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Sleekbooks: A slippery slope

Based on HP's Envy Ultrabook and Sleekbook unveilings yesterday, it's clear that the naming problems for slim laptops aren't going away anytime soon.

An HP Sleekbook and two ultrabooks. Can you tell the difference? (Yes, that's a trick question.) Scott Stein

I've been thinking about HP's announcement of its new ultrabooks and "sleekbooks" all day today, because I've had to explain the lineup of products to several people. The idea's simple, really: Intel processor-equipped thin laptops get to be called ultrabooks because that's Intel's marketing term, while non-Intel processors (aka, AMD) in a similar chassis have to be called something else. Like, say, Sleekbook.

However, it opens a big can of worms.

What do we call these laptops, exactly? It seems like the race is on for a company to coin a term outside of Intel. Apple did just that, actually: it's called a MacBook Air. My colleague Dan Ackerman has coined the term "fauxtrabook" to refer to non-ultrabook laptops, but the problem is we need a real name for the category. Ultrathin? Thin-and-light? Thinbooks? Or, are these just plain old laptops with a thinner body? The problem doesn't just lie with the question of what we'll call AMD "thinbooks": it's not guaranteed that thin laptops with Intel processors will be called ultrabooks, either. Thinner laptops like the HP Pavilion m6 and ones that simply fall a bit over Intel's guidelines might face design slippage, too.

It was already way too difficult to explain what an ultrabook was last year ("it's a Windows MacBook Air"), or this year's rollout of larger 14- and 15-inch ultrabooks ("it's a Windows MacBook Air, but with a larger screen, and maybe a DVD drive, and maybe dedicated graphics, and maybe a regular non-SSD hard drive"). Now that AMD processors seem to be getting in on the game, the category feels well over the line of fragmentation.

The simplest solution is maybe too obvious: just come up with cleanly named products.

I'm still amazed how many people don't know what an Android tablet is, but they know a Samsung Galaxy Tab. Before there were even ultrabooks, Samsung had a popular laptop in its iconic Samsung Series 9.

HP, on the other hand, has perhaps leaned on the "ultrabook" brand too much. The HP Envy Spectre was a clever idea: expand on a brand with a newly named variation, and one covered in glass to boot. The HP Envy Ultrabook and Sleekbook are really the same concept, but with different processors and prices. I'd rather have had a single, simple product name. Slimbook. Thintop. Ultrathin. Slipstream. Whatever you want to call it, but right now the whole line of ultrabooks and sleekbooks has become weirdly difficult to explain.

Will that matter to people who buy these laptops? Maybe price is the bottom line, and how the laptop looks. I still say it's a slippery slope, because sooner or later this category will need to get itself out of the naming oubliette that Intel's made. Either that, or you'll be perfectly happy looking for Ultrabooks and...whatever those other laptops are named. If these products don't have distinct enough names, then how will they stand out from each other? How will you, the buyer, tell them apart?

That wouldn't be so great for anybody.