Las Vegas' annual Consumer Electronics Show shindig starts on January 10 and, alongside the latest batch of smartphones and tablets, it is the new class of PC ultrabooks that will take center stage.
Heir to the Air
Since the unveiling of the MacBook Air, PC makers have been scrambling to catch up with a practical form factor, powerful yet frugal processors and enough features to maintain a decent price point and profit.
After following the netbook wave of "smaller and cheaper" for a couple of years, that meant a quick shift in priorities for the PC cartel. So, Intel is now ready to power this new generation of "ultrabooks" as the chip giant wants to call them. According to Intel, they must:
- Weigh no more than 3.1 lbs
- Be no more than 0.71 inches thick
- Offer five-plus hours of battery life
- Use flash-based storage
- Use Intel’s Rapid Start Technology for fast boot
Which sounds a lot more like a tablet than it does your typical hulking notebook. CES will play host to a huge array of these devices as the PC market looks to fight back against the cachet surrounding the tablet army. And, with a fair percentage of users preferring access to a keyboard, they may stand a chance of clawing back lost sales.
Update: First out of the box is Lenovo with a pair of ultrabooks, starting at $899, and follow the typical ThinkPad look and feel, just in a thinner, lighter shell. They are available with Intel i3, i5 or i7 processors and one model features an extra processor with a built-in Linux-based OS for instant web browsing and email.
Don't get too excited just yet, the budget T430u option won't ship until Q3 (likely with Windows 8) and the smarter X1 will be out in Q2.
What Price Ultra?
The problem for PC vendors, again, will be price. Every time they have approached the tablet/PC/light form factor, costs have been way out of control. With US$ 200 tablets, $400 notebooks and larger screen smartphones starting to appear, who will pay the $999 to $2,000 price tag for these executive-looking ultrabook toys when they already have a gaggle of gadgets that offer a broadly similar set of features, albeit across several devices?
Samsung's Series 9 ultrabook is sleek and stealthy
So, we have Dell, Lenovo, Samsung, HP and others marketing their hearts out for this new class of device, cloaked with fancy metal shells, powerful Intel innards and Windows 7 on-board. But even with fast BIOS and three-second wake-from-sleep times, it won't be until Windows 8 arrives that the super-speedy boot-up dream becomes a reality.
While they may get a lot of press, they face immense pressure from the next generation of smartphones and smaller, cheaper tablets. Alongside endless Android models with bigger screens and faster processors, there will be the Nokia Ace and Lumia 900, a big brother to last year's Lumia 800, which will be on show from Microsoft.
Steve Ballmer's CES keynote will likely highlight the Windows 8 tablet invasion due late summer while Nintendo and Microsoft may also be revealing details at their next-generation home consoles, which may be the most home-media-friendly yet.
Across the show arenas, there will be all kinds of cool home gadgets. One early favorite for best in show is Samsung's new 55-inch HD television set with virtually no border that is just 5mm thick. Do you think ultrabooks will still seem neat after seeing one of those?