In late 2010, Apple once again out-innovated the rest of the PC industry, releasing its first affordable and desirable MacBook Air notebook computers. (That design was actually thesecond-generation MacBook Air, but let's not get in the way of a good narrative.) Now, over a year later, the PC industry is finally spooling up to take on, and then overtake, Apple in this new market for ultra-light, ultra-portable computing. And the PCs that are going to make it happen are called Ultrabooks.
2012 Will Be the Year of the Ultrabook
Forget iPad-like tablets, folks. Ultrabooks are the future of the PC.
Now, a statement like that requires qualification. It's very true that traditional PCs will continue simplifying, from both hardware and software standpoints, in order to adopt the iPad's best qualities. And it's equally true that the iPad—and other pure slate tablet devices like it—will also adapt more PC-like features, including clip-on hardware keyboards that provide laptop-like functionality and more sophisticated content-creation software. (Indeed, some Android tablets already offer this feature.)
But what happens when you meld the two designs? The Ultrabook. It's like two great tastes that go together.
We're not there quite yet. The first-generation Ultrabooks currently in the market exist for only one reason: to copy the MacBook Air and keep traditional PC users away from Apple's products. Today, there are only a handful of models available from a single-digit number of PC makers that include Acer, ASUS, Lenovo, and Toshiba. Consider them placeholders, and be warned: Those models are about to be obsoleted, and big time.
At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this coming week, every single PC maker on Earth (including some you've never heard of) will be announcing a second generation of Ultrabook designs. These machines will physically resemble MacBook Airs and first-generation Ultrabooks in that they'll be light and thin, but they'll come with some major internal advantages, in the form of Intel's efficient new "Ivy Bridge" chipset, which will also be officially unveiled at CES, providing the devices with superior battery life, increased performance, and, best of all, even thinner and lighter designs.
Based on the pre-CES briefings I've had with major PC makers recently, there's going to be a torrent of second-generation Ultrabook products from which to choose. So if you've been considering such a machine, my advice is simple: Wait. You're going to be overwhelmed by choices very, very soon. (That said, many second-generation Ultrabooks won't actually hit the market until as late as April. As with every year's PC crop, they will arrive over the months after CES.)
Of course, these new Ultrabooks will also have numerous advantages over Apple's products, not the least of which is price. As with all PCs, Ultrabooks will be available in a range of price points, starting in the $600 range—about half the average selling price of a MacBook Air—and running up to a more Air-like $1,400 for high-end machines. But there's more. Ultrabooks will also features ports (like USB 3.0) that Apple ignores, and more of them, not to mention simpler connectivity with different display types and, in some cases, Ethernet networking. They'll come in a variety of screen sizes, not just 11" and 13".
And that's just the first half of 2012. By late 2012 or early 2013, Intel will have completed its promised transition to a third-generation chipset that will continue the company's drive to smaller designs that consume less power. This will result in even thinner and lighter designs and culminate in what I think of as the "true" Ultrabook—the one that merges tablets and PCs. With this chipset under the hood, PC makers will be able to move the guts of the PC into the screen, providing users with a dual-use machine: It can act as an iPad-like slate tablet PC with no keyboard, or it can be hooked into a keyboard bottom and benefit from its transformed, laptop-like form factor plus get additional battery life.
It's a win-win, folks, and an exciting vision of the future, especially for those who wish to combine productivity and entertainment into a single, light, and thin package. No doubt that Android hardware makers and Apple will follow suit, and I've predicted that Apple will eventually combine Mac OS X and iOS to better compete with this coming threat. But for now, we have a huge slew of second-generation Ultrabooks to look forward to. And I think they're going to be big sellers.
By the way, this isn't the first time I've written about this topic. I outlined my vision for Ultrabooks back in August 2011 in an editorial called Intel's Ultrabook Scheme: Is This the Future of PC Computing? I think it's fair to say now that Ultrabooks will immediately obsolete and outsell netbooks and, in a future guise, blur the line with, and possibly simply replace, tablets like the iPad.
Whatever happens, 2012 is already shaping up to be pretty exciting. Stay tuned.