Every year at CES, the tech-watching masses engage in a bit of trendspotting — an attempt to identify the one or two big themes of the show that may or may not come to define the year in technology. Some years those are easy to spot (tablets and 3D TV were two big ones recently), and other times they involve a bit of guesswork. This year, one of the most oft-cited trends is the “ultrabook.” Judging from the companies’ announcements at the show and some of the coverage they’ve received, you might think that’s a new sort of device or a radically new type of laptop. But, really, they’re just laptop accessories manufacturers. Small, thin laptops — but laptops.
It’s actually Ultrabook, with a capital “U,” and a (TM). The name is a wholly-owned creation of Intel, and the hype you’ve seen for them at CES is only just the beginning. Intel is reportedly planning its biggest advertising push in eight years to promote Ultrabooks, and it’s clearly already done a decent job of bringing hardware manufacturers on board the bandwagon. How many new “laptop” announcements do you remember from CES?
Though they received a bit less hype at the time, Ultrabooks actually made their official debut in May of last year at the Computex trade show in Taiwan, where Intel described the devices as computers that “marry the performance and capabilities of today’s laptops with tablet-like features and deliver a highly responsive and secure experience, in a thin, light and elegant design.” ASUS Chairman Jonney Shih went even further, promising that Ultrabooks will do nothing short of “change the way people interact with their PC.”
“Ultrabooks” may yet evolve into something that’s truly different, but right now it’s hard to see how they’re deserving of a title all their own, let alone the hype surrounding it. Outside of some concept devices, none have what can legitimately be called “tablet-like features,” and we’re already seeing the term being applied to devices that are indistinguishable from the average mid-sized laptop released over the last few years. Even Intel itself says that 50 percent of 75+ Ultrabooks expected this year will have 14- or 15-inch screens. And just as tellingly, Intel was also using another term, CULV, to describe these very sorts of laptops until it came up with the catchier Ultrabook moniker.
That’s not to say they’re not great laptop accessories products. It’s exciting to see laptops that are smaller, thinner and just as capable as their larger counterparts, but that’s just how laptops have been evolving all these years. The obvious example is the MacBook Air — which you technically can’t call an Ultrabook, even though it is arguably the main competitor to all of the new devices introduced at CES. The first version released back in 2008 was certainly thin and light, but it was also severely underpowered. Then, last summer, Apple released a pair of new models that were not only thin and light, but truly powerful enough to be a viable alternative to the MacBook Pro — at least for those who don’t absolutely need a larger screen and a built-in optical drive. Still, it’s a laptop.