SpoonFed: Are Ultra-Thin Notebooks Too Thin on Value?

There’s a widespread assumption at the moment that netbooks will soon be killed off by so-called ultra-thin laptops, which are powered by Intel’s family of ultra-low voltage processors. Not gonna happen. These systems cost about $200 more than a netbook. In fact, there's a danger than ultrathins won't gain the traction they need to become a viable category, and netbooks won't be to blame. Ultrathins feature larger displays than netbooks (typically 13 to 14 inches) and use CPUs that offer more muscle than the ubiquitous Atom. And because ultrathins consume less power than regular notebooks, their batteries can last upwards of 8 hours on a full charge. What's not to like? Intel and its partners are making a big push behind the ultrathin category heading into the fall, but unless all involved do a better job evangelizing the unique benefits of these relatively affordable ultraportables, consumers may push back. The big question for PC makers and retailers isn’t whether consumers will like ultrathins more than netbooks. It’s whether buyers will ignore ultrathins in favor of slightly larger notebooks with better specs and lower prices. Take, for example, Lenovo’s new IdeaPad U350, which is one of the higher profile ultrathins just hitting the market. Starting at $679, this svelte system is only one inch thick and weighs a mere 3.5 pounds. Compared to traditional ultraportable notebooks, which can cost as much as two grand, this system seems like a steal, but not necessarily when you compare it to budget notebooks. The IdeaPad Y450, a 14-inch mainstream notebook, starts at $579. And what do you get for $100 less than that the U350? A faster 2.0-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor for one, versus a 1.4-GHz ULV processor. When consumers see these two systems on the shelf at Best Buy, they’ll certainly notice that the budget notebook is bigger and heavier, but they may second guess the ultrathin when they see its lower clock speed—even if they don’t need it. The same thing goes for the lack of an optical drive. The fact that the U350 can’t play DVDs or install CD-ROMs and the Y450 can will be an instant turn-off to many, even though digital downloads and streaming media are making optical drives all but irrelevant. Of course, Lenovo is not alone in this battle. Acer was first to market with ultra-thin notebooks in various screen sizes with its Timeline series. And we gave the 13-inch model an Editors’ Choice because of its long battery life, and because it makes good on Intel’s promise of thinner, lighter laptops that are fast enough to be one’s primary PC. But I can see why other notebook makers are taking their time bringing ultrathins to market. It will take more education on the part of Intel, manufacturers, and retailers as to why ultrathins are a good deal and who they’re best for. Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can read SpoonFed here each week or have even more industry news delivered to your inbox with the SpoonFed newsletter.  You can also follow Mark on twitter.

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, 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.