LAS VEGAS--Ask Intel, ask any laptop manufacturer at this year's CES what's going on, and ultrabook is going to come up. It's all anyone can talk about, it seems. Intel's entire 2012 CES press conference was about them. Acer, Samsung, Toshiba, HP, Lenovo--go down the list, and it's what they're showing at the convention.
So, what are ultrabooks, exactly?
That's the kick, and the rub, and the problem I see for ultrabooks at the moment: just when we're beginning to figure them out, the line defining them is completely blurring. How the hell are we going to explain to our parents, grandparents, and friends what exactly they are?
A few months ago, an ultrabook was this: an 11- or 13-inch slim laptop, with SSD flash storage, sexy-looking, fast-starting, no optical drive. Simply put, a Windows MacBook Air. Now, that term people can recognize.
No longer. Suddenly, 14- and even 15-inch ultrabooks have begun popping up. These larger ultrabooks come with slightly more forgiving size and weight classes. They're a bit thicker. A bit heavier. They may have regular SATA hard drives, just like a normal laptop. They may have optical drives, or dedicated graphics from Nvidia.
So, what's an ultrabook, again? Well, now it's a thinner, sexier laptop, still under an inch, most likely using a lower-voltage, more power-efficient processor, maybe with graphics, maybe with a DVD drive. Maybe you want one, maybe you don't.
Redesigning laptops is not a trend I'm going to complain about. Laptops, by and large, have gotten boring compared with phones and tablets. They've lost their magic perch at the top of the mobile computing ladder. They're middle-zone devices now, neither as ultraportable as a phone nor as sedentary as a desktop or TV. As a category, laptops must evolve or die.
However, if Intel is serious about marketing ultrabooks this year--which it appears is absolutely, positively the case--the category better not start blurring and shifting just when traction is building. Off the record, several representatives of ultrabook manufacturers have agreed with me on this front.
Suddenly, when you have an 11-inch, 13-inch, 14-inch, and 15-inch ultrabook, you don't really have a category at all. You have what's called The New Laptop. And, if it's really the plan that all laptops are going to become ultrabooks, then perhaps it's time to wonder why the fancy new name in the first place.
The Lenovo IdeaPad U410. The HP Envy 14 Spectre. The Acer Timeline Ultra. These are thin-and-lights and "thinner laptops" in a new guise. What will really get people to buy an "ultrabook" is a good, clear, well-branded product, period. Many people I talk to still don't know what a Netbook is. Android tablet? What's that? (one person I spoke to knew about iPads and the Samsung Galaxy Tab, but not "Android tablets.") All those ultrabook manufacturers can't expect to lean on that ultrabook name. It'll be a Spectre, or a Portege, or a Yoga that they ask for. Just like phones.
If ultrabooks are to get any less confusing, it has to start with naming and clear products. Otherwise, the Year of the Ultrabook won't really happen at all.