PC makers have a new weapon in their battle to stop tablets stealing laptop market share and prove Apple doesn't have a monopoly on design: Ultrabooks.
Acer, Asus, Samsung, Lenovo, Toshiba and others have all unveiled plans for new ultraportable Windows 7 laptops that are thinner, lighter, faster and have longer battery life than previous efforts. Acer is the first cab off the rank with new models due out next month starting at $1200.
Previously for an Intel-based or Windows-based laptop as soon as we started getting thin and light, performance went out the window.
Ultrabooks is the umbrella term for the new category, which was created by chipmaker Intel to guide vendors with a series of stringent rules.
To get the Ultrabook branding manufacturers have to produce laptops that weigh less than 1.8kg, are less than 20mm thick, have at least 5 hours battery life under intensive usage and are ultra-responsive in terms of the speed of the processor and the ability of the laptops to boot up in under 7 seconds. Ultrabooks also tend to have a metal chassis and include faster solid-state storage as opposed to traditional hard drives.
Catching up to Apple
If this sounds like the Apple Macbook Air, that's because Apple is once again setting the benchmark for design. Intel Australia marketing director Kate Burleigh conceded that the "Macbook Air was definitely out there first" but she was confident that the other vendors could come up with similar thin and light laptops with innovative designs.
Intel's actions, however, appears to suggest that it is not completely confident in the ability of the PC industry to match Apple on innovation. The chipmaker has created a $300 million "Ultrabook Fund" to help drive innovation in the category.
Intel wants 40 per cent of PC laptops to be Ultrabooks by end of next year.
Laptops becoming like tablets
"Overall, it is combining the attributes of a tablet with the performance of a PC," said Gartner analyst Tracy Tsai of the Ultrabooks.
She added that the the things people like about tablets and smartphones - responsiveness, long standby times and quick information access - were now expected to feature in laptops too.
"Given users' apparent unwillingness to wait for long system boot-up time in their search for simple information snacks, these features will encourage users to get back on their PCs again," she said.
Tsai said that Ultrabooks also had higher powered processors - mostly the Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 range - than traditional ultra-portable computers, making them more palatable for power users than, for instance, netbooks.
Ultrabooks also have higher standards when it comes to battery life, with most netbooks struggling to get more than 3-4 hours out of a single charge.
More than 'a piece of plastic that does computing'
Ben McIntosh, general manager for computers at Harvey Norman, said he was talking to all major PC makers about stocking their Ultrabooks. Acer would be first, followed soon after by Asus and then HP, Toshiba and others.
"Ultrabooks I'm very excited about because it offers consumers the ability to buy something that's no longer about tech and spec, it's about lifestyle, battery life, usability and a nice design, rather than just a piece of plastic that does computing work," he said.
"Previously for an Intel-based or Windows-based laptop as soon as we started getting thin and light, performance went out the window."
Acer announced its first Ultrabook yesterday, the Aspire S3, which will go on sale from the first week of October starting at $1199. Like the other Ultrabooks, it looks remarkably similar to the Macbook Air.
The 13.3-inch Aspire S3 is 13mm thin, weighs 1.35kg, delivers up to seven hours battery life and is built out of aluminium/magnesium alloy. There are several "instant on" sleep modes that Acer promises will allow users to get back to work in between 1.5 and six seconds, depending on the mode.
Key tablet downside: no keyboard
Nigel Gore, director of product management at Acer Australia, said in a phone interview that Acer's aim was to create a laptop that had the battery life and lightweight design of a tablet but maintained a solid built-in keyboard.
"As soon as it comes to creating a document, or anything that requires content creation, the tablet is not the ultimate form factor for this and that's where the keyboard comes into it," he said.
"[Consumers] will tire of it because it's not convenient to type on their LCD directly on a tablet and to carry an external keyboard is just adding to your burden."
Gore said the main impact of tablets on the PC market was being felt in the lower end of the market but even then the impact was so far quite small.
Acer 's global chairman JT Wang recently predicted the end of tablet fever, arguing the hype around tablets was already starting to cool down and consumers were being attracted by laptops again. But Gore said he said he believed the "very large market for tablets" would continue "for some time".
Asked whether the Ultrabooks were simply a case of the rest of the PC industry copying Apple's design, he said all laptops had the same fundamentals but acknowledged Apple's success in using new materials like magnesium alloy.
"Obviously when you take a keyboard and a piece of glass and you're putting those together to try to be as thin as possible and then you're wrapping skin around it to keep it all together, there's certainly going to be some commonality," said Gore.
"Sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference between a BMW or an Audi or a Toyota Corolla because their styling and symmetry all have the same fundamentals."
Asus Australia confirmed that it would launch its UX31 and UX20 Ultrabooks in the last quarter of this year. Prices have yet to be announced.
The Asus models have 13- and 11-inch screens, respectively, with a starting weight of under 1.1 kilograms and a thickness between 0.3 and 1.7cm. They have an aluminium alloy chassis but to keep the weight and size down Asus, like some other ultraportable laptop makers, has left out both an Ethernet LAN port and an optical disc drive.
Toshiba said its Ultrabook, the Portege Z830, would launch in Australia by the end of the year. The company claims it will be 15.9mm thick and weigh just 1.12kg.
Sony and Dell declined to comment on their plans for Ultrabooks in Australia. Lenovo recently announced an Ultrabook model, the U300, but has yet to say when it will arrive in Australia.
Intel's Burleigh said Ultrabook was more than just a marketing term, comparing it to the "Centrino" and "netbook" categories previously pushed by Intel. Both were accompanied by a strict set of specification requirements both under the hood and in terms of design.
"The idea of Ultrabook is you should get thin, light with high battery life and no compromise on performance," she said.
This reporter is on Twitter: @ashermoses