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Ultrabook's quiet triumph

While not the buzzword it was in 2012, Intel's ultrabook has its fingerprint everywhere at CES 2013.

Sarah Tew/CNET

LAS VEGAS--Intel's CES 2013 press conference lacked the hard sell of last year's version, which was almost entirely devoted to all things ultrabook. But even as the grand ultrabook experiment -- a massive branding campaign to create a new laptop category from thin air -- shared the stage with smartphones, Atom chips, and tablets, the ultrabook idea continues to be one of the most influential ones I've seen in many years of laptop-watching.

The catch is, it's the ultrabook's ideas that have spread to nearly every corner of the laptop ecosystem, not the name itself. There are still plenty of new laptops from Lenovo, Dell, and others, that carry the official Ultrabook name (and sometimes the official wrist rest sticker). But, there are probably an equal number that skirt the edges of Intel's qualifications, which involve standards for the CPU used, solid-state storage, and the system's thickness, among other check boxes (and will have further requirements, such as touch screens and wireless display, later this year)

Instead, you find HP marketing ultrabook-like laptops as Sleekbooks. They look and feel an awful lot like HP's Ultrabook-branded products, but they might have AMD CPUs, or traditional spinning platter hard drives. Other PC makers, such as Dell and Toshiba, have simply thinned down their non-ultrabook laptops to the point that today's $500 to $600 laptop looks almost nothing like the $500 to $600 laptops of a couple of years ago. We jokingly call these not-quite-ultrabooks "Fauxtrabooks."

A reference design for future ultrabooks. CNET/Josh Miller

And that's the paradox of the ultrabook. After investing $300 million in helping PC companies develop ultrabooks in 2011, we're still at the point where practically no one walks into a store (or logs into an online store) and says, "I'm shopping for an ultrabook!" Following recent reports of disappointing salesfor officially branded ultrabooks, it would be easy to chalk the entire thing up as a misfired attempt to copy the popularity of Apple's MacBook Air (and don't forget pre-ultrabook laptops such as the Dell Adamo that paved the road).

But, even if the Ultrabook name (a trademarked Intel marketing term) fades from public view, it has essentially already remade the consumer laptop landscape to the point where every laptop needs to be reasonably thin now to even get a foot in the door. The occasional inch-plus mainstream laptop is the odd man out, and here at CES 2013, I've personally seen only one new massive 17-inch gaming laptop so far (the hulking Toshiba Qosmio X875, which is still thinner than the Qosmio laptops of a few years ago).

We'll continue to see ultrabook concepts bleed into laptops of all shapes and sizes, as optical drives and built-in Ethernet ports disappear. As I wrote last spring, after I thought the ultrabook term itself was quickly becoming diluted: "The ultrabook is rewriting what it means to be a mainstream laptop. Most future laptops are going to be thinner, lighter, and faster -- whether or not they get an Intel-approved sticker."

And that's the quiet, likely unintentional, triumph of Intel's expensive ultrabook experiment. People shop visually, not by looking for stickers ("ultrabook" or otherwise) on a laptop's wrist rest, but by the design and feel of a product. Walk into any electronics shop, or log onto a PC maker's Web site, and even many of the budget laptops look slim and reasonably upscale. So, the next time you buy a Sleekbook, or a Slimbook, Sveltebook, or Skinnybook, take a moment and thank Intel for pushing the concept.