Microprocessor giant Intel would like to replace the slowing market for low-cost netbook computers with something a bit more lucrative, and this week the company announced its plans for a "new category" of thin and light mobile computers it calls Ultrabook. Unlike today's netbooks, Ultrabooks will utilize modern and speedy Core i-Series processors. But they'll also cost a bit more.
Ultrabooks will further differentiate themselves from netbooks by providing instant-on resume capabilities similar to Apple's iPad, and will come in a variety of form factors, including convertible Tablet PC designs.
"We're shooting for ultra-responsive," Intel Vice President Mooly Eden said this week during the Ultrabook unveiling at the Computex conference in Taipei. "You'll have always-on, always-connected, much more responsive devices, similar to what you would see with a tablet today such as an iPad. There'll be some confusion if you look at the fold factor. When you open it you'll see a PC but if you're on the go, just fold it and suddenly it's a tablet. Is it a PC? Is it a tablet? I think it doesn't matter."
The big complaint with netbooks, of course, is the performance. So rather than saddle Ultrabooks with netbook-class Atom processors, this new class of PC will instead utilize a new version of the second-generation Core i-Series processor, one that will enable incredibly thin and light machine designs. And thanks to the processor's low cost, Ultrabooks should cost under $1,000, with prices falling by a few hundred dollars throughout 2012. The first models are expected in the market in time for the holidays from multiple PC makers, Intel says.
Some have speculated that Microsoft President Steve Sinofsky, who will appear this week at an industry trade show, could show off a next-generation Tablet PC design running Windows 8. If so, it's possible that the hardware will be an Ultrabook design that provides both traditional PC and slate tablet functionality.
ASUS has announced what appears to be the first Ultrabook, a "needle-thin" (.67 inches at its thickest point) UX21 that, at a glance, looks an awful lot like Apple's popular and trend-setting MacBook Air. Unlike the Air, however, the UX21 features a modern Core i-Series microprocessor and offers better battery life. And of course it runs the superior Windows 7 operating system.
Looking ahead to 2012, Intel says that it will unleash an evolved Core i-Series chipset codenamed "Ivy Bridge" that will provide "improved power efficiency, smart visual performance, increased responsiveness and enhanced security." And the low-end Atom processor is continuing forward with "Cedar Trail" chips that will enable a new generation of even thinner and lighter low-end netbooks. (Netbooks and tablets based on the latest Atom generation, called "Oak Trail," are just now appearing in the market.) The Core i-Series will be updated to a third generation design in 2013, according to Intel.
The big question now, of course, is whether consumers will embrace the Ultrabook. After initially balking at yet another PC category name, I think Intel is on to something here, and the company's positioning of Ultrabook as the ideal crossover between a traditional notebook and an iPad is not just good marketing but is arguably exactly the type of machine that customers are really looking for these days.