What if there was No Ultrabook?

Posted on 26 July 2012 by

ultrabook opinionUltrabook is a project, a long-term multi-faceted work by many companies under many project names to bring together some of the best and most-efficient technologies, software and processes in the laptop industry and to make a personal computing product fit for the next ten years.

The products coming of the line so far are a good sign that the industry is responding to Intel’s seeding. Style is improving dramatically, Windows boots faster, weight of 13.3” laptops has dropped from over 2KG to well under 2KG and in many cases under 1.5KG. Let’s not forget what the options were, and how expensive they were, just 18 months ago.  What would the laptop landscape look like now if the Ultrabook project, and the preceding silicon design, had not happened?

Behind the scenes there’s more to the Ultrabook than a slick consumer laptop. Because Ultrabooks are highly integrated there’s less for a designer or manufacturer to do to put a working laptop together. Because the size and weight is much lower, shipping and storage charges are lower. Because batteries can be sealed inside there are fewer safety approval processes. Smaller motherboards mean less material costs – as can smaller, simpler, sealed designs.

We’re moving to a point where a laptop can almost be ‘printed’ together and that I mean 100% automation which removes manpower, increases yield and, something else that you have to pay for, support.

Sealed units coming off a mechanical production line are going to 1) have fewer faults from source 2) fewer faults caused through user tampering and, something that isn’t very eco-friendly but helps the manufacturers – a no-repair repair service. Simply hand over a fresh device.

The Ultrabook is ultimately a cheaper way to produce a laptop.

As we go through stage one of this transition, costs are still high for the new manufacturing lines and new components are used. A big change like this is also be an opportunity to push up some prices and do some re-marketing. I suspect the marketing was a critical part of the Ultrabook project.

Maybe in the future someone will reveal that as chairman and women sat around a big table in Taipei shortly after the launch of the first iPad, everyone agreed it was time to shake a leg and get busy. Intel, the big player with the big money had an obvious chance to ‘seal Intel Inside’ and to match investment money with marketing money to create a ‘wave’ that would provide momentum to speed up the process and create a three-year sub-category which could slowly move from high-margin premium models down to mainstream – thus giving the manufacturers a few years of extra cash which they could use to invest in the changes needed. Without this ‘premium first’ approach, manufacturers would probably have never committed. [Side Note: There’s a manufacturer / brand out there that can command premium prices. Is it any surprise that they were able to run a relatively unsuccessful consumer-focused product for 2 years before it got the balance right?]

Maybe I’m over estimating the ability of a global ecosystem to work together like this but watch Ultrabook prices for hints about where costs are going. Watch IT departments too as the VPro Ultrabooks feed in. Will they result in less risk and lower TCO?

What would have happened if the Ultrabook project had not happened though? Catastrophe for the traditional laptop market?

Lower margins for manufacturers would be unsustainable. Laptops would still be taking 60 seconds to boot. 2.5KG 14” models would be the norm. Fewer SSD-only options. Less efficient laptops.

More importantly Intel would be at risk as AMD-based products would have an improved position in the market. The ever increasing risk of tablets turning into smartbooks, especially with Windows RT, would make a lot of investors nervous too. The Ultrabook protects that area, especially as details on Haswell emerge.

Ultrabook, the project, is way bigger, and has been going on a lot longer than Ultrabook, the product. While the latter includes a large amount of marketing, the former is the important behind-the-scenes part that brings us better, faster, thinner, lighter and more dynamic laptops. In total, Ultrabook has achieved a lot in the laptop industry, for all players, and is likely to do much more over the next 2 years.

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  • Chiv

    The complete transition from 16:10 to 16:9 displays on laptops, including ultrabooks is a very bad thing for people who want to use their computers for work. 16:9 is only good for video consumption. Anything else benefits much more from vertical space and resolution. Apple were smart to stick to 16:10 on Macs so in reality no ultrabook is really competing with the MBA since it has a 16:10 display, more productive, whereas all ultrabooks have crappy 16:9 displays.
    PC OEMs should bring back 16:10 laptops at least in some pro/business lines. The complete lack of 16:10 displays is ridiculous. Apple has the upper hand at the moment especially because of that for pro users.

    • Visigoth

      Oh please! Stop with the constant whining of 16:10 vs 16:9. Get over it! All panels in the future will be made in the 16:9 format, so you can forget about it. These days, high-resolution displays have killed the need for extra horizontal space. I could understand if only 1366×788 displays were available, but this is not the case.

      • Shai

        Are you fucking serious? Even with FHD there are only 1080 pixels vertically, 120 less than WUXGA. Can’t even show a full A4 document.

