CES thoughts: Will the ultrabook be as ultra as promised?

I've been following all the speculation about the upcoming CES trade show -- naturally enough, since I and several of my Computerworld colleagues will be there next week -- and the word everyone is tossing around as this year's product to watch is the ultrabook.

Ultrabooks, in case you haven't caught all the somewhat breathless prose, are thin and lightweight notebooks that are currently being pushed by Intel as platforms for their upcoming Ivy Bridge chips. Intel has actually published a set of criteria (PDF) for these notebooks -- among which are that they should be powered by low-voltage Intel Core processors -- but according to some of the articles I've read, up to 50 of these new notebooks are expected to be announced at CES, and one suspects that many will not be strictly following the Intel rules.

I'm not so much a skeptic -- the idea of a slim, lightweight, comfortable-to-type-on full-featured notebook with a very long battery life is extremely attractive -- as I am cautious. The current crop of the first ultrabooks to make their appearance are attractive, but according to a review that Computerworld's Brian Nadel did of the Acer Aspire S3 and Asus Zenbook UX31, they aren't yet quite the wonders that we'd like. This could be because they are still using the Intel Sandy Bridge processors; the more efficient Ivy Bridge chips are due later this year.

I'm also curious as to how well the ultrabooks will do if the pricing remains, as indications seem to be, in the $1,000 range. One of the factors that drove the netbook into almost immediate popularity a couple of years ago was that you could pick up one of the small, lightweight systems for about $400, more or less. In fact, the appearance of these inexpensive systems during the economic downturn both helped and ultimately hurt the market -- hard times drove people to look for lower-priced notebooks, but the limitations of the technology meant that consumers who expected to use them as high-performance systems (rather than simpler mobile units) were disappointed.

Limitations or no, I'll be carrying a netbook with me to CES (along with a new Galaxy Nexus smartphone -- I'm not that old-fashioned) so that I can prowl the halls without putting my back out. And I'll be looking at the crop of new ultrabooks -- and any other interesting technologies I can find -- so that I can try to figure out not only what will be available over the coming months, but what will be actually useful.

Barbara Krasnoff is reviews editor at Computerworld. When she isn't either editing or reviewing, she blogs at The Interesting Bits ... and Bytes; you can also follow her on Twitter (@BarbaraKrasnoff).

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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