Steve Jobs may think we're living in the post-PC era, but when it comes to consumers' notebook preferences, we're not even in the post-desktop era. Mainstream shoppers continue to snap up clunky 15-inch laptops that are closer in size and feel to the old-school desktops they're replacing. This ongoing trend does not bode well for real mobility geeks and for Intel, which hopes to revolutionize the market with Ultrabooks, a new class of super-slim, long-lasting notebooks.
In a world where tablets such as the iPad have sapped enthusiasm and sales from the notebook category, Intel's Ultrabook initiative promises to revive the portable PC. According to Intel's Beck Emmett, Ultrabooks have four key benefits over traditional ultraportables:
- Superthin: Ultrabooks must be no thicker than 21 mm(0.82 inches).
- Fast starting: Many Ultrabooks will come with an SSD, and all will be able to boot quickly and wake quickly, like tablets.
- Long battery life: Intel expects Ultrabooks to last at least 5 hours on a charge, with many lasting 8+ hours.
- Security: BIOS will have Intel Anti-Theft/Intel Identity Protection built in.
"Eventually you'll think of an Ultrabook as a tablet when you want it, a PC when you need it," Emmett wrote on Intel's blog.
Mobile geeks like me are justifiably excited by this new notebook category, because it also means sleeker, longer-lasting systems in the mold of the MacBook Air and Samsung Series 9. Unfortunately, mainstream consumers will prove difficult to convince.
According to DisplaySearch's Q1 2011 report on screen-size market share, 11- to 13-inch notebooks make up just 11.5 percent of the North American notebook market and 10.8 percent of the market worldwide, as compared to 45.2 and 54.2 percent shares for 14- to 15-inch notebooks. According to DisplaySearch analyst Richard Shim, more than two thirds of those 11- and 13-inch laptops are Apple MacBooks. Is Intel selling mini Coopers to a market of full of SUV drivers?
The Puzzling Popularity of 15-Inch Notebooks
I kvetched in this space last September about consumers buying 15-inch notebooks, and it looks like things haven't changed at all since that time. Just look at DisplaySearch's Q1 2011 numbers:
|Screen Size||North America||Worldwide|
As you can see, DisplaySearch lumps tablet sales in with their notebook numbers, so the 9.7 and 7-inch sizes clearly represent iPads and Galaxy Tab/Nook Color devices. The 10-inch category includes traditional netbooks, but also 10-inch tablets such as the Motorola Xoom, which were just emerging at the end of Q1. If we could deduct all the tablets from these numbers and pull out all the 13-inch MacBooks, the 15-inch category would loom even larger for PC vendors.
"The impression is that it's a kind of desktop replacement yet still fairly portable," Shim said of 15-inch notebooks. He theorized that 13-inch notebooks have traditionally been viewed as premium products and that low-cost ultraportables with low-voltage CPUs haven't appealed to consumers because they just aren't that interested in long battery life.
"When the CULV notebooks (Intel's low-voltage platform) came out, they promoted battery life to consumers. They said, 'Oh, you can get 8 hours and it's great,'" Shim recalled. "But consumers were like, 'I don't need 8 hours' and the CULV notebooks never really took off because they were emphasizing something that consumers didn't need. Consumers are like, 'This notebook isn't really going to leave my house that much so I'm always going to be within range of an outlet.'"
If Shim is right about why CULV systems failed, consumers' lack of interest in long battery life and light weight could pose problems for Ultrabook adoption. However, Intel remains bullish on the category, saying that though initial entries such as the ASUS UX121 are in the 11- to 13-inch size, we'll eventually see 14- and 15-inch Ultrabooks too.
"Even within larger screen sizes there is a bias toward thinner, more responsive systems," said Greg Welch, director of the On-the-Go Market Segment for Intel’s Mobile Client Platforms Group, told us. "We don’t see the popularity of 14-15 inch systems as an impediment to the adoption of Ultrabooks."
Welch also said that he believes we'll see consumers gravitate toward smaller systems as they grow more accustomed to smartphones.
Despite his skepticism about consumers' desire for longer battery life, Shim posited that Ultrabooks' other benefits could lead to more 13-inch notebook sales if consumers can adjust to prices that are likely higher than the current $616 average laptop selling price.
"I think they’ll help the market," he said. "I think the overall mobile PC landscape is going to become more fragmented and at the end of the day that will lead to a bigger pie."
To really establish Ultrabooks as a viable platform, Intel will need to do more than just tout their svelte looks or fast resume-from-sleep times. The company will need to show Bob and Betty Best Buy that portability matters to them. It doesn't take a genius to realize that long battery life matters even when you're just sitting on the couch and don't want to be chained to that outlet.
If people get used to using smaller notebooks at home, maybe they'll even start taking them places!