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Get Ready for the “Ultrabook” Wave But Will it Catch Fire?

January 3rd, 2012

The Intel PR machine is working overtime pushing the latest "salvation / solution" for PC makers as it feels the pinch of dismal tablet sales, eroding laptop market share to iPads, and more recently, the impact of the Kindle Fire and B&N’s Nook. Worldwide PC shipments are almost 4X factor more than tablets (370M PC’s to ship in 2012 to 103M tablets-according to Gartner). But, it’s the worldwide growth rates that have the industry shaken - 4.5% for PCs vs. 63% growth in tablets, says TrendForce Corp (WitsView).

WitsView also noted that the tried and true PC laptop will growth 13.3% from 172.8M units in 2011 to 195.1M in 2012. But netbook sales will decline 17% from 22.3M in 2011 to 18.5M units in 2012. It would seem that netbook customers were the first to migrate to tablets.

Ultrabooks, on the other hand, feature instant on, long battery life and thin portable devices, As a result, Intel is looking to reinvigorate sagging sales from both the one-off tablet and netbook misfires of 2011, with ultrabook kick-off at the CES confab next week. For example, Wired.com reported last month that CEA expects between 30 to 50 new ultrabooks to launch at the event.

Intel claims up to 70 new ultrabooks are currently in various phases of development including 10 models that have already shipped in 2011. The company also predicts the new class of device will take 40% to 45% of the consumer portable PC sales in 2012. IHS iSuppli offers a more realistic market forecast at 43% ultrabook penetration by 2015.

Intel is betting on new chip performance to get the job done in the new ultrabook category. They published a whitepaper "Ultra Excited for Ultrabook1" that hit today, outlining the opportunity for developers, based on new capabilities like touch and gesture input. The need according to Intel is to "…marry thin and light with the best in performance, responsiveness, security and battery life - filling the gap between desktop/laptop and tablet. We are reinventing the PC again. An Ultrabook device is ultra-responsive and ultra-sleek," according to the Intel whitepaper.

To get there, Intel is offering a three-phase rollout.

  •   • Phase I: Ultra-Low Voltage (ULV) 2nd Generation Intel Core processors (already in-process)
  •   • Phase II: Ivy Bridge, Next generation Intel microarchitecture processors, scheduled for 1H-12 availability with improved power efficiency, visual performance, enhanced security, USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt support
  •   • Phase III. Haswell, Intel microarchitecture more power-efficient processors, lowering the thermal design point to half that of today’s processors.

Intel is including a set of technologies to help boost performance, responsiveness and security. These include: "Quick Sync Video", "Wireless Display", "InTru 3D" offering an HD 3D visual experience, "Insider" - allows vendors to offer full HD movies on Ultrabook systems, "Clear Video HD Technology" and "HD Graphics" offering better game support w/o the Graphics card. Rapid Start, Smart Response and Smart Connect, plus Anti-Theft and ID protection all help improve the end-user experience (making it more tablet-like.)

How are PC makers responding? Well on the radar screen, last month ASUS showed a sneak peak at a new (EEE PC T101H) convertible touch screen ultrabook due to launch in September 2012 with Win8 and Ivy Bridge processor. Of the devices that are already in the market, like the Acer Aspire S3, the company is betting big on a sales uptake. TaipeiTimes reports Acer announced that it expects to sell between 250K and 300K Aspire S3 super-thin laptops by Q4′12 making up between 25% and 35% of the company’s total notebook shipments.

We think the renewed emphasis on mobility for the clamshell PC space is a good direction, and in particular an important response to the competitive threats from tablets, that are growing in popularity even for business users. Having an on-board keyboard (built-in) is still a viable form factor loved by millions, and while the display and cloud gets us 90% toward the goal of mobility, for pure functionality, the laptop is still hard to beat. We see this, plus the coming Win8 O/S with touch screen support and some slick industrial design, to bring the rise of the "convertible ultrabook" PC, which may not take long to appear - in fact next week perhaps, so stay tuned. - Steve Sechrist

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