Can Intel's Ultrabooks Sway A Large-Laptop-Loving Market?

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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
7.0" (tabs) 2.1% 3.1%
8.9" 0.1% 0.0%
9.7" (iPad) 22.6% 10.7%
10" 11.5% 16.3%
11.x" 1.7% 2.0%
12.x" 1.6% 2.3%
13.x" 8.2% 6.5%
14.x" 12.9% 20.6%
15.x" 32.3% 33.6%
16.x" 0.5% 0.4%
17.x" 6.6% 4.6%

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!




Author Bio
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director on
Add a comment
  • Robin Lim Says:

    If you look at year on year figures it looks like 15-inch and larger models are loosing market share:

    Q1 2010

    15 inch laptops - 35.2%
    16+ inch laptops - 8.9%

    Total: 44.1%

    Q1 2011

    15 inch laptops - 33.6%
    16+ inch laptops - 5%

    Total 38.6%


  • Vulk Says:

    I don't personally think screen size is an issue for most folks. All the screensa re 1366x768. If you buy a 11.6" screen, or a 15.6" screen, the only difference is how big the pixels are, not how much screen real estate you have. Now the dot pitch may be a factor but even my near blind mother can make out clearly the text on my 13.3" ultraportable. Then again people have forever been trained that bigger is better, and that may also be part of it. Additionally my 13.3" laptop is the most comfortable one on my lap I've ever had, beats my 15.6" by a ton, and trust me at 3.8 lbs, it's INFINITELY better than 6+, when I'm traveling which is often... And a 10+ hour battery life is awesome for coast to coast and international travel.

    I make purchasing suggestions to friends all the time, because they ask me what computer to get, and they don't know what to look for. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in this phenomena. And for what most people need a computer for, I don't see the point in recommending a high cost solution 9 times out of 10. Presumably the people who need performance equipment know what they need. And nine times out of ten, the systems I recommend are whatever system is on sale that have acceptable stats and user reviews, which is almost always some bargain basement 15.6" system from Walmart. Go figure.

    I think zach is probably closer to hitting the head of the nail though. A quick search on NewEgg will reveal the relative cost differences between the various laptops. There is a definite premium on anything that's NOT 15.6" and it only grows larger as you get away from that size, until you get down to netbooks.

    If something is A) cheaper, B) is psychologically satisfying (Bigger is Better!), and C) you don't know what to look for anyway...

    Well yeah, you're going to see the definite dominance of 15.6" screens.

  • Mike Says:

    I have to agree with CC, it seems perfectly logical to me. Anything below a 15" screen is a huge compromise in screen space.. If I don't need long lasting battery life I am going to want atleast a 15" screen.

  • Gandamu Says:

    There is a reason why people prefer 14" and 15.6" laptops: they fit MUCH nicer on a person's lap than smaller laptops. I personally own a ThinkPad W520 and I think its size and weight of 6lb-ish is perfectly fine for carrying around school. In my opinion, Intel needs to scrap the Ultrabook idea and go make some better 13 ~ 15.6" systems. I think that 13" is good for traveling and using as a secondary computer (any smaller is a hindrance, and I'm an owner of a netbook too), 14" is the compromise between size and specs, and 15.6" has the highest specs while still remaining portable if there is enough space. Maybe I'm one of the minority here, but I want a laptop with both top of the line performance, AND 8hrs+ of battery life. What does the Ultrabook offer? They are neither high performing nor long lasting. If a manufacturer can actually cram a 2720QM (not the low power variant) and a Quadro 2000M or GeForce GT 555M, while retaining 8hrs+ (instead of the Intel stated 5hrs+) of battery life, while running both at full speed without running into thermal problems, then I'll take that back. I don't really care about the thickness, as long as it is under 2", it is fine. The thickness is actually the most useless dimension when portability is considered, as that 1" isn't going to burst any seams in a bag. And if weight is a factor, I doubt that anyone is so weak that they can't carry 10 lb (even the W520 + brick comes in at 7.5 lb only), and I'm certainly not the strongest person ever.

  • CC Says:

    I don't know why anyone could be so mystified over the popularity of 15" laptops. People want the largest monitor that's practical for them. 15" is the best compromise between desktop monitors (the monitors people are accustomed to) and weight. Mystery solved.

  • zach Says:

    I think if you included the average purchase price of each category of notebook (screen size) you would see that the 15" are the cheapest. I think that is the major driver, not size or battery. Most people aren't willing to pay more for portability. I assume 15" laptops are cheapest to make because the manufacturers can use crappy 15" 720p displays and there is enough space in the chassis that generic components can be used without much model-specific engineering to get it all together. If Intel wants to get ultrabooks to take-off they need to find a way to make them cheap to build.

  • Alexander Nicol Says:

    I would like a 19inch laptop without a battery.(if avaiaable )

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