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In 2012, MacBooks, ultrabooks mix it up

MacBook and ultrabook competition will heat up when (and if) Windows 8 debuts in 2012, inspiring some novel laptop designs.

Hybrids, like the Asus Transformer Prime, shouldn't be rare in 2012.
Hybrids, like the Asus Transformer Prime, shouldn't be rare in 2012. Asus

2012 promises to be a watershed year for laptops. Really thin will be in and internal optical drives out, while some designs venture into hybrid territory.

Apple: Apple is expected to incorporate the MacBook Air design theme into more models, including a 15-incher sans optical drive. And since Apple popularized the really-thin aesthetic with the January 2008 introduction of the MacBook Air, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the company will continue to be a trendsetter.

Trendsetting may include a rumored 2,880-by-1,800-pixel display. That would be a remarkable feat as workstation-class 15-inch Windows laptops, such as the HP EliteBook 8560p, typically top out at 1,600-by-900, while Apple's current 15-inch MacBook Pro offers a maximum of 1,680-by-1050.

Whether that screen would be part of a superskinny 15-inch MacBook or a more standard design is anyone's guess (not to mention the fact that the 2,880-by-1,800 resolution is an unconfirmed rumor).

And what kind of engine will be purring beneath that rumored screen? Ultimately, Intel's Ivy Bridge processor--sporting USB 3.0--and possibly Nvidia's newest graphics chips.

But it gets even more interesting after Ivy Bridge. Will Apple adopt Intel's first mainstream system-on-a-chip (due in 2013), dubbed Haswell, or opt for an internally designed Apple A series chip? My guess is that the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.

In 2013, we could see some newfangled 1.3-pound Apple laptop with an A6 or A7 chip as well as more powerful models packing the higher-performance Haswell.

MacBook Air
MacBook Air Apple

Ultrabooks: Windows 8 will be the catalyst for making ultrabooks mainstream (if Windows 8 appears early enough in 2012). Expect models standard with touchscreens as well as hybrids, not unlike the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime.

Of course, the biggest difference between the Transformer Prime and a 2012 ultrabook will be that the latter will run Windows--still one the most prolific development platforms for apps with well over 4 million Windows applications out there--a number Steve Ballmer cited back in 2010. (The Transformer Prime runs Android 3.2.)

Ultrabooks will of course get Intel's Ivy Bridge, which will stay well ahead of ARM-based hybrids in performance. Even with a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, a tablet is still no match for an Intel Core i7 processor.

But price may be the single most important metric for ultrabooks. Toshiba has been leading the way this year, going as low as $699 on its Portege Z835. Expect more of this in 2012. HP, for example, doesn't shy away from price competition. Its Folio 13 offers a lot for $899, including a Core i5 processor, a 128GB solid-state drive, USB 3.0, and great battery life.

Don't expect all ultrabook-like laptops to be cheap, though. Sony's Vaio Z series VPCZ216GX/L offers a taste of what an ultra-expensive ultrabook can be like. That brushed aluminum 0.66-inch thick lappy comes standard with a 13.1-inch 1,920-by-1,080-pixel display, a 256GB solid-state drive, a Core i7 processor, and an option for a dock packing an AMD Radeon HD 6650M graphics chip.

So, which will catch the fancy of consumers in 2012? A competitively priced ultrabook or a pricier MacBook Air? My best guess is that ultrabooks will need Windows 8 to take on the MacBook Air in earnest.