Analysis Ultrabooks

8/23/2012 4:35:06 AM

These days, a PC is just a cheaper mac… that costs more

The MacBook Air, a notebook computer that started life as little more than an experiment, and which in its initial 2008 incarnation was criticized for being underpowered and overpriced, has been the Mac success story of the last two years. And increasingly the ailing PC market seems to be pinning its hopes on repeating that story – word for word.

Description: The MacBook Air

The MacBook Air

The launch of the 1lin model in 2010, with sensible specs and a price to match, made the Air suddenly attractive to those of us fed up with lugging heavy 13in or 15in laptops around.

Where Apple leads, of course, it’s not unusual for the rest of the market to follow. And so it was that Intel saw the potential for PC notebooks bigger and more powerful than netbooks – the next big thing earlier in the century, until everyone realised they weren’t making any money out of it – but much more portable than a typical laptop. The Ultrabook, as Intel now calls its version of the concept, has been with us for a while, but it was at the Computex trade show in Taiwan earlier this month where the industry finally saw the first batch of Ultrabooks featuring Intel’s promising new Ivy Bridge chipset.

Intel has laid down some pretty strict specifications for Ultrabooks, but such has been the struggle to meet them that they’ve loosened somewhat in recent months. For example, Intel initially specified a maximum thickness of 18mm (thicker than the Air, but matching, as it happens, Apple’s new Retina MacBook Pro), but now says Ultrabooks with 14in screens or larger can be up to 21mm thick. They must have either Thunderbolt or USB 3 ports (Apple currently offers both and be ‘responsive’ – for example, they should wake from deep sleep to be ready for use in less than seven seconds.

It was never going to be easy for PC makers to match Apple’s engineering prowess. What they’ve traditionally reckoned themselves pretty good at, on the other hand, is undercutting Apple’s prices. Intel didn’t set a maximum price for Ultrabooks, but said it expected most to cost between $1000 and $1100. By the end of May, there were 21 Ultrabooks on the market.

Description: Best Ultrabooks of CES 2012

Best Ultrabooks of CES 2012

One of those: Computex announcements was of Toshiba’s Portege Z930, which features a Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor. The Z930 has a 13.3in screen, 4GB Ram and 128Gb of solid state storage, and weights 1.1kg. It’s 8.3mm thick at its thinnest point, and has two USB 2 ports, one USB 3, HDMI, VGA, and support for Bluetooth 4.

Apple’s 13in MacBook Air by comparison, also has a Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor, a 13.3in screen, 4GB Ram and 128Gb of solid state storage, Thunderbolt and USB 3 sports, and support for Bluetooth 4. It’s a bit heavier, at 1.3kg, but slimmer, tapering to 3mm at its thinnest point. At $1249, the more expensive of the two machines is the Portege Z930, at $50 more expensive than the 13in MacBook Air. Toshiba’s Ultrabook looks expensive by comparison.

That’s perhaps why one ZDNet writer found himself torturing the English language in an attempt to praise to Toshiba. ‘The Z930 may not have the consumer appeal of the Apple device but coming at $50 more for a Windows-powdered machine with all the specs one would expect from a business-ready device, it’s hard not to look at this device with nothing but adoration and respect.’ Run that triple negative by us again?

When Windows journalists, instead of criticizing Apple’s price premium, are struggling to justify paying more for a functionally equivalent but less elegantly built PC than a similarly specified Mac, you know something’s gone wrong with someone’s definition of what PC makers are supposed to be doing.

Toshiba isn’t the only PC maker struggling to come up with an Ultrabook that can compete with the Air. Dell’s XPS 13, launched at the beginning of the year, is based on a similar spec level of 4GB Ram and 128Gb SSD, it scrapes under the $1000 mark at $999, $200 less than the cheapest 13in MacBook Air. Hurrah!

