Ultrabooks have arrived. Yet, for many, 2012 will be the first year they seriously consider buying one. If they're the future of laptops, then they have a long way to go before they become what people want in the present.
From one perspective, ultrabooks and the MacBook Air are the most exciting laptops to come around the pike in a long while. From another perspective, they're the sort of laptops that provide the least amount of computing value for the dollar, and are precisely the sort of fancy gadgets that cash-strapped holiday buyers will skip for better deals. After all, computers are commodity devices, right?
Well, yes and no. The iPad and the Kindle Fire have quickly shown that stylish, fun devices can quickly trump beefy specs, although in both cases they're relatively affordable buys. A friend of mine who recently e-mailed me summarizes the ultrabook situation perfectly:
"From my Luddite perspective, it's completely invigorated the laptop market for consumers just when everyone was beginning to crank out the same old 5-pound, 15.6-inch, DVD/Webcam, dual-core whatever machine."
He argued that the size and weight of these laptops are far more important than performance, gaining a family acceptance factor that trumps an ability, for instance, to play PC games with higher-end graphics.
I've had a hard time recommending ultrabooks for everyone, though. While they're getting awfully close to being the "laptop for everybody" that Apple's MacBook Air is currently gunning to be, a few key improvements still need to happen in 2012. As we look ahead to the Consumer Electronics Show, where new laptop announcements are a common occurrence (stunningly enough, CES is less than six weeks away), this is what I hope happens to make ultrabooks more relevant.
1. More storage. This is key. Solid-state drive (SSD) storage has been hovering in the 128GB range for what seems like years. User storage needs are increasing; photo file sizes and smartphone video files are getting larger, music libraries are expanding, and we're collecting apps and games like baseball cards. Cloud storage helps alleviate some of these concerns, but nothing substitutes for ample local storage. Case in point: my iTunes library has exceeded my hard-drive space, so I ported it to a NAS drive. It technically works, but file access using iTunes is much slower and has made sync times for my iPhone and iPad tremendously long. I'm not asking for a terabyte, but getting up to the 256GB to 512GB range would make my opinion of MacBook Airs and ultrabooks shift from "consider" to "must-buy." In the meantime, hybrid drives incorporating less-expensive, larger-size magnetic hard drives and smaller-size SSDs could work, like we saw in the Acer Aspire S3. I'd love if a smarter, more versatile home "media cube" server could help me with my storage woes, too, but sadly, such a product doesn't seem to exist yet.
2. Better battery life. What? How can I say this when ultrabooks and the MacBook Air already are better than average? While that may be true, our expectations for battery life keep increasing. iPads and other tablets have ushered in a new age of longer-life devices. It's completely unfair to compare these with full-fledged laptops, but if someone's considering buying an ultrabook or an iPad and weighs in battery life, that could factor into a decision in the other direction. I'd expect, with ever-more-efficient processors and improvements in standby time, that batteries could take another small leap forward.
3. More ports. Yes, the port real estate on most of these slimmed-down laptops is limited at best, but we've seen some odd solutions on a few of the ultrabooks that have come through CNET. Plug-in dongles for Ethernet? No SD card slot? Come on. There are only a few essential ports you need on a laptop: HDMI, USB 2.0/3.0, SD card slot, Ethernet. Get all of those in. It shouldn't be hard.
4. Lower prices. The current sticker price of $800 to more than $1,000 for an ultrabook is pricey territory compared with the values available elsewhere, such as sub-$500 11-inch AMD Fusion-powered ultraportables. For the same price, you can get a completely full-featured laptop with absolutely no compromises...except size. I'm not asking for the impossible--margins are apparently already close as is--but $600 to $700 seems like the ideal price for an entry-level ultrabook.
5. Better cloud-based software. Ultrabooks are banking on people power-using the cloud for their needs, but the cloud thus far has been a hit-and-miss assortment of services as far as I'm concerned. Apple has pushed the Mac App Store as a way of providing an easy-to-redownload way of installing disc-free software, but it's not a universal solution for Mac users. The more I can download my apps, media, and games as needed and archive my other tools in the cloud, the more I'd consider an ultrabook to be a perfect solution. Plenty of solutions exist, but none of them is well integrated to each other, forcing customers to make awkward choices and possibly find their software and media fragmented.
6. Bolder designs. We've laughed at the idea of laptops that swivel their screens around to turn into tablets, but in the case of ultrabooks, the time might be coming to revisit the idea. Recent Windows 7 tablets have been impressive--see the Samsung Series 7 Slate--and the thin SSD-equipped chassis of an ultrabook would make for a far less bulky convertible tablet. It might take until the launch of Windows 8 for this idea to make sense, but with the growth in tablet use, why not consider it, as long as it doesn't compromise the laptop's design as...well, as a laptop?
7. Docking solutions, or better Thunderbolt peripherals. The potential for Thunderbolt is great--high-speed storage, monitors, even off-board graphics like that on the Sony Vaio Z. Docks already exist or are in development, but there's never been a better time to create solutions for transforming a small laptop into a more full-featured device.
Anything I missed? Have you been considering an ultrabook (MacBook Air included)? Share below.