Ultrabooks are underpricing Apple at retail--and they'd better

Prices for Intel-based ultrabooks from major brands such as Toshiba, and Acer remain well below $1,000, keeping the pressure on Apple's pricier MacBook Air.

The 3.3 pound HP Folio 13 is 0.7 inches thick and priced at $899.99 on Hewlett-Packard's site.  Though priced $100 more than Toshiba or Acer, you get a 128GB solid-state drive and a Core i5 processor.  The Toshiba and Acer compromise either on processor or storage.
The 3.3 pound HP Folio 13 is 0.7 inches thick and priced at $899.99 on Hewlett-Packard's site. Though priced $100 more than Toshiba and Acer, you get a 128GB solid-state drive and a Core i5 processor. The Toshiba and Acer compromise either on processor or storage. CNET

Ultrabooks from Toshiba, Acer, and Samsung remain at relatively low prices at major retailers like Best Buy compared to analogous offerings from Apple.

Prices for the 13-inch Toshiba Portege (Z835-P330) and 13-inch Acer Aspire S3 (S3-951-6646) have stayed at $799 for many weeks since they were announced last fall. Currently, both are listed at Best Buy for $799.99.

Comparable 13-inch MacBook Air laptops from Apple are typically priced a few hundred dollars more.

Apple is an important benchmark because the ultrabook category was created, in part, to compete with the increasingly popular MacBook Air. And an analyst said this week that ultrabooks need to have "meaningful discounts" to have an impact on the popularity of the MacBook Air.

Ultrabooks are thin, lightweight Windows 7 laptops that attempt to emulate the portability of a tablet while offering the productivity of a PC. Typically, they eschew optical drives and, more often than not, spinning hard disk drives--just like the Air.

In the next higher price bracket, the 14-inch Samsung Series 5 (NP530U4B-A01US) goes for $899.99 at Best Buy. Though listed as an ultrabook, the Series 5 sits at the boundary of a standard laptop.

The Series 5 has a built-in optical drive (again, a no-no for an ultrabook) and combines a standard 500GB hard disk drive with a 16GB solid-state "cache" drive (see description of Acer Aspire S3 below). Hybrid storage tries to strike a balance between a low-cost but slower HDD and the more expensive but faster SSD. The Samsung laptop is thin, though, at 0.7-inches thick.

In that same pricing strata is the HP Folio 13, listed at $899.99 on Hewlett-Packard's Web site.

The $799ers from Toshiba and Acer are priced lower than the HP Folio for a reason. While the Toshiba Portege Z835 packs a 128GB solid-state, it settles for a lower-end Core i3 processor. And though the Acer uses a higher-performance Core i5, it implements a hybrid storage system: a 20GB SSD working in tandem with a standard spinning 320GB HDD.

HP's Folio 13 (as of Friday "sold out" on Best Buy's online store) offers both a 128GB SSD and Core i5 processor.

For those buyers who aren't as price sensitive, Costco is selling the well-received HP Envy 14 Spectre ultrabook for $1,299.99. That's $100 off the list price.

But at $1,299, HP's premium ultrabook is priced more than a 13-inch MacBook Air. One of the few cases where a PC brand exceeds Apple's pricing.

Why? The Envy Spectre has an unusual Gorilla Glass construction (screen front and back as well as part of the chassis), sports a 1600x900 display, a bevy of ports (HDMI, mini DisplayPort, card reader, and USB 3.0), and a full version of Adobe Photoshop Elements. (See video of HP Envy 14 Spectre for more details about features).

But a $1,300 ultrabook is not the mainstream. So, what can we expect later in this year in the lower pricing echelons?

"Due to the hybrid hard drives that manufacturers are using this year, as well as increased competition, we will see $699 ultrabooks later this year," said Deron Kershaw, an analyst at Gap Intelligence.

Until then, $799 ain't too shabby. And offers a decent alternative to Apple's popular line.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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