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Ultrabooks: Has the MacBook Air Already Won?

They’re designed to be super thin, resume from sleep almost instantly, and last a long time on a charge—with standby times measured in days instead of hours. No, we're not referring to the MacBook Air but a new breed of Windows laptop called Ultrabooks.

Ultrabooks are different than the Air in that they run Windows and generally cost less than Apple’s model. Sometimes a lot less. The Acer Aspire S3, for example, starts at just $899, $400 less than the 13-inch Air. That’s pretty cheap for a 3-pound laptop that measures 0.5 inches thick and packs Core i5 power.

Then there’s the fact that not everyone wants to use the Mac OS, which requires a learning curve for Windows users. “It’s harder to convince them to go to Mac and use a new OS and to use the new programs—to convert and all that,” said Eric Ackerson, Acer’s senior product marketing and brand manager. “And with an $899 price point, we feel pretty good about it.”

Of course, Acer isn’t the only one looking to take a bite out of Apple’s market share. ASUS, Lenovo, Toshiba, and others are lining up their own Ultrabooks for this holiday season and beyond. But will they win over shoppers, or just remind them how green the grass is on the other side?

Ultrabooks Defined

The MacBook Air isn’t the only reason Intel is putting a lot of money and resources behind the Ultrabook category. As some start to question the value of notebooks versus sleeker tablets such as the iPad, it’s imperative that Intel and its partners find a way to make laptops more like tablets.

“I don’t believe that the iPad is cannibalizing notebook sales, said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis of The NPD Group. “But there’s no question that manufacturers are trying to make their devices look more like tablets.”

To be more tablet-like, Intel is focusing on both design and a new way to measure performance. “The most readily apparent feature of an Ultrabook is going to be radical reductions in the height of the platform, but that’s just the most visible change,” said Greg Welch, who heads up the Ultrabook group at Intel. “They’ll also be much more responsive. By responsive, we mean when you hit the power button you are back up and running.”

According to Intel’s definition, a bona fide Ultrabook has four key ingredients. It must measure less than 21mm thick (0.8 inches) and be able to wake from a deep sleep in 7 seconds or less. This is accomplished either via a solid state drive or a hybrid hard drive that utilizes a small amount of flash to store the system state. The other two defining characteristics are long battery life (5 to 8 hours) and support for Intel’s Anti-Theft Technology and Identity Protection software.

This isn’t the first time that Intel and its partners have tried to ignite interest in thin-and-light notebooks. A couple of years ago, CULV (consumer ultra-low voltage) laptops were poised to be the next big thing, but most consumers balked at their relatively high prices and underwhelming performance.

“I think our motives were a bit confused in the past,” said Welch. “We just said, ‘Hey, we’ll sell these parts at a premium, and if we get people to buy more we’ll make more money.’” Now, Welch says Intel is taking a more holistic approach by working more closely with its partners to define Ultrabooks and to help market them.

In addition, the CPUs inside Ultrabooks promise a much snappier experience than CULV machines offered. “The ultra low voltage processor inside our Ultrabook is equal to the last generation of Core i Series of standard voltage, so it’s certainly acceptable,” Ackerson said.

Air Killers or Copycats?

Although Ultrabooks seem to have a lot going for them, the first machines we reviewed didn’t win us over. The Acer Aspire S3, for example, disappointed with a somewhat cheap-feeling plastic deck (only the lid is metal) and a relatively short battery life (less than 4.5 hours). That’s below Intel’s claim for the category. The $1,299 13-inch Air is all aluminum and lasts 6.5 hours on a charge.

Acer’s Ackerson admits that the company had to cut some corners, such as a backlit keyboard and all-metal design, to reach a certain price point. The S3 also features a hybrid hard drive that combines a 320GB mechanical drive with a 20GB solid state drive that acts as a buffer to save the system state. This approach gives the notebook a lot more storage than the base model MacBook Air’s 128GB, but it also led to more sluggish overall performance.

Priced at $1,099, ASUS’ Zenbook UX31 (pictured below) impressed us more. In addition to 128GB of fast all-flash storage, this super-thin laptop boasts an ultra-premium spun-metal finish, a sharper display than the 13-inch Air (1600 x 900 vs. 1440 x 900 pixels) and more robust sound. Unfortunately, a temperamental touchpad prevented us from giving the Ultrabook a higher rating. ASUS told us that a major driver release would improve two-finger operation and multitouch performance.

Not surprisingly, Digitimes reported this week that initial Ultrabook sales are off to a slow start. The site claimed that Acer and Asus were expecting to ship less than half the target number of machines. When we reached out to Intel to comment, spokesperson Kari Aakre defended the Ultrabook category, saying that "we're confident that Ultrabooks will quickly become the must-have devices for this seeason, and that early buzz from product reviewers has been pretty positive."

Perhaps the Lenovo U300S and Toshiba Portege Z830 will fare better, but at the moment the Ultrabook revolution feels a lot like the post-iPhone and -iPad gold rushes, with multiple companies attempting to cash in on trends Apple started.

Prices Must Drop

As Apple has proved with the MacBook Air, people are willing to pay a premium for instant-on responsiveness, sleek design, and long battery life. The goal for Intel is to drive prices down and transform this category from a niche into one that dominates.

“I don’t blame Apple’s competitors for trying to add more value versus the MacBook Air,” said NPD's Baker. “However, prices are going to have to drop to between $600 and $700 for Ultrabooks to take off.” He argues that Ultrabook makers aren’t really competing with Apple as much as they are with sub-$500 Windows laptops with 15-inch screens.

To help push Ultrabooks closer to the mainstream, Intel will release its Ivy Bridge chip in the first half of 2012, promising improved efficiency, as well as support for both USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt technologies (currently found in the Air). Further down the road, Intel’s Haswell chip will consume half as much power as today’s processors. By then, if not sooner, ARM will be competing with Intel to power the next generation of Ultrabooks, which will run Windows 8. And with that kind of competition, prices should plummet, making Ultrabooks a much bigger part of the overall mix.

“We’re tracking about a dozen designs for Christmas this year, and next year the goal is something over 50 to 70 designs, so that it’s a very important category in the market,” said Welch. “And then by 2013 with the new platforms that are coming in, and Windows 8 now mainstream, that’s when you really are at the sort of the new norm—this is what’s now expected of a notebook.”

Ultimately, the biggest obstacle for Ultrabooks isn’t Apple, but inertia. “While focusing on instant-on functionality is good, we’ve been training people for 15 years that clock speed and overall performance matters most,” stressed Baker. “It’s hard to reverse that.”