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The ultrabook dilemma

The underlying ideas, and problems, behind Intel's latest laptop pitch revealed.

With Intel now kicking in $300 million to partner with PC makers on its ultrabook concept, one has to ask whether this purported revolution in mobile computing is on shaky ground. After all, representatives of several of the major computer companies could barely stifle a yawn when I've asked them (both pre- and post-$300,000,000) about their plans for, or enthusiasm about, the ultrabook category.

The basic pitch, not that it has been particularly clearly communicated by anyone to date, is this: We can already make a really thin laptop with decent battery life and a fast, power-efficient processor (as opposed to low-performance CULV chips, which led to modest battery life gains, but serious performance hits)--but these tend to start out expensive, and only go up from there. We also know how to make pretty decent midprice laptops, in the $600-$900 range, and that's a comfortable budget for many computer shoppers. What if, the ultrabook theory states, we could somehow make a thin, full-featured laptop, and also get the price down to that magic range everyone from small-business owners to students likes to shop in?

Sounds like a solid idea, but the R&D required for such a new category would be extensive, which is where the Intel investment comes in. But the problems go further than that. To be blunt, there are a lot of great, reasonably thin laptops already available in that price range (Acer's Timeline X, Toshiba's R835, Samsung's Series 3), and shaving a few tenths of an inch off them would not necessarily make a huge difference to most consumers.

Related links
Intel creates $300 million ultrabook fund
Can Intel's Ultrabook concept succeed?
Can an 'Ultrabook' match Apple appeal, pricing?

The shadow of Apple's MacBook Airhangs heavily over the entire affair, whether the players involved like to admit it or not (and it's worth noting that all of Apple's laptops already use Intel CPUs). But, those chasing that sub-one-inch design should not forget that the MacBook Air, and even the larger MacBook Pro, are popular not just because of their physical size, but perhaps more importantly, because of those less tangible qualities such as the industry's best touchpad, easy sleep and wake cycles, and a general lack of crashing and app compatibility problems. Apple's intuitive built-in App Store also fills a need largely unaddressed in Windows PCs (even if it doesn't always offer the best prices on apps, as we discovered here).

Also not helping is the generic-sounding ultrabook name. We've already got a category of laptops we call ultraportables, which generally have 11- or 12-inch displays (everyone divides laptops into slightly different categories; we prefer to make screen size the primary sorting method). And two years ago, Intel was pushing a suspiciously similar-sounding "ultrathin"laptop category. These were thin, long-life systemswith consumer-level low-voltage CPUs (or CULV), but the idea flopped because the systems pitched as ultrathin laptopsjust weren't good enough.

Respectfully, the "ultra" name might be a little used up at this point, on top of the fact that calling something "ultra" might naturally make you think of a super high-powered monster, such as Alienware's 18-inch M18X, not a thin little laptop for chilling at the coffee shop. Perhaps Superbooks? Wowbooks? Slimbooks? There's enough here to keep a few focus group companies in the gravy for years.

Having spent the better part of the past six years writing about and reviewing laptops (and even longer before that writing about other consumer issues), I have come to the realization that most of the technology we see falls into two categories. There are products people want, and actively seek out, and there are products that are essentially solutions in search of a problem.

A great many things that fall into this latter category, which may very well spring from someone's clever idea, but often end up in a marketing pitch meeting that goes something like this: "We've got a brand-new Product X here, now how are we going to convince people they actually want this thing?"

Do ultrabooks fall into this category? We'll probably have to see a few more of them in person to make that call. But in the meantime, here's a modest proposal for how Intel can best spend its $300 million. Instead of using that money to help PC makers figure how how to shave half an inch and/or several hundred dollars off their premium laptops, let's just let people buy a really thin, full-powered $1,200 laptop, then give a $300 rebate to the first million customers. If that won't build a category, nothing will.