts:

    First, I believe that tablet sales will be mostly, but not entirely, additive to traditional personal computing sales. Tablets are being sold:

    a) As a supplement to existing personal computers (think lawyers who use a traditional desktop at their place of work but a tablet for use in the conference room or in the court);

    b) To new users who weren’t using a computer at all (think tweens, stay-at-home moms, seniors, etc.) ;

    c) For new uses where previous personal computers were inappropriate (think retail sales staff, waiters, doctors visiting patients, pilots, etc); and

    d) As a personal computing replacement (think of people who were barely using the capabilities of their existing computer).

    While there will be some cannibalization of existing personal computers, for the most part, tablets will increase overall sales of computing devices. While there where 400 million traditional personal computers sold last year, in the near future, there will be 600 or 700 million or tablets and traditional personal computers sold. The only question is the mix (which I believe will favor tablets).

    2) Apple has made it clear that touch screens on vertical devices are a user interface disaster waiting to happen. Microsoft is going the other way. Only sales numbers will tell us for sure, but based on their respective track records with regard to user interfaces, do you really want to bet against Apple on this point?

    3) Once again, Apple steals a march on the computer industry with the MacBook Air. The Air was out for several years and it was rightly derided as an underpowered, overpriced, niche product. But while the PC manufacturers laughed and did nothing, Apple continued to innovate. Today, the MacBook Air is the hottest product in notebooks and every bit of it falls squarely in Apple’s wheelhouse:

    – Superior, lightweight, unibody design? Check.

    – Drop the outdated optical drive and move to nand technology where Apple reigns supreme? Check.

    – An operating system that integrates with tablets, phones and even the iPod Touch? Check, check and check.

    Conclusion: There’s an old military saying that if you find yourself in a fair fight…you haven’t planned properly. I don’t think that the upcoming battle between Apple’s iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7, Windows RT and Windows 8 is going to be a fair fight at all.

  • mhikl

    I wonder how input to the iPad is most used. Does it attract the peck typist, the typist who can’t be bothered to learn beyond the rudiments of a keyboard? How about communicator needs. Are we talking tweeters or the compulsive long winded. Seeing some stats would be helpful.

    I suppose some don’t mind hooking up a keyboard to a tablet, but that necessitates a table, does it not? The beauty of a laptop is that the table is so portable and is always at hand, unless standing. And even in the tub there is a table of sorts, though the well rounded might find its perch precarious. In all modes, lap and tummy, there is the angle of the screen. It is usually at the perfect angle and isn’t constantly twitching or having to be held in place, (disregarding mirthful moments), with one or more of the digits necessary for inputting. And if one’s focus is disrupted by a sneeze, there is nary an adjustment necessary to the laptop, unless one’s habit is not to cover the mouth. For the polite, a nose print might have to be wiped from their tablet screen.

    I speculate it is like the mess of vehicles styles available today. (Didn’t we have an article on TO regarding the plethora of choices?) All forms will continue to exist and more choices are yet to come; the time of any colour, as long as it is beige, is long over.

    And Steve, I must comment on “. . . and Android tablets that can only get better”. The problem is in the comparison, similar to one getting fatter but which may be overlooked if one’s friend is getting fatter faster.

    • Steve Wildstrom

      The line that Android can only get better was intended as sarcasm, as in it can’t really get worse.

      • mhikl

        It was your subtle poke that made me suddenly stop and smile which then inspired me to revisit your idea with the fatty comment. Once started I couldn’t stop and had to do a take on a few other points from your article.

        A very good piece all round. I like the subtleties you often bring to your work.

  • “Intel-powered tablets that, like traditional systems, will be capable of running both new applications designed to Microsoft’s touch-centric Metro user interface and traditional Windows Desktop programs.”

    I find this hilarious, based on 10 years of miserable “Tablet PC” sales – hasn’t anybody at MS figured out that running traditional desktop programs on a touch interface is a massive DO NOT WANT?

    • Steve Wildstrom

      Microsoft actually has figured this out. No one is going to make customers run Destop apps on Windows 8 tablets, but this is a feature thatMicrosoft’s enterprise customers definitely want. The real test, in my opinion, will be Office 15. It is a Desktop app in the sense that it is not written to the Win RT framework, but is heavily “Metro-ised.” We will see about its usability when a beta becomes available this summer.

      • “No one is going to make customers run Destop apps on Windows 8 tablets, but this is a feature that Microsoft’s enterprise customers definitely want.”-Steve Wildstrom

        I would add one word to that statement: This is a feature that enterprise customers THINK they want. Steve Jobs famously said: “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.” The same could be said for the Enterprise.

        I know that the Enterprise wants the ability to run desktop applications on a tablet but we have a whole decade’s worth of evidence showing that it simply does not work. I strongly suspect that only 1% of end users will find that feature useful (although that 1% may simply love it). And 80% will find the dual operating systems confusing, a waste of time and counter-productive. The remainder? Meh.

        Of course, I could be wrong. But Microsoft is about to run a grand experiment that should give us the definitive answer. Windows RT runs a tablet only OS and no desktop OS. Windows 8 tablet (on Intel) runs both. While common sense would tell you that two operating systems are better than one, I predict that when the dust settles, Windows RT outsells Window 8 tablets 10 to 1*.

        (*It might not be a fair experiment. We don’t know the battery life, performance, price, etc. of either tablet and those factors may make a one-to-one comparison impossible to perform.)

        • bbrewer

          Yes. They are going to WANT to run iOS apps on it. That’s not going to happen.

  • Jurassic

    Steve Wildstrom, If you are going to compare two products you should use actual specifications (instead of using fictitious ones).

    The 13″ MacBook Air specs should be CORRECTED as follows:

    – Display: 1440 by 900 (NOT 1366×768 as shown!)
    – Processor: 1.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 with 3MB shared L3 cache (NOT 1.6 GHz Intel i5 as shown!)

    Additional differences are that the MacBook Air includes Bluetooth 4.0, SD card slot, and Thunderbolt.

    Also important to note that you are comparing a newly released Dell “Ultrabook” to a one-year old MacBook Air. As you know, an updated and improved MacBook Air is expected out sometime this month, making this article seem to be timed to avoid comparing the new Dell to the (soon to be released) new MacBook Air.

    • Steve Wildstrom

      I mistakenly picked up the display resolution and processor speed specs for the 11″ MBA and I’ll fix it. The resolution difference is somewhat significant, the processor less so. My point was just to note how slavishly Dell followed the MBA specs, not to compare the virtues of the two systems. I didn’t attempt to cover all specs, but the one that potentially matters most is Thunderbolt. Once again, Apple is ahead of everyone else in deploying a replacement for legacy technology–and one, that like USB, was primarily developed by Intel.

  • These ads are hilarious. Inspired by intel, yeah right.

  • schmayter

    How to write a technology article:
    Step 1 – Talk about an up and coming technology
    Step 2 – Say that Apple came up with it first
    Step 3 – Have advertisements on website
    Step 4 – Profit??

  • bbrewer

    Every single thing Dell has done has been a weak attempt (but obvious) to follow Apple’s lead. This has been going on for decades, they are just really far behind now.

  • Dragontamer

    Totally. Because the Macbook Air wasn’t based off of the Intel Metro design from 2007 or anything like that.

    Oh wait…

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