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Intel to Ultrabook Makers: Step Up Your Game

If Intel has its way, Ultrabooks won’t need their own moniker for that much longer. We’ll just call them laptops, because they’ll all be super-thin, offer the responsiveness of a tablet, and last five hours or longer on a charge. But as Karen Regis, director of Ultrabook marketing for Intel, admits, prices need to come down and PC makers need to improve upon their first-generation efforts.

Intel has heard the complaints about wonky touchpads and displays that pale in comparison to the MacBook Air, and Regis says she wants to work with Intel’s partners to “make sure that they’re delighting people rather than frustrating them.” What’s frustrating to Regis? HP calling AMD-powered ultraportables Sleekbooks certainly doesn't help.

Ahead of this week’s panel discussion at the CEA Line Show on Ultrabooks, which I’ll be moderating, I sat down with Regis to discuss the future of this category. We touched on everything from Windows 8 and touch coming to clamshells, to what she thinks of Vizio selling Ultrabooks and the Microsoft Surface.

LAPTOP:  How would you quantify the success of the Ultrabook category thus far?

Regis: I think the quick OEM adoption and the amount of innovation that we’ve seen in the marketplace and that the OEMs are putting into the Ultrabook designs are good indicators.

LAPTOP: So let’s say my mom or a student is on the hunt for a notebook. Why would they want an Ultrabook over, let’s say, a value-price laptop in the $500 range. What would get them to spend a little bit more?

Regis: For someone who’s looking for something to take to school that needs to be ultraportable and have long battery life and have built-in security, then the Ultrabook is going to be the right choice for them. That name Ultrabook being trademarked means that there’s this certain minimum requirement that has to be met to deliver that kind of experience. That responsive, secure, mobile-styled experience.

LAPTOP: We’re seeing a lot of Ultrabooks get a little over five hours of battery life, which while decent is well below what we’ve seen for other laptops. What sort of guidance are you giving for battery life and what should users expect out of this category?

Regis: The minimum requirement is five hours, and that’s measured by Mobile Mark 07. But we expect and have seen a lot of the systems that have bigger screen sizes are doing better than that five-hour minimum. We are encouraging OEMs more and more not just to meet the letter of the definition but also the spirit of the definition. We’re encouraging them to go ahead and do better with a set of recommended capabilities.

LAPTOP: There's bifurcation in the Ultrabook market, where some have full SSDs, and some have a full-size hard drive with flash memory. Does this run counter to the Ultra part in the Ultrabook brand? And how do you tackle that potential confusion?

Regis: Yeah, I think that has to be part of our overall marketing and plan. We’ve seen some headlines that talked about the diversity and it’s not all viewed as good. So I agree with you, but think about someone who sees the high-end Ultrabook. They want something that looks great, that is very responsive, but they are budget-conscious. As long as we have a hard drive plus SSD solution that delivers SSD performance at a fraction of the cost, then we don’t have to give up on quality.

We’re trying to get cost out of the system over time, but at the same time while we do that, we’re not trying to dive to the bottom.

LAPTOP: How else can you drive costs down?

Regis: One way is by using plastics that are borrowed from the aerospace industry. Everyone has a metal chassis now, some machine metal, some aluminum. Those things can be hard to manufacture in high volume. A plastic like this, when designed properly, can give the same kind of quality, rigidity, torque strength, as a metal chassis, but at a fraction of the cost. And some of these materials, they look and feel luxurious.

LAPTOP: Would you say that Vizio getting into the Ultrabook market is a sign that the category is going mainstream?

Regis: It’s nice to see them as a player in the Ultrabook space because they’re known for trying to deliver a luxurious product at more mainstream price points, which is where we’re trying to head with Ultrabooks. In fact, we’re still trying to get our team all suited up with Ultrabooks. I asked someone on the team, of the 35 or so systems that are going to be timed to market with our Ivy Bridge announcement, which one do you want to order for your own. He chose the Vizio system.

LAPTOP: What do you make of brands like HP selling so-called Sleekbooks with AMD processors? Do you feel like that muddles your message?

Regis: It absolutely does. It could potentially lead to consumer confusion about Ultrabooks, and that’s why we have to make sure that people understand Ultrabook is not just a pretty face, it’s not just about a sleek form factor. There’s much more than comes with the promise of an Ultrabook. It may not be included in some of the other products that are out there that are trying to imitate what we’re doing with Ultrabook.

LAPTOP: What would you point to as a couple of examples of what separates an Ultrabook from a Sleekbook?

Regis: You know if you buy an Ultrabook it’s going to have at least five hours of battery life, it has to be responsive from wake. It has to be responsive loading and running your favorite or most frequently used applications very quickly. It has to be secure, so it has to have anti-theft as well as identity-protection technology built-in, and available to the user out of the box.

LAPTOP: Since you’ve probably gone hands-on with most, if not all, of the Ultrabooks out there, how would you tell your partners to improve their products? What recommendations would you give?

Regis: I would give it based on what you guys are writing. You guys are writing about trackpads, you’re talking about display quality. Those are probably two of the most commonly heard things. I think that there are people in the market who are doing a really good job of this who are kind of setting the bar for the rest of the players. So we want to provide whatever kind of support that we can to make sure that the OEMs can focus on areas that are being highlighted in the press and make sure that they’re delighting people rather than frustrating them in those areas.

LAPTOP: Touchpads are only going to get more important with Windows 8 because of its gesture support. Do you feel like you might have to step up your requirements or your guidance when it comes to what makes for a good experience?

Regis: Yeah, I think our technical teams are deeply engaged with the third-party vendors and the OEMs, too, to help them be ready for the needs that Windows 8 is going to bring the bearer.  We have to make sure that we’re helping to define the solution, and I think that in some cases it’s hardware and in some cases it’s drivers, in some cases it’s, there are OS interactions. There are number of things that come into play here.

LAPTOP: There’s plenty of skepticism around Windows 8, with some saying that it’s really better suited for a tablet as opposed to a clamshell device. Will this OS really mesh well with Ultrabooks?

Regis: I actually think it’s going to be great. I think you can see a number of touch-enabled Ultrabooks in the market in time for Windows 8, and they won’t all be convertible systems. I think you’re going to see some clamshells. We have research that shows that people really love when they spend a couple of hours playing around with touch. They want to touch a large percentage of the time even in clamshell mode.

LAPTOP: Do you consider Microsoft’s Surface to be an Ultrabook? What would you call it?

Regis: At this point we don’t have enough information to say whether or not it would meet an Ultrabook definition. I think it’s an interesting-looking design, but we’ll see what else Microsoft has to say about that hopefully in the coming months.

LAPTOP: What’s your opinion of laptop-notebook hybrid designs in general? Will this category come into its own?

Regis: I think it has the potential to. But if you’re really trying to deliver a device that has all the goodness of the PC and have great tablet capability as well, you have to be really cognizant of the mechanical design. You have to make sure that it’s light enough and thin enough and converts easily enough that it’s easy for the end user. We see some promising devices out there, and I think they represent great opportunity, but I’m not sure that everyone’s there yet.

LAPTOP: What Ultrabook are you carrying?

Regis: I’m carrying the Lenovo U300s sporting a Core i7 processor and 256GB SSD, and clementine orange. I like to be different.

Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.