A Brief Overview of CES' Ultrabooksby Jarred Walton on January 10, 2013 2:43 AM EST
I dropped by the Intel booth to see what they had on display, and as expected that had a full lineup of Ultrabooks from various manufacturers. We’ve covered many of these in some form already, but I wanted to grab some pictures and give a unified list of all the touchscreen Ultrabooks being shown at the Intel booth. From there we’ll move on to a discussion of the larger Ultrabook market and what it really means.
Starting with the convertible tablets, in no particular order we have the Lenovo Twist, Dell XPS 12 Duo, a Gigabyte twist-style offering, Lenovo’s Yoga 13, Toshiba’s Slider, and the Sony VAIO Duo 11 slider. Note that the recently announced Lenovo Helix and MSI S20 aren’t present, and likely quite a few other Core series convertibles are also missing, but at least that covers most of the options. The good news is that the vast majority of these convertibles have decent screens—many are 1080p IPS displays, which is really what they all need to be, but the Gigabyte at least is clearly a TN panel. The colors are still clearly off, and for the price we should be getting displays pre-calibrated by the OEM (*cough* Apple *cough*), but let’s steer clear of that topic for a moment.
Moving over to the touchscreen Ultrabooks, again in no particular order we have the Dell XPS 13 Touch, Acer’s Aspire M, HP Envy TouchSmart, Lenovo U310 Touch, ASUS UX31A Touch, Samsung Series 7, and the Acer Aspire S7. (Note: I didn’t carefully note each of the laptop models, so I might have some of those wrong.) The overall quality and design of these Ultrabooks is hit or miss, with some having nice looking screens and others using cheap 1366x768 TN panels. All of them have touchscreens of course, but I can’t help but feel some of the OEMs are shooting their products in the foot before they even get out the door.
If you’ll pardon me while I go off on a short rant, making a thin touchscreen Ultrabook isn’t the holy grail of laptop computing. Some people will love touchscreen laptops and others won’t; some people love thin laptops and others don’t care all that much. That’s the way things are and the way they’ve always been: you can’t please all of the people all of the time. The problem is that where certain products are thin and have a good industrial design and sell well with high profit margins (I hate to keep saying this, but: Apple), it’s not just the thinness and the industrial design that makes them sell. It’s the entire ecosystem in the product, from the chassis and screen through the keyboard and touchpad; from the speakers and color quality to the battery life, solid state drive, and on to the operating system and apps.
Rare is the Ultrabook that actually gets all of these areas right—and in fact, I’d say that so far it doesn’t exist. There are good Ultrabooks with IPS panels, but they’re not factory calibrated to display accurate colors. There are Ultrabooks with touchscreens, but several that I’ve played with also have touchpads that just don’t work as well as they should. By requirement, all Ultrabooks need some form of solid state storage, but we have pure SSD solutions with good controllers, pure SSD solutions with at best adequate controllers, and hard drives with SSD caches that in many cases are too small to be beneficial. Not everyone is going to want or need every aspect of their next laptop/Ultrabook to be “perfect”, but when we start getting into the $1200+ price range, the number of cut corners and compromises needs to approach zero. To create a premium product worthy of a premium price, you need all of those things—and when you have products that cost half or even a third as much, it takes serious convincing to get people to invest in premium offerings, especially when those offerings are still flawed. But it’s more than just matching what Apple is doing, because even if you have the perfect Windows alternative to the MacBook Pro Retina, the fact is that you’re still not going to be able to charge Apple prices and move the same amount of units.
Out of all the Ultrabooks I saw at Intel’s booth (or elsewhere at CES), I think the current best candidates are on a short list, and all of them still have potential issues. Dell’s XPS 12 Duo is quite cool and works better than I expected, but it’s a bit thick for a tablet and the colors out-of-the-box are very much not correct—and in fact, none of the Ultrabooks I’ve seen look like they’re anywhere near having an out-of-the-box DeltaE of less than four with a color gamut that at least covers all of sRGB. (DeltaE of 10 with spikes up to 15-20 and a <55% color gamut? Yes, we have that!) Frankly, anything with a 1366x768 TN touchscreen never should have gotten past the prototype stage without getting a better display. Acer and ASUS have potential issues with their storage subsystems (SanDisk controllers and/or RAID 0 SSD arrays), and the touchpads on every Ultrabook I’ve used for more than a few minutes are still lacking. Lenovo’s ThinkPad Helix is still high on my list, but the latching mechanism gives me pause. Samsung’s Series 7 touchscreen Ultrabook might be the best of the breed when we get right down to it, but I haven’t spent enough time with it to say for certain.
So after looking at more than a dozen different Ultrabooks, my short list has Samsung, Lenovo, Dell, and ASUS still hanging around—and most of the MSRPs are still several hundred dollars too high to warrant a strong recommendation. I’m sure all of Intel’s partners would love for Ultrabooks to become 50% or more of the global PC shipments, but until we deal with some of the above issues I just can’t see that happening. For the time being, Ultrabooks are here to stay and there are going to be plenty of people that like what the overall platform delivers, but there are even more people that will be disenfranchised by the high prices, missing features, or other issues and they will go looking at other alternatives. Perhaps they’ll end up with another budget laptop, or maybe they’ll make the switch to the growing tablet market. Whatever happens, the next few years should prove interesting.