In late 2010, after years of abstaining from entering the netbook market, Apple finally succeeded in transforming the MacBook Air from a disappointing promise of laptops to come into a machine that revolutionized ultraportables the same way the iPhone revolutionized smartphones and the iPad revolutionzed tablets. Not only was the MacBook Air as thin as a samurai sword and about as small as a 12-inch netbook, it had the performance of a beefier laptop thanks to the inclusion of a proper CPU, dedicated GPU and ubiquitous flash storage… all at a sub-$1000 price point.
Overnight, the MacBook Air finished what the iPad had started and almost completely killed off netbook demand once and for all. Now all of the gadget makers who had previously been counting on netbook sales to boost their bottom lines are trying to catch up with Apple. But as usual, they’re about a year late.
What does this mean for CES 2012? Expect to see ultrabooks, ultrabooks and more ultrabooks.
What Is An Ultrabook?
Intel and competing laptop makers are trying to position ultrabooks as a category of ultra-mobile laptops for an ultra-mobile age, but in essence, they are MacBook Air clones: thin, small, blade-like laptops with great battery life that eschew optical drives for solid state storage. They have fast, instant-on performance thanks to marrying ultra-fast SSDs with sophisticated, low-voltage Intel laptop processors, and usually start at prices of around $999.
The ultrabook standard is one designed by Intel to help laptop makers compete with the MacBook Air. Right now, Intel defines the ultrabook spec as any laptop that is:
• Thin – less than 20 mm (0.8 inch) thickness
• Lightweight – less than 1.4 kg (3.1 pounds)
• Long battery life – 5 to 8+ hours
• Mainstream pricing – around $1,000 USD 
• No optical drive
• May use flash-based SSDs
• Use CULV (17 W TDP) Intel Sandy Bridge mobile processors
• Core i5-2467M (1.6 GHz)
• Core i5-2557M (1.7 GHz)
• Core i7-2637M (1.7 GHz)
• Core i7-2677M (1.8 GHz)
• Use Intel’s graphics sub-system HD 3000 (12 EUs)
Why are laptop manufacturers expected to announce so many ultrabooks at CES this year? Well, let’s look at the numbers.
First of all, the MacBook Air isn’t just a success, it’s turning into a juggernaut. Although Apple doesn’t release specific figures on how many MacBook Airs it is selling, we do know it is selling dramatically. In June 2011, MacBook Air sales accounted for 8% of all Mac laptop sales. By October, the MacBook Air accounted for 28% of laptop sales… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Apple sold 5.2 million Macs from October to December 2011. That means that Apple has sold at least 1.1 million MacBook Airs in the last quarter alone.
Those are just enormous numbers… numbers the rest of the industry desperately want to match, because they are being squeezed by Apple on both sides. On one hand, gadget makers still can’t make a dent against the iPad, which is cannibalizing their laptop sales on end of the market; on the other hand, more and more customers are eschewing buying traditional laptops, netbooks or ultrabooks in favor of the MacBook Air.
Intel also wants PC makers to embrace the ultrabook. Intel is losing more and more laptop sales to the iPad and other tablets, and it’s looking to be another year or two before Intel has a mobile SoC that can compete in battery-life with ARM. In other words, because people are buying fewer laptops in favor of tablets, PC makers are buying fewer CPUs from Intel. It’s in Intel’s best interest, then, to encourage PC makers to make clones of the one laptop out there with actual momentum and buzz around it: the MacBook Air.
In fact, Intel may actually be subsidizing PC makers to make ultrabooks. Although the chipmaker denies it, other reports have claimed that Intel has set up a $500M subsidy fund to help PC makers match the MacBook Air’s prices. Why? Because Apple’s incredible control over their supply chain, their strategic lock-down of resources and their next-gen manufacturing techniques all allow them to build computers that are cheaper and made of higher-quality components than the competition.
What Sort Of Ultrabooks Should We Expect?
The previous generation of Ultrabooks all availed themselves of Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors, and we’ll see a fair number of ultrabooks at CES that still conform to those specs. However, what will be really interesting is getting our first glimpse at the upcoming Ivy Bridge ultrabooks.
Utilizing Intel’s newest CULV mobile processors, Ivy Bridge ultrabooks should boast 30% better graphic performance and a 20% CPU performance over Sandy Bridge. It will also bring USB 3.0 support to ultrabooks, as well as support for the new PCI Express 3.0 standard.
Why Should Mac Fans Care?
It’s simple. The 2012 Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks we see at CES will basically be our first look at the next spec upgrade to the MacBook Air. In addition, rumors increasingly peg the MacBook Pro line to become more Air-like by dropping their optical drives and adopting dual SSD/HDD combinations. In an attempt to differentiate themselves from the competition, it’s likely we’ll see a few ultrabooks that try the same trick.
In other words, even if you don’t have any intention on buying a Windows-based Ultrabook, CES 2012 is going to be our first look at the future of not just the MacBook Air, but possibly the MacBook Pro as well. Just take the best ultrabook on the showfloor and imagine Apple taking those exact specs and making it better and you’ve got the right idea.
Just don’t expect any of CES’s ultrabooks to take the crown from the Air: not only is the MacBook Air still the best ultraportable laptop out there, it’s at least a year ahead of the competition.