2012: Year of the Ultrabook

Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley.

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During the last three months of any year, PC vendors sell about 45% of all of the PCs that they offer in that calendar year. And if consumers buy enough of these PCs, the vendors are able to turn a profit for the year. That’s why selling as many PCs and laptops as they can in the last quarter is so important.

That’s good news for consumers, because it means amazing bargains on PCs and laptops between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And while buying a new laptop now is still a good idea this holiday season, it’s also important to understand what will happen in portable computers next year. In fact, 2012 will probably be the most disruptive year in portable computing designs since the industry introduced “thin and light” laptops a decade ago.

(MORE: Eight New Tablets and Ultrabooks You Should Know About)

The first big change in laptops during 2012 will be a push by Intel and Microsoft to brand and sell what they’re calling ultrabooks. If you have seen an Apple MacBook Air, you have already seen an ultrabook. And Apple’s spectacular success with this laptop has not gone unnoticed by competitors—their answer to the MacBook Air is the ultrabook. Traditional PC vendors are quite excited about this new lightweight and sleek laptop design and have set a goal of making these products 40% of all of the laptops they ship in 2012.

A few of these ultrabooks are on the market now from companies like Acer, with the S3, and Asus, with the UX31. They’re priced between $899-$1299 and today are not aimed at mainstream, price-conscious consumers. By definition, ultrabooks have to be ultra slim and under three pounds but still have the processing power of bulkier laptops and battery life of at least five hours. But here’s the bad news: With the industry moving fast to push ultrabooks into the mainstream and get prices under $699 by mid-year, many of the laptops bought this holiday season will look dated very quickly. Sure, the mainstream PCs sold this holiday will work well, be great values, and last at least three to four years. But ultrabooks will be the darlings of 2012, and those who can wait about six months can probably get these very sleek laptops at more consumer-friendly prices.

(MORE: Can UltraBooks Save the PC Industry?)

The second new design that has the potential to shake up the PC industry is called the hybrid laptop. These will be ultrathin laptops that will most likely be dubbed hybrid ultrabooks, and will feature screens that can be lifted off to become highly portable tablets. Think of it as a laptop and tablet combination. These designs will not show up until after Microsoft releases the official version of their Windows 8 tablet in mid-October 2012, though.

However, I have seen some prototype designs for this tablet that are spectacular. For Windows users, this combo approach of marrying a laptop and tablet could be a big hit. In laptop mode, this machine would use either Windows 7 or Windows 8 with the new Metro UI operating system, and in tablet mode it would use the Windows 8 tablet interface.

And the big plus will be that it can run all Windows apps in either mode. But to be clear, on the Windows 8 tablet, traditional Windows programs can’t take advantage of the Metro Touch user interface. In these cases, people will use a stylus to navigate and interact with these older programs. However, Microsoft is pushing the software community to create new programs optimized for the Metro Touch UI and helping them build a full ecosystem of software optimized for the new Windows 8 tablet. That should all kick into gear by Q4 of 2012.

(MORE: 50 Windows 8 Screenshots, Hardware Photos and More)

There’s one more interesting product in the works, too. Three years ago, netbooks were all the rage, but they have now fallen out of favor since tablets have hit the scene. But research shows that there’s still some demand for a really cheap and light laptop, especially in education, that can mainly surf the web and run some basic apps. So by late 2012, you can expect at least three ultra thin and light Windows laptops that look a lot like Apple’s 11-inch MacBook Air, but at prices around $269 to $375. They’ll have much slower processors and minimal storage space, but they’ll be excellent web access laptops and many of them will most likely have Android on them, so they can run some Android apps as well.

One truism in the world of tech is that if you buy something today, it will be eclipsed by a new version tomorrow. This is an industry run by Moore’s law; a law that says the power of processors doubles every 18 months. Tech products get better and more powerful very fast.

But in 2012, there will be a twist to this concept. Thanks to ultrabooks and hybrid ultrabooks, laptops will not only get better and more powerful, many of these new models will also break the mold of what a laptop looks like today and will set the design tone for the laptops of the future.

MORE: Toshiba Portege Z835 Ultrabook Review

Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley.

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