How Lax Guidelines and Loopholes May Hurt Intel's Ultrabook Initiative

By Wesley Fenlon

Ultrabook makers exploit a loophole in Intel's requirements to cash in on the thin notebook buzz.

It's 2012--the year Ultrabooks are supposed to take over 40 percent of the laptop market. The figure is almost believable due to the glut of thin laptops shown off at CES earlier this month, but less than a year into its life as a PC category the Ultrabook is beginning to lose focus. The meaning of the term "Ultrabook" is fraying around the edges. Of course, we all knew it was a marketing buzzword--you don't use "ultra" unless you're looking for attention--but Intel's promise of rigid definitions helped establish Ultrabook as a buzzword with real guidelines.

According to Intel's requirements, Ultrabooks have to be less than 18 millimeters thick and hit the $1000 price point to get Intel's backing, and the first wave of systems hit that goal. Early launch units like the ASUS Zenbook UX31 weren't perfect, but should have heralded a second generation of even thinner and lighter and better laptops. Instead, we're seeing Ultrabooks get fatter and heavier thanks to a loophole in Intel's guidelines, and the PC category may lose its identity before coming close to that 40 percent share of the market.

Instead of following the core identity of the Ultrabook, as defined by Intel, computer manufacturers are splintering off in two different directions. Ars Technica lays out exactly what was disappointing about the Ultrabooks shown at CES 2012. The title " 'Ultra' in name only" sums it up: laptop manufacturers are edging away from the guidelines Intel so recently set up.

The HP Envy 14 Spectre, for example, is an attractive looking laptop thanks to its emphasis on glass, but it weighs 3.79 pounds and measures .79 inches (20mm) thick. That's two millimeters thicker than Intel's Ultrabook requirement. So what gives? Intel's making exceptions for devices with 14-inch screens and allowing them to be up to 21mm thick--the 18-inch guideline only applies to smaller 13-inch devices.

So it's a thicker Ultrabook. Is that so bad? Not necessarily, though Ultrabooks exist to drive body sizes downwards, not upwards. It's statements like this from HP (and other companies) that make the thicker 14-inch chassis design fee like a cheat:

A full 14-inch screen inside a 13.3-inch body means customers can get more enjoyment from their entertainment.

The above statement promises an especially compact body while taking advantage of the leeway Intel gives for 14-inch screens. At least the Envy springs for a 1600x900 display on its larger screen. The Samsung Series 5 does not. Many systems are also using hybrid hard drives or regular spinning disks instead of SSDs. Hybrid drives are a cool, speedy technology, but pure flash memory offers numerous advantages in the thin notebook form factor. SSDs are overall faster, more power efficient, smaller, and lack breakable moving parts.

The Defining Characteristics of an Ultrabook, According to Intel

  • 13-inch screen: under 18mm thick. 14-inch screen: under 21mm thick.
  • Minimum five hours battery life.
  • Seven second wakeup from hibernation to activity.
  • An Intel mobile processor, naturally.
Intel's guidelines simply aren't strict enough to force laptop designers into thinner, lighting designs at the sub-$1000 price.

Intel's "guidelines" simply aren't strict enough to force laptop designers into thinner, lighting designs at the sub-$1000 price. Notice the lack of a specific weight limitation in the official Intel criteria above; despite all the talk of $1000 Ultrabooks, their official fact sheet does not list a price requirement, either.

Even if $1000 isn't a hard stop requirement, it's certainly the encouraged (or even expected) baseline price. Perhaps notebook manufacturers can't feasibly hit that intersection of design and affordability, hence the fatter Ultrabooks and cheap components.

The second fragment of Ultrabook design, as mentioned above, manifests in notebooks like the Samsung Series 9. With a 1600x900 display and 2.6 pound body, the second-gen Series 9 is thinner (.4 inches or 10mm), lighter and better than its predecessor, which predated the creation of the Ultrabook category.

Here's the point: you may see the Series 9 billed as an Ultrabook by consumers and the press, but that's not what Samsung is labeling it. And at $1500, this very thin notebook sits well outside the desired $1000 price range. Component and design-wise, it's what Ultrabooks should aspire to be--hence tech blogs actually calling it an Ultrabook--and Intel needs to do everything it can to get laptops like the Series 9 on the market at lower prices. Even if they can't get all the way down to triple digits, a $1200 Series 9 would embody everything Intel was trying to accomplish when it set out to create Ultrabooks in the first place.