September 23, 2020

Ultrabooks Embraced by PC Makers at C.E.S.

They are doing what they have done so many times before: taking a sidelong glance at what Apple has done. They have reason to take notice. Data from the research firms IDC and Gartner shows that the PC shipments of Hewlett-Packard and Acer, two of the world’s largest PC makers, declined in the fourth quarter of 2011 compared with the same period a year ago. Shipments by Apple, on the other hand, rose roughly 20 percent in that quarter, according to estimates from both research firms.

Helping to drive Apple’s growth is its MacBook Air, a laptop computer that measures less than an inch thick and weighs under three pounds. In late 2010, Apple reduced the base price of the Air to $1,000, down from its original $1,800 price tag.

So what did the PC makers introduce last week here at the International Consumer Electronics Show? Ultrabooks, thin laptop computers built with a new Intel low-power chip and solid-state storage that replaces the bulkier mechanical hard drive.

Intel had about a dozen Ultrabooks on display in its booth from manufacturers including Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, LG and Asus. And Intel, which holds the Ultrabook trademark, expects 70 more notebook designs will arrive in 2012, according to Anand Lakshmanan, Intel’s Ultrabook product manager.

Most of the Ultrabooks cost upward of $900, though Intel wants to work with manufacturers to bring the average price down to $700, Mr. Lakshmanan said.

Some Ultrabooks are aiming to outdo the Air, if not on price then on abilities. Dell’s XPS 13 is a $1,000 laptop with an aluminum shell and a 13-inch screen; it weighs 2.99 pounds and measures less than an inch thick. Acer’s S5 Ultrabook, which does not yet have a price, weighs less than three pounds and measures 0.59 of an inch at its thickest point, making it even thinner than the MacBook Air, which is 0.67 of an inch at its thickest point.

To Ken Dulaney, an analyst with Gartner, the Ultrabook is an obvious defense against the MacBook Air and the iPad. “It’s reacting to Apple, a company who sets design standards that many people will follow,” Mr. Dulaney said.

Manufacturers are finding plenty of ways to distinguish their Ultrabooks from one another — and from Apple’s Air. Hewlett-Packard’s Envy 14 Spectre, for example, is a $1,400 laptop with a shiny glass body and a high-resolution screen. Its $900 Folio is a 13-inch Ultrabook with special security features for business customers.

The manufacturers’ enthusiasm for the Ultrabook begins to put Intel back in a position of strength. The chip maker’s processors are nowhere to be found in popular tablets or smartphones. Most mobile devices run on processors based on a chip architecture licensed by ARM, a British company. Qualcomm, Samsung and Nvidia have grabbed the fast-growing market from Intel.

AMD, another chip maker and Intel’s major rival in PC chips, has plans for a low-power chip that can be used in thin laptops. The company said at C.E.S. that it was developing a class of processors called Trinity, which will power “ultrathin” laptops that will cost as little as $500.

Manufacturers, still smarting from being caught unaware on tablet computers, are loath to give Apple any credit for creating the category. “Let’s not give too much credit to the folks at Cupertino,” said Mike Hockey, an H.P. spokesman. “We’ve always had those thin and light PCs.”

He said H.P. introduced the Envy 133, a notebook that measured 0.7 of an inch and weighed less than three pounds, in 2008. But few of the previous thin computers caught on. Toshiba in 1996 released the Libretto 20, a 6.1-inch notebook with a weak processor that weighed less than two pounds, which was discontinued by 1999. And in 2009, Dell released a thin, lightweight notebook called the Adamo priced at $1,800, which was discontinued in 2010.

“We’ve been chasing this idea for a long time of a small, portable and affordable system that doesn’t make that many compromises on power,” said Darren Gladstone, blogger in chief of The Next Bench, a blog operated by Hewlett-Packard’s public relations department. “I think stuff like the Ultrabooks get us to that place.”

Stephen Baker, an analyst with NPD, says that the rise of the ultrathin laptops has less to do with Apple setting a trend than it does with the general decline of the PC industry.

The big push toward the power-sipping thin laptops is an industrywide effort to raise the average price of a mainstream PC notebook to improve profit margins. The average consumer spends less than $500 on a laptop, and most notebooks above that price are high-performing laptops for professionals or gamers, he said. “They have gotten into a price spiral that they need to find a way to adjust against.”

An Ultrabook pushes the mainstream consumer to a higher price, he said.

“They’re trying to make products for mainstream consumers that have the right look and feel, and gives them the incentive to spend more money on the computer,” Mr. Baker said.

Ideally, for Ultrabooks to be a broad hit, manufacturers must reach a price of $500 to $700, Mr. Baker said. And while that’s not feasible now because of the costs of parts, it’s likely that these prices will decrease over time.

“Let’s not kill the product before it’s had a chance to get in,” he said.

“Just because it’s not the exact right price right now doesn’t mean it won’t be soon.”

For Intel, thinner notebooks are just the first step. The company says its long-term plan for Ultrabooks is to fuse together a compact laptop with a tablet. That means in a few years, an Ultrabook will most likely be a thin, lightweight laptop with a detachable screen that can be used as a tablet. Lenovo, the Chinese computer maker, is already working toward that idea: Its IdeaPad Yoga displayed at C.E.S. is a “convertible” laptop that transforms into a tablet.

“It’s a response to the research we’ve done and where we really see things going in the future,” said Bryan Deaner, a brand manager at Intel.

Intel believes that tablets still aren’t as powerful or capable as regular computers, he said, so it wants companies to combine the two categories into one with the Ultrabook.

“How you bring the tablet plus laptop together in a meaningful way, I think, is going to be the Ultrabook,” he said.

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