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Ultrabook Makers Not Learning Lessons of the MacBook Air

Ever since Intel announced its Ultrabooks initiative last spring, I've been lusting after this new line of super-slim, fast-resuming, and long-lasting laptops. Now that the first Ultrabooks are finally shipping, though, the bloom is off the rose. These svelte systems were supposed to be the PC equivalents the MacBook Air; sex appeal with a Start menu. But like Lady Gaga trying to channel Marilyn Monroe, Ultrabook makers get the look mostly right but so many little things wrong.

ASUS claims you'll fall in love with its Zenbook UX31 at first sight. And we did, thanks to the brushed metal chassis and very svelte dimensions. But that infatuation will come to an end as soon as you get it home, pop open the lid, and start fondling the terrible touchpad. Just one touch on that that slick surface will send your pointer jumping to the other side of the screen or getting stuck mid-glide. Caressing the creaky keyboard yields no pleasure at all, as you have to pound these keys with plenty of force just to register each stroke. 

An ASUS rep told us the company is working on a driver update that will improve the Zenbook's touchpad, but it rolled to market with a navigation experience that would never make it out of Apple's test lab. Did anyone at ASUS even try the touchpad before shipping this product?

Acer's Air impersonation is the worst, a Lindsay Lohan interpretation of Marilyn. With its short battery life, cheap plastic chassis, and slow hard drive, the only thing the Aspire S3 aspires to be is the next Woot daily special.

Sure, the 13.3-inch S3 is $100 less than the entry-level 11-inch MacBook Air and $400 less than the 13-inch version, but at $899, it's not a budget notebook by any stretch of the imagination. Bargain hunters would be better off buying a less-expensive ultraportable such as the HP Pavilion dm3t, while users who want superior performance and build quality should pony up a little more money for the MacBook Air or high-priced PC competitors that aren't called Ultrabooks, such as the Samsung Series 9 and the ThinkPad X1

When we spoke with him at the Zenbook launch event in New York, ASUS CEO Jonney Shih emphasized his company's commitment to design and building an incredible experience. "We still believe the technology is important, but how do we really utilize the technology and then try to drive the best user experience?" he asked rhetorically. "That's the right way to think about innovation."

While ASUS thought a lot about looks, sound, display, and even high-speed storage, it ignored the feel of its user input devices. Acer didn't even give its Ultrabook the college try, achieving a body that is rail-thin but made of cheap plastic.

Both companies failed to learn Apple's most important lesson: Focus on the ways humans interact with the product first. Users touch a notebook's keyboard and touchpad all day long. They stare at its screen and listen to its speakers. They place it on their laps. 

At LAPTOP, we have a mailbox ( dedicated to answering user questions. We get queries all the time from people asking us which notebook to buy. Usually these e-mails contain a line like this one: "I'm thinking of buying this Acer laptop, but how is the keyboard?" or "I'm between this HP and that Dell. Which has the better touchpad?" Nobody ever asks, "Is the Core i5 on this notebook that much better than the Core i7 on the other one?" Usability is the priority.

If PC vendors want to build notebooks that truly outclass the Air, they need to focus on usability over raw sex appeal and even performance. Hopefully, Lenovo, Toshiba and the other vendors that plan to introduce Ultrabooks in the coming weeks and months will keep that in mind.

Online Editorial Director Avram Piltch oversees the production and content of LAPTOP’s web site. With a reputation as the staff’s biggest geek, he has also helped develop a number of LAPTOP’s custom tests, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. Catch the Geek’s Geek column here every week or follow Avram on twitter.