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Is Intel's ultrabook in danger of being oversold?

Intel and PC makers should be wary of falling into the Netbook trap.

Acer's Aspire S5

LAS VEGAS--At Intel's CES 2012 press conference, the emphasis wasn't on specific chips and their benchmark scores, as it has been in previous years. Instead, Intel was a cheerleader for a very specific type of new consumer product--the ultrabook.

By now, everyone should be at least somewhat familiar with the pitch. Ultrabook is an Intel marketing term (much like Centrino was), encompassing a growing category of Windows laptops that are thin and reasonably powerful, with good battery life and at least some solid-state drive (SSD) storage.

I was justifiably skeptical of the whole idea at first--it seemed to be a blatant play for Apple's growing MacBook Air audience, and the earliest ultrabook examples were nearly the same price as an Air, but without offering any notable advantages (besides running Windows, of course).

But by the end of 2011, my colleagues and I had tested and reviewed the entire first generation of ultrabooks and came away surprisingly impressed with the platform as a whole, especially as prices quickly declined, offering buyers systems with 128GB SSD drives for as little as $799.

James Martin/CNET

In theory, the ultrabook has the potential to be the next big personal computer trend (or fad, depending on how history ends up viewing it). The last time Intel was at the forefront of a major consumer trend on laptops, it was the Netbook era, based on Intel's Atom CPUs. A lot of companies sold a lot of Netbook laptops, and, even better, these purchases were usually secondary systems, meaning they largely did not cannibalize sales of full-size, full-power laptops.

But consumers quickly decided that Netbooks were too slow and underpowered for all but the most basic tasks, and it ended up being more of a fad than a long-term trend. In fact, I've so far seen only one new Netbook at CES 2012. Even worse (for Intel), the slightly bigger, slightly more powerful systems that largely replaced Netbooks over the past year were powered by AMD's E-350 and E-450 processors.

But with ultrabooks, Intel is taking a more proactive role in building the category, with a $300 million fund to help PC makers produce new, thinner, more efficient designs, and a pitch that the ultrabook can be your do-everything, go-everywhere computer. While the first generation of ultrabooks were nearly all 13-inch models, the next generation is going to move up to 14-inch and even 15-inch screens.

That said, the ultrabook is in danger of being oversold by both Intel and industry watchers overeager to get behind the Next Big Thing. Pre-CES 2012, we heard talk of "30 to 50" new ultrabook models coming to the show, and Intel says 75 new designs are "in the pipeline for 2012." Of course, there will actually be far fewer ultrabook launches this week than either of those projections. Check back later in the week and see how many you find--when CES 2012 wraps up, you'll probably be able to count the notable CES ultrabook launches on the fingers of both hands.

The second danger is that Intel's not-here-yet next generation of CPUs, plus the upcoming Windows 8 operating system, will make many of these new ultrabook launches obsolete before they even launch. At least that's the danger for the models hitting stores in February and later in the spring--which may be why so many of them, such as the Acer Aspire S5, won't be out until sometime much later in 2012. That means that a lot of the coolest ultrabooks you'll see this week are products consumers won't be able to buy for a long while (and some lack release dates, prices, or even a declared CPU or OS).

If you want to talk people out of buying a product today, just keep reminding them that something better and cooler is right around the corner.

Intel says the 2012 ultrabook advertising campaign will be its biggest marketing push since the original Centrino campaign. My advice (which is worth what you're paying for it) is that Intel and PC makers should be wary of falling into the Netbook trap--finding something people are genuinely buzzed about, and relentlessly running it into the ground. Or, worse, overestimating mainstream consumer interest, as the CE industry did with 3D TV.