Intel Readies Ultrabook Blitz, But Questions Loom

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While many OEMs, from HP to Acer, have jumped on the Ultrabook train, Samsung is unique because the Korean manufacturer created "the grandfather of the Ultrabook," according to Ledterman. The Samsung Series 9 was introduced last year, which was quickly billed as a "Macbook Air Killer," and the notebook is credited with kicking off the ultra-thin notebook movement -- at least for PCs.

While the original Series 9 wasn't technically an Ultrabook (it predated the movement and didn't have a few requisite features), the second-generation one is considered an Ultrabook -- sort of. At a starting price of $1,399.99 for the 13.3-inch model, the Series 9 is most definitely over the Ultrabook's $1,000 price target.

There are other challenges, too, and not just for the Series 9 but many other Ultrabook models. For example, solid-state drives with lower storage capacity don't address mainstream needs, Ledterman said. A true ultra-thin notebook like the Series 9 will be forced to sacrifice storage capacity.

And then there's the lack of optical drives, which will also put off some users. "An optical drive is kind of like a security blanket," Ledterman said. "Even if people aren't using it as much anymore, it's still a purchase enabler for 2012."

That explains why Samsung decided to go in a slightly different direction with its new Series 5 ULTRA; the 14-inch Series 5 is the first Ultrabook to carry an optical drive. In addition, the Series 5 13-inch model also offers the option for a "hybrid drive" -- a 500-GB hard drive for data storage accompanied by a 16-GB SDD for a Windows operating system. Plus, both Series 5 Ultrabooks have price tags more in line with Intel's "mainstream price point" of around $1,000 (the 13.3-inch model starts at $899).

"We see hybrid storage is a big part of the future," Ledterman said. "You get more storage for your data, but you also have the speed and responsiveness that SSD offers."

Lenovo is another major PC maker that's jumped on the Ultrabook train. The fastest growing major PC manufacturer for two years now unveiled the IdeaPad Yoga (which isn't technically an Ultrabook) and the IdeaPad U300 series at CES. The Yoga was one of the more talked-about products in Las Vegas, and with good reason -- it features a 360-degree flip-and-fold display that allows the notebook to convert into a fully functional tablet.

Despite the buzz around the IdeaPad Yoga, Ultrabooks appear to be a small component of Lenovo's overall growth strategy. David Schmook, senior vice president and general manager of Lenovo North America, says the company is focused on growing its desktop business, which it hopes will compliment its already strong ThinkPad and IdeaPad notebook brands. "The fact is, there are fewer desktop players now than there are notebook players," Schmook said. "There's a robust desktop market out there, and we're committed to growing that business."

That's not to say Schmook doesn't see potential for Ultrabooks; on the contrary, he and the rest of Lenovo believe the move toward ultra-thin, ultra-portable notebooks will create more demand for PCs. But there's a catch.

"The challenge will be to get to a more attractive, mainstream price point. Ultrabooks can't just be a premium device with a premium price," Schmook said. "If we can get that price point down to the $600 to $700 level, that will really push the volume up and I think three years down the road we'll see Ultrabooks as a dominant [form factor]."

Lakshmanan agrees that Ultrabooks will eventually move down to a lower price point, but Intel doesn't want to see it get too low.

"It's going to get to a more mainstream price point eventually, but not a bargain basement price point," Lakshmanan said. "It's not a race to the bottom. It's not going to get down to $199, but it won't stay at $1,000 or $900 forever."

Next: Ultrabooks And The Enterprise

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