        You’re probably one of of those lowlifes who only watch movies on their laptops without doing serious work. Just go fuck yourself with an HDTVs and leave the rest of us PC users who do real work alone

        • Hey. Keep your tone calm on my website. You are not in a YouTube comments stream here.

  • Robert

    Ultrabooks step up to what apple has shown with the macbook air thin and light computing revitilizing creative new concepts competion .. new emphesis on design build guality energy suffiency and much more getting conventional laptop makers out of a rut. and that will be a good thing in the long run.

    • Michael

      Weight is not really improving with the mainstream manufacturers. Infact weight has gone up over time for ultrabook manufacturers. Only NEC has made the effort to do something. The Lavie Z at 875g witha 13.3 inch screen is a feat to be commended.

      The ultrabook term is actually bullshit. It was coined with the intention of promoting thin and light. But look at the ultrabooks nowadays, its going up in weight and size. Even a 15 inch is called ultrabook

  • hocus

    “a no-repair repair service. Simply hand over a fresh device.”
    I don’t have an ultrabook but is that what the ultrabook manufacturers have in their warranty documents? If my SSD, fan, LCD, etc. dies, they’ll give me a whole new notebook?

    “14” models would be the norm”
    To my disappointment, a good chunk of ultrabooks have 14″ screens still. Besides, the whole ultrabooks are small “requirement” is pretty much gone.

    I think thinner and lighter notebooks at lower costs were eventually coming except at a very slow pace. It seems Intel’s ultrabook push sped that along by doing much of the OEM’s design work for them plus providing chipsets that generate less heat and consume less power but not as painfully slow an Atom.

  • Adam

    1. The Ultrabook did NOTHING to improve efficiency; we saw decreasing battery lives and increasing TDPs vs. the ULV Core CPUs
    2. If Ultrabooks are so much cheaper to manufacture why are the prices HIGHER than previous thin and light laptops?

    There’s two key things Intel needs to do to compete in marketshare with tablets, cell phones, and other ARM-based high mobility solutions:

    1. Increase mobility (increase BATTERY LIFE and decrease weight and thickness) -Ultrabooks did pretty well on the last two
    2. Decrease COST significantly (epic fail so far)

    Arguably they’ve only accomplished 2 out of 4 and those are by far the two easiest and least important ones on the list.


    • tsog

      TDP is not increasing. If anything, smaller transistor size translates to lower power consumption.

      However, display panel, the largest power consumer, hasn’t made much progress in terms of efficiency, so improved TDPs do not translate linearly to improved battery life.

    • hocus

      1. Have any links showing increased TDPs and/or lower performance (ie. less efficiency) when compared to ULV Core CPUs (including the graphics since those are integrated into current chips now)?

      As tsog has pointed out, chipsets aren’t the only power hogs in a notebook. Intel can’t design everything but hopefully, as the article says, “Intel’s seeding” will encourage OEMs and other component manufacturers (ie. LCDs, batteries, etc.) to produce more efficient devices.

      2. Your cost question was already addressed:
      “As we go through stage one of this transition, costs are still high for the new manufacturing lines and new components are used. A big change like this is also be an opportunity to push up some prices and do some re-marketing.”
      “create a three-year sub-category which could slowly move from high-margin premium models down to mainstream – thus giving the manufacturers a few years of extra cash which they could use to invest in the changes needed.”

      Also, what previous thin and lights are you referring to that are cheaper?

  • borya

    I’m not a fan of a sealed notebook. I like to switch out the HDD/SSD and RAM since those for some reason are always way more expensive when getting through the OEM.

    Also, with little sign of battery technology improving, it would be nice to install a new battery when the capacity of the current one gets too low. I usually like plugging in an extended battery too when situations call for more battery life at the sacrifice of weight and size.

  • DJones

    Fascinating stuff and great blog. I do wonder, though, about the timetable. Shouldn’t we be seeing significant price falls by now? In the UK that doesn’t seem to be happening. Eg Asus UX 21 / 31 Prime doesn’t seem to be available at all. Do you have a sense of timing for these? Surely there’s an opportunity now; if the 2nd generation ultrabooks don’t materialise, people are going to give up on this.

    • hocus

      The timing Chippy is predicting is 3 years not less than 1:
      “a three-year sub-category which could slowly move from high-margin premium models down to mainstream.”

      The lack of 2nd generation ultrabooks could be due to “new manufacturing lines and new components” or the usual conspiracy theory that they’re holding back stock to keep prices high.

      There was also a past article that mentioned that while PC sales have slowed/decreased, sales of premium notebooks including ultrabooks have increased because of the ultrabook marketing despite the high price tags.

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