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The problem with Ultrabooks, thus far

Most of the latest thin laptops deemed Ultrabooks have been surprisingly good...so what could possibly be wrong? One small, simple thing.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
3 min read
The Asus Zenbook. Look familiar? Sarah Tew/CNET

Earlier this year, we were bombarded with news about Ultrabooks, a new category of laptop given a new name by Intel--these machines were meant to be improvements on the laptop as we've come to know it, with smartphone-like startup speed and wafer-thin, future-sexy designs.

So far, so good: the first few laptops we've seen that categorize themselves as Ultrabooks have all been excellent products. The Acer Aspire S3, the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s, and the Asus Zenbook UX31 all lived up to expectations, and all provide valid alternatives to the MacBook Air.

And yet, there's a problem. In my eyes, at least. And it's a big one.

Any of these laptops are, first and foremost, MacBook Air-alikes. Yet, somehow, Apple's MacBook Air is a nothing-alike: it stands alone. It's earned that distinction, because it was the first kid on the block: the first Air debuted in January 2008. It's also the most likely laptop to be recognized out of a lineup by 10 random people on the street, by a long shot.

The endless iterations of Ultrabooks we're going to see--at least one from each major manufacturer--will flood a category that most people still don't know the name of. If the name Ultrabook comes anywhere close to the recognition factor of Netbook, that will be a major victory indeed for Intel. Even so, how many people know what Netbooks are? I'm continually shocked when I discuss laptop purchases with someone outside of the tech bubble and they bring up the iPad instantly, but when I mention a Netbook to them, they don't know what I'm talking about. This happened last year, too, when Netbooks were still a hot product trend.

The Ultrabook problem is the Android tablet problem, too. Most people can't seem to name a single tablet other than the iPad--some know the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Few know of the category known as Android tablets. In all fairness, few would recognize the label "iOS devices," even though the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch are household names.

Developing a brand name that's recognized is a tremendous challenge, of course. Not every product is a Motorola Razr or a Kindle. And, maybe it's not a problem with laptops. Most laptops get away with being virtually unnameable by the average person, and yet they sell quite well.

I still remember what inevitably happened with Netbooks: once they began having the same components, each new Netbook had a harder time standing out from the crowd. Subtle aesthetics and design, or battery life, became the separating factors. Pricing became a narrow horse-race. Would you spend $20 more for one with Bluetooth, or $30 less for one with a slightly worse keyboard?

Ultrabooks are already suffering that problem. Most have Intel Core i5 or i7 low-voltage processors, 128GB or 256GB SSD drives, 4GB of RAM. They have 13-inch or 11-inch screens. They're under an inch thick. They weigh around 3 pounds. They don't have optical drives. They do have long battery life, generally. Maybe Ultrabooks are the future form of all laptops. Or, maybe, more likely, they're just the first wave.

Will shoppers ask for an Ultrabook, or a Zenbook? Or will they ask for neither, and get a MacBook Air instead? Ultrabooks need to be flat-out better than the MacBook Air, or significantly less expensive, to make a true impact. Right now, in my opinion, all of these Ultrabooks look good, but none are a MacBook Air-killer yet. And I doubt the average person has heard of any of them--or of the name Ultrabook.

Read CNET's roundup of the latest Ultrabooks versus the MacBook Air.