Ultra Disappointment? Nah, Ultrabooks Are Just Getting Started

This year was supposed to be the year of the Ultrabook. It was supposed to be the year where svelte notebooks became standard. It was supposed to be the year that Intel’s latest ultra-mobile platform gave Windows PC makers something to celebrate.

But that’s not happening. At least not yet. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

PCs are struggling in this age of the iPad and shipments fell 6% in the last few months of 2011. Gartner expects PC shipments to grow just 4.4% in 2012. A Gartner analyst told TechCrunch that consumers just aren’t replacing existing PCs with new models. The one bright spot is Apple who managed to increase its 4Q2011 shipments by 21%. Intel designed the Ultrabook platform to allow other PC makers to quickly replicate Apple’s formula for the MacBook Air.

Intel coined the term Ultrabook to refer to a very thin notebook that uses a low-voltage CPU, SSD hard drive, long battery life, and ideally, a price under $1,000 — so in other words, a MacBook Air clone.

The first crop of of these thin notebooks hit last fall from Asus, Acer, Toshiba, and Lenovo. These models were priced around $1,000 and offered a fair balance of computing power and battery life — but most reviews still favored the Ultrabook’s chef competitor, the Apple’s MacBook Air.

Several key Ultrabooks were announced at CES 2012. Dell announced the carbon-fiber XPS 13, HP revealed the entry-level Folio 13 and high-end Envy 14 and Samsung unveiled the Series 5 and Series 9 Ultrabook, with the former challenging the traditional definition of an Ultrabook thanks to an optical drive.

For the most part the tech press was generally excited about these new models. Besides the Samsung Series 9 which comes out next month, all of these models are currently available. But they don’t seem popular yet. The Asus Zenbook, which was released back in October of 2011, is the lone Ultrabook on Amazon’s list of best selling notebooks. Neither Best Buy nor Newegg list an Ultrabook on their best sellers lists. On all three sites consumers overwhelmingly favor inexpensive Windows notebooks or pricy Apple MacBooks.

The Ultrabook is likely falling victim to past computer selling strategies. For years Windows PC makers raced to the bottom, conditioning consumers into valuing price over portability. Now, when PC makers are trying to hawk pricy, but very nice computers, consumers are seemingly ignoring the offering. They’re instead opting for cheap, bulky, but in many cases, more powerful notebooks than Ultrabooks that cost twice as much.

CNET suggests that Ultrabooks are done, killed by the PC industry. By including optical drives and traditional spinning disk hard drives, they’ve diluted the meaning of the Ultrabook, says CNET. That’s fair, but at the same time major product changes cannot happen in a period of several months. Ultrabooks are just 6 months old. PC makers cannot simply pull the plug on their low price options, which consumers are currently favoring. Samsung, the main example in CNET’s article, is including familiar elements in its Ultrabook offering. Believe it or not, some consumers still want optical drives in their computers. They shouldn’t have to slum with an 8-pound monster just to have a DVD drive.

It’s a bit premature to call Ultrabooks a failure. Intel delayed the next-gen platform that was supposed to drive Ultrabook prices lower while increasing their overall power. Meanwhile, retailers and PC makers must retrain consumers to stop looking at the raw clock speed and hard drive size and instead think mobility with low-voltage, but still capable, CPUs and small SSD hard drives. If these marketers do it right, the term Ultrabook will never be associated with a certain sub-set of computers. The average consumer will just naturally gravitate towards the new models that happen to be a tad more expensive, but also thin and light.

When Intel unveiled the Ultrabook in the middle of last year, part of the excitement came from the high-end feel of the computers; MacBook Airs for the everyman. The move to thin and cheap computers will happen. Ultrabooks are still the future even if these notebooks do not fit Intel’s definition for several generations.