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Can an 'Ultrabook' match Apple appeal, pricing?

Ultrabooks are always going to be compared to Apple's MacBook Air. That's a fact of life. So, can they match the Air's pricing and build quality?

Intel believes ultraslim Windows laptops dubbed Ultrabooks can reach aggressive price points and compete with the MacBook Air, arguably the first Ultrabook.

Ultrabooks will need to break from the past when ultraslim Windows laptops were often priced above $2,000.  Not unlike the 2011 Vaio Z.
Ultrabooks will need to break from the past when ultraslim Windows laptops were often priced above $2,000. Not unlike the 2011 Vaio Z. Sony

With the entry-level Air today bottoming out at $999 for an 11-inch model, major PC vendors like Hewlett-Packard, Acer, and Asus must roughly match Apple's build quality at lower prices to draw consumers to the category in large numbers. This issue was raised in a report from Taipei-based Digitimes on Friday.

Intel--which, ironically, is competing with itself in a sense because the Air already uses its chips--believes the industry can get there. "We won't publicly comment on internal estimates. What we will say is that the Ultrabook program aspires to bring exciting new capabilities into mainstream price points," Greg Welch, who heads up Intel's Ultrabook group, said in response to an e-mail query Friday.

"This will require us to work very closely with our OEM customers and the PC component ecosystem to innovate and drive down costs," he added.

So far, there's price matching only from PC vendors offering Intel Sandy Bridge-based systems. The aluminum-clad 11.6-inch Samsung Series 9--which resembles the 11.6-inch Air probably more than any other Windows laptop on the market today--is also $999 on Amazon.

Other, less encouraging examples recall the days of old, sky-high pricing patterns--when ultraslim Intel-based laptops rarely fell below $2,000. The 2011 Sony Vaio Z has many of the attributes of an Ultrabook--0.66 inches thick, 2.6 pounds--but it starts at a whopping $2,000.

Intel's challenge is to help the industry bring superslim designs like this down to earth. "When Ultrabooks are not exotic anymore but the new normal" is when they will become mainstream, according to Dave Salvator, an Intel spokesman. Translation: when a consumer walks into a Best Buy and sees a table full of Ultrabooks priced as low as $699, that's when they'll be mainstream.

Ultrabooks are slated to be less then 0.8-inches thick, pack solid-state drives (but no optical drive), have instant-on capabilities, and eventually sport USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt connectors.

The first wave of Ultrabooks from the likes of Hewlett-Packard and Asus are expected to ship in the coming months, possibly as early September or October. But pricing may not begin to fall significantly below $1,000 until well into 2012 and 2013, when new Intel "Ivy Bridge" and "Haswell" silicon appears.