Once upon a time, the PC had no rivals. Back in the era before smart phones, tablets, Internet-savvy HDTVs and other gadgets-come-lately, it was the most important technology product in the world, and therefore inherently exciting.
But with tech gear, familiarity breeds tedium. At his keynote at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said there are now 1.3 billion Windows PCs on the planet. They’re as useful as ever, but most of them are also pretty mundane.
If you consider the PC to be a boring, utilitarian appliance, you’re far less likely to splurge on a new one. That’s a dangerous scenario for computer manufacturers, who would prefer that consumers and businesses feel the need for new systems as frequently as possible. It’s just as alarming for chip giant Intel, the company whose processors are inside most systems.
In 2011, Intel took matters into its own hands by creating a concept it called the Ultrabook–thin, light notebooks with an emphasis on pizzazz over raw specs. It reportedly decided to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in convincing PC makers to build them. A few Ultrabooks debuted last year, but the floodgates opened at this year’s CES. Nearly every major manufacturer introduced one or more more models at the show.
When I first heard about Ultrabooks, I feared the worst. I figured most of them would be unimaginative knockoffs of the MacBook Air, the whisper-thin wedge of a laptop that’s been a hit since Apple introduced its second-generation version in 2010. I also worried that they’d be montonously similar to each other, in the way that netbooks all tend to blur together.
I needn’t have fretted. True, some Ultrabooks look a little–or, in some cases, a lot–like Apple’s machine. (Asus’s Zenbook is one of them.) Conceptually, however, the Ultrabook isn’t a shameless Air knockoff. In fact, it’s remarkably amorphous, giving hardware companies the latitude to build all sorts of Ultrabooks for all kinds of people.
Intel does say that a notebook isn’t an Ultrabook unless it uses a power-efficent Intel processor, delivers at least five hours of battery life on a charge, is no more than 21mm thick, wakes up almost instantly when you open it up and uses a couple of Intel security technologies. But an Ultrabook doesn’t have to hit a particular price point, come in under a specific weight, or include a certain list of features.
That’s why the models unveiled at CES are hardly peas in a pod. Consider these notable contenders, and how different they are from one another:
- Dell’s $999 XPS 13 looks like an optical illusion: Dell fit a reasonably spacious 13.3″ screen into a dinky (but handsome) case similar in size to the ones used by 11.6″ laptops. Dell’s also offering a souped-up Intel Core i7 processor option for the XPS; most Ultrabooks use the less potent i5 chip.
- Rather than matching or beating the $999 starting price for the MacBook Air, HP decided to price its Envy 14 Spectre at an imposing $1399 and lavish it with features and technologies. The Spectre has Beats audio, individually-illuminated keycaps that light up when a motion detector notices you’re there, a bevy of full-sized ports and a unique case protected with Corning’s super-sturdy Gorilla Glass. (Confusingly, it’s thicker and heavier than Samsung’s identically-priced new Series 9 laptop–a sleek machine that Samsung doesn’t call an Ultrabook.)
- Acer says that its MacBook Air-esque Aspire S5 (price not set) is the planet’s thinnest Ultrabook. It achieves that distinction through a feature that’s both useful and zany: When you press a button, a secret compartment on the back of the case plops down to reveal a full complement of ports. Another still-unpriced Acer Ultrabook, the Aspire Timeline Ultra, is available in a version with a roomy 15″ display and a built-in optical drive; it may be reasonably light and thin for a big notebook, but it’s still a big notebook.
- Samsung’s Series 5 Ultra, starting at $849, comes in 13″ and 14″ variants. Both use hard drives rather than solid-state disks, and the 14-incher manages to cram an optical drive into its still-relatively-thin case.
Not all of the CES crop look like sure winners–Dell’s diminutive model is my early favorite–but most of them are evidence that their manufacturers are stepping up their game. The best ones are strikingly nicer than most garden-variety Windows laptops, which tend to be plasticky buckets of compromise.
For all the effort Intel put into drumming up enthusiasm for Ultrabooks at CES, it apparently regards the new systems as stopgaps. “Eventually,” an Intel blog post confidently says of future models,” you’ll think of an Ultrabook as a tablet when you want it, a PC when you need it.” The company’s line of thinking is in line with that of Microsoft, whose upcoming Windows 8 will attempt to take on the iPad while keeping users of conventional PCs happy.
Intel is already declaring that the Ultrabook tablet/PC hybrids it envisions will bring “historic” change to the computer market. I’m instinctively skeptical about that prediction: A device that tries to be both a tablet and a PC may end up serving two purposes poorly rather than one purpose well. (Bicycles are great, and so are cars–but I wouldn’t want to buy a bicycle/car combo.) If upcoming Ultrabooks are bad, consumers will notice and stay away in droves.
A computer doesn’t have to make history to be a step forward for the industry; it just needs to make everyday computing meaningfully better. Ultrabooks of the type that were everywhere at CES have a shot at doing just that–and if they end up the world’s default notebooks within a few years, as I think they will, Intel will have done both PC makers and PC buyers a major favor.
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he’s @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on TIME.com.