Description:  Toshiba announces the new Dynabook R542 Ultrabook

 Toshiba announces the new Dynabook R542 Ultrabook

But a closer look reveals where the cost has been shaved. The XPS13, unlike the Toshiba, does have a glass touchpad like the Air, but only its lid is solid aluminium, with the rest constructed from carbon fibre and plastics. It’s not quite as slim or light as the Air. The XPS uses a previous-generation Core i5 Sandy Bridge processor with Intel’s integrated HD 3000 graphics chipset, rather than the Air’s HD 4000, and its screen resolution is 1366 × 768 pixels, compared to the 13in Air’s 1440 × 900. There’s one USB 3 port, but no Thunderbolt, and Bluetooth is limited to version 3.0, while the Air supports the latest generation, 4.0. We could go on. For users who only want to run Windows, the fact that every Ultrabook includes it is a bonus; it’ll cost you an extra £100 to add Windows 7 to the MacBook Air, a cost that can’t be compared to that of adding OS X to an Ultrabook because Ultrabooks can’t run OS X. (Note to Microsoft: there’s a serious promotionall opportunity here to throw cheap copies of Windows at Mac users. You never know, a few might stick.)

Intel has hIgh expectations for Ultrabooks, and says it expects them to account for 40% of the notebook market within a few years. Analysts IHS iSuppli agree, saying last year: ‘Ultrabooks will represent 43% of global notebook PC shipments in 2015, up from 2% in 2011 and 13% in 2012.’ It’s always encouraging to compare current sales of something that’s only just been invented with non-existent past sales, of course. ‘Following their first year of shipments in 2011, Ultrabook penetration of the notebook market will increase rapidly, climbing to 28% in 2013 and then to 38% in 2014.’ By then, the whole of Apple’s MacBook Pro range may well have followed the Retina Mac-Book Pro into ultra-slim territory, rivalling Ultrabooks in size and weight while offering much greater processing power and vastly superior screens – and given Apple’s huge buying power and the pace of change in the market, the PC industry can’t rely on the Retina’s premium price tag sticking around for very long. Another price war on terms dictated by Apple surely looms.

A glance at the specs of the Portégé Z930 and Dell XPS 13 makes one thing very clear: the functional differences between Macs and PCs in the notebook market are narrowing. Not only are the components made by the same companies, they’re often identical. Processor, graphics chips, RAM and SSD are common to both sides.

Description: Dell’s XPS 13

Dell’s XPS 13

That means the challenge for every vendor is to differentiate its product. And one company clearly dominates in this respect: Apple. A cynical, if perfectly accurate, view is that it can set its notebooks apart simply by mounting its logo on the back. But it has no history of being so complacent as to stop there.

As Steve Jobs was always keen to point out, one of Apple’s greatest strengths lies in what it chooses not to do. Unlike the Dells, Sonys and Samsungs, it’s likely to keep well clear of the kind of ‘features’ Intel is promoting for future Ultrabooks, such as touchscreens. Asus and Acer have already announced Ultrabooks running Windows 8 that will use its touchscreen interface – the kind of feature that adds cost and complexity and brings practical benefits that are dubious

at best. Sliding your finger over an iPad held flat in the hand feels the most natural thing in the world; on a keyboard-equipped clamshell laptop, with the screen angled vertically, not so much. Trying to solve this by folding the keyboard in clever ways just adds yet more complexity. An effective trackpad is the more natural the way to implement multi-touch on a notebook – and Apple has the best trackpads and the most established multi-touch user interface.

Another clear point of difference is build quality. While some Ultrabooks use aluminium and other prestige materials, none so far has been as robust, elegant and simple as the MacBook Air’s unibody, despite some amusingly blatant copies. Then, of course, there’s Apple’s patented MagSafe power adaptor.

While Ultrabooks may be more and more similar to MacBooks on both the outside and inside, there are plenty of respects, operating system aside, in which Apple can and will continue to set its range apart. And one point its rivals can no longer cite in their favour is price. In this category, the decision to choose Mac over PC isn’t an expensive one.

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