Hybrid Windows 8 tablets: The reason Ultrabooks will struggle to take off

November 21, 2012

OK, this is just one event, hosted by one company (the Consumer Electronics Association) ahead of one show (CES), but the point is out there; what is the future for Ultrabooks?

Just over two years ago the first of these devices was introduced by Acer at the IFA exhibition in Germany.

Acer’s floor space was huge yet all the journalists and photographers were condensed around a handful of slim devices which looked a lot like a notebook. The model in question was the Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook.

Other vendors like Asus and Toshiba soon followed suit with their own models and questions started being asked if the Ultrabook replaced your laptop, your tablet or both. CEA even said there would be as many as 50 new Ultrabooks debuting at CES 2012, the largest tech show in the world.

But a lot happens in a year, not least in 2012 which has seen the introduction of three new iPads, two Google tablets, a Kindle Fire, the Surface and a third mobile operating system (Sorry RIM, I am talking about Windows 8 here, not BlackBerry 10).

For all of this, the most striking aspect of the tablet market this year has been the innovation around the form factor, especially with these new hybrid Windows 8 designs coming from Dell and HP among others.

Amid all this, I had almost forgotten about Intel’s Ultrabook project until recently, when the CES Unveiled 2012 event failed to mention Ultrabooks once, despite the devices stealing the show a full 12 months earlier.

So, what happened to the Ultrabook?

In my opinion, the concept is increasingly facing competition from tablets, specifically those convertible models which can be used as a tablet or laptop.

I am certainly not alone in doubting the chances of the Ultrabook; Parks Associates tackles the issue with the self-explanatory ‘Ultrabooks, Laptops and Tablets: Complements or Substitutes’ report, while PC World's Tony Bradley has also questioned if buying a Windows 8 Ultrabook is really such a smart move.

After all, who wants to pay up to $2,000 for an Ultrabook when you can halve that on a hybrid Windows 8 tablet which can function as a laptop or tablet, offers reasonable specs (Dell's Envy x2, for instance, has a dual-core 1.8GHz Intel Clover Trail processor), Office compatibility, similar battery life and the same instant-on power? Judging by some research figures, not that many people.

In addition, the introduction of Windows 8 and slightly larger screens is already dispelling previous myths from Intel that tablets cannot compete with Ultrabooks.

“The screens are still small, local storage is generally miniscule and restrictive, and tablets lack performance compared to that of a traditional PC,” said Intel technical marketing engineer Shirley Chen, back in March.

Except that debate isn’t really relevant anymore. Some Windows 8 tablets coming to the fore have 11.6-inch, 12-inch or 13-inch displays, the latest Atom processors, up to 128GB of memory when running Windows 8 Pro (the Intel-version of Windows 8) and even USB 3.0 ports.

I wonder if the Ultrabook has been hit in other areas too.

To date, Ultrabooks have been rolled out by relatively few top-tier brands, and there may have been some branding confusion too. After all, despite Intel's protestations that laptops were 'too big' and too focused on performance, I today see retailers advertising Ultrabooks as laptop PCs.  

Add into this that some Ultrabooks are now being advertised as tablets (because they adhere to Intel’s Ultrabook specifications), and you can see how some consumers may be scratching their head at their local retail store.

Furthermore, as pointed out in greater depth by Gizmodo’s Jeff Atwood, touch control is so powerful on tablets, and yet still somewhat cumbersome on laptops and Ultrabooks.

In summary, I am not saying that this is the death of the Ultrabook or that a hybrid Windows 8 tablet will be your next road warrior. That lightness, processing processor and keyboard-only input will be great for some.

But I think that hybrid Windows 8 tablets will fit the bill for a lot of business workers and consumers, especially with some CEOs considering Ultrabooks to be too expensive.

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