Ultrabooks Get New Features, Prices, Screen Sizes

By Doug Olenick On Jan 10 2012 - 6:01am




LAS VEGAS – With only about seven months in the public eye, and only a small number of models on the market, Ultrabooks have quickly gained a disproportionate amount of fanfare and reinvigorated the laptop category, according to vendors and industry analysts.

These ultra-portable, high-end notebooks performed well during the holiday sales period and vendors expect this trend to continue during the new year, as Intel adds more capability and features to the design.

With the initial launch now in its rear-view mirror, Intel is at Internatinal CES talking up what the second generation of Ultrabooks will feature, said Karen Regis, Intel’s consumer client marketing director.

Intel created the Ultrabook concept to give a boost to the laptop category to enable it to better compete with the tablet PC category.

A top priority is security, along with USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt ports, Regis said. Intel has also worked to improve the user experience making it more seemless by increasing the performance of the solid-state drives (SSD) and calling for the use of more hybrid SSD/hard disk drives, she said. This will deliver more storage capacity while at the same time give users a faster overall experience.

The company has built in a layer of protection into the hardware that will be needed as the devices go mainstream in the coming years, Regis said.

Touchscreens will also be added to the Ultrabooks portfolio of capabilities, Regis said, but probably not until 2013.

Eric Ackerson, Acer’s senior product marketing brand manager, called his company’s initial Ultrabook rollout, the UX 21, UX31 and the S3-951 in October, challenging due to the time of year the company was attempting to bring a new product into retail.

“The store plan-o-grams were set, and we had to get them to hold a spot for a new product,” said Ackerson.

He added that some of the national retailers were skeptical about the category and did not dive into it, but the regional CE chains and mass merchants did well, particularly during Black Friday.

“We’re getting better exposure at the regionals. They can react better and have trained sales people, Ackerson said.

However, in an odd twist, Costco has been doing an excellent job by using good point-of-purchase materials, he said.

Toshiba’s initial foray into the ultrabook space was with the Portege Z 830 in November at $799. Carrie Cowan, Toshiba’s product marketing manager, consumer laptops, said the product has energized the category for Toshiba.

The company exclusively sold the Portege Z830 through Best Buy until Dec. 31, but other retail partners are anxious to get their hands on it, said Tom Hume, Toshiba’s marketing communications director.

Acer was surprised to find the ultrabook attracted a different customer demographic than originally anticipated. Joining the early adopter/trendsetter buyer were many average folks out looking for a new laptop.

Toshiba also believes mainstream laptop customers would be interested in paying just a bit more for an ultrabook. So the company designed its second model in the segment under its consumer Satellite brand, with a lower price and more mainstream features.

Unlike its initial ultrabook offering — the Portege Z830, which launched into retail in November at a $799 — the new Satellite will be less than $699. Exact pricing was not yet available. A ship date is also not set, but it’s expected to be in stores for the back-toschool selling period.

The model is somewhat larger than the Z830, with more mainstream features like a larger screen.

Intel expects ultrabooks to become much more of a mainstream product in 2012, with more vendors jumping on the bandwagon.

“OEMs are excited about the opportunity for a higher-priced notebook,” Regis said. “The [price] race to the bottom that has occurred in the laptop category has hollowed out the middle, and we needed something to fill the gap.”

Ackerson also sees some downward pressure on price in 2012, a point Intel is not keen to see happen. One main reason to develop the ultrabook was to give computer companies a product that will deliver higher average selling points.

Ackerson expects ultrabooks to continue to be successful in 2012. He expects more vendors to enter the category as the year progresses and a positive impact to be made by Intel and Microsoft, which are putting a great deal of financial, marketing and technical resources behind the ultrabook concept.

Some of the changes Ackerson expects will be the development of additional screen size models and, as mentioned, lower price points.

Despite the category’s excellent start out of the gate, it still needs a higher profile, particularly to compete with the MacBook Air.

“More [consumer] education is needed, and the industry needs to do more to make the devices fun so we can compete with what is coming out of Cupertino,” he said.

Hume said Intel’s promised $300 million marketing campaign will start up during the first quarter, and that it should help with the education effort.

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