How the PC industry killed the ultrabook

This hot new laptop category is already diluting itself with optical drives, thicker bodies, and non-solid-state hard drives. But is that a bad thing?

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
5 min read

commentary Well, it was fun while it lasted.

The personal computer industry backed a promising candidate in the ultrabook concept, convincing even a skeptic like myself that a new class of superslim, superlight laptops was the key to exciting consumers. Ultrabooks were well on their way to becoming the PC form factor of the future.

And now, it's already over.

In record time -- something less than six months -- the ultrabook term has become so overused and amorphous that it's well on its way to being useless.

Liberal terminology
The first major examples of this new ultrabook rift are two laptops we recently reviewed. The HP Envy 14 Spectreand the Samsung Series 5 Ultra are both 14-inch laptops pitched as ultrabooks. The idea of bringing the ultrabook concept to larger laptops is a reasonable one -- the initial wave of ultrabooks were all 13-inch systems -- but they need to be nearly as thin and lightweight as the 13-inch models.

Instead, both the HP Spectre and Samsung Series 5 Ultra weigh a hair under 4 pounds, about a full pound more than a 13-inch MacBook Air. Both are also about one-tenth of an inch thicker. That may not sound like much, but when less than an inch is your baseline, it makes a noticeable difference in the feel of the laptop in your hand.

The biggest deviation from the ultrabook model to date is the 14-inch Samsung's use of a standard 500GB platter hard drive. The ultrabook platform is supposed to be built around faster, lighter solid-state drives (SSDs), and Samsung includes a tiny 16GB SSD as a secondary drive, which allows it to meet the letter, if not the spirit, of the ultrabook specifications. This system also includes an optical drive, which is another difference from previous ultrabooks.

It's relatively thin and light, but should it be an ultrabook? CNET

What you end up with, especially in the case of the Series 5 Ultra, is a perfectly fine midsize, mainstream laptop that can stand toe to toe with anything similar in the $850-$950 range. If we had seen it eight months or a year ago, our initial impression would be, "Wow, that's a pretty thin 14-inch laptop."

But today, there's absolutely nothing about it that says "ultrabook," which is bad news for this promising new category.

The origins of ultrabook
So, what is an ultrabook supposed to be, anyway?

Seeing the success of Apple's MacBook Air, Intel and PC manufacturers wanted to find a way to replicate it for Windows-based consumers in systems that could be sold at a reasonable price. The idea was pitched as an entirely new laptop category, although the name "Ultrabook" was a trademarked Intel marketing term, and the systems that were going to use it had to meet a series of Intel-set system requirements.

In fact, Intel even set aside $300 million to help PC makers develop these new systems, saying in August 2011 that it would "invest in companies building hardware and software technologies focused on enhancing how people interact with Ultrabooks such as through sensors and touch, achieving all-day usage through longer battery life, enabling innovative physical designs, and improved storage capacity."

The $799 Toshiba Z835. CNET

From that original big idea, and the subsequent challenge Intel presented to PC makers, came the first generation of laptops to use the ultrabook name. These systems, from companies such as Acer, Lenovo, Toshiba, and Asus, came off very well in our initial reviews and we were surprisingly impressed with the platform, especially as prices declined, offering buyers systems with 128GB SSD drives for as little as $799.

Ultrabooks 2012: From noteworthy to no big deal
But a few months ago, at CES 2012, I warned that the road ahead looked foggy, saying: "The ultrabook is in danger of being oversold by both Intel and industry watchers overeager to get behind the Next Big Thing."

And that seems to be exactly what is happening here. The ultrabook idea was a hit. It even seemed to have high name recognition with CNET readers, who would e-mail us with specific questions about which ultrabook they should buy. Now, everyone's rushing to join the bandwagon and the bigger 14- and even 15-inch ultrabooks hitting stores feel like they dilute the concept far too much.

For an example of this kind of branding done right, think back to the early days of wireless networks, when Intel's Centrino name meant that a laptop was able to connect to Wi-Fi and do most of the other networking things you needed it to, without you having to delve too deeply into the spec sheet.

In this case, instead of looking for an Intel ultrabook sticker on a laptop and knowing that it's going to be very thin, very light, rely on SSD storage, boot quickly, and run for a long time on a battery charge, now consumers will have to go back to checking the size and weight specs carefully.

How is that helpful for anybody?

Expect to see more laptops that look like this. CNET

The ultrabook is dead; long live the new laptop order
But the ultrabook, as originally presented, is still an idea whose time has come. Apple's MacBook Air proved that consumers could live without optical drives and large-capacity hard drives, and valued long battery life and portability over ports and connections (in that sense, systems such as the Dell Adamo were ahead of their time). Also, ultrabook branding is certainly not going away anytime soon, and we'll all see dozens of new ultrathin laptops both with the ultrabook label and without during the rest of 2012.

The real long-term victory is that the ultrabook is rewriting what it means to be a mainstream laptop. By this time next year, I find it hard to believe that any midprice, midsize laptop won't be well under 1 inch, and closer to 3 pounds than 4 or 5. Optical drives will continue to fade away, as will dedicated Ethernet jacks (although I'm still convinced you'll eventually need one in a pinch). If you're a PC maker and most of your future laptops aren't at least trending toward ultrabooks and the MacBook Air, you simply won't be in the game.

So, yeah: I'm no longer sure what "ultrabook" means anymore. But if most future laptops are going to be thinner, lighter, and faster -- whether or not they get an Intel-approved sticker -- maybe that's not such a bad thing.