CES 2012 Preview: Why A Thousand Ultrabooks Will Try To Kill The MacBook Air (And Why They Don’t Have A Prayer)



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[6]
• Lightweight – less than 1.4 kg (3.1 pounds)[7]
• Long battery life – 5 to 8+ hours[8]
• Mainstream pricing – around $1,000 USD [9]
• No optical drive
• May use flash-based SSDs[10]
• 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 Ultrabooks?

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.

  • Karras

    I remain unconvinced about the ability of something that costs 2-4 times as much to effectively kill off the cheaper product, when one of the selling points is that it is cheap.

  • Rob Stevens

    Pretty sure the Air doesn’t have a dedicated GPU like the article claims. It’s using the HD3000.

  • Jordan Clay

    Good article,  I’m impressed. informative with little spin.

  • Karras

    The 2010 model did. Though it is perhaps a little misleading to neglect to mention that the new ones dropped this for the HD3000.

  • N8nnc

    I don’t think the price gap will be that large

  • ddevito

    The iPad will be the demise of the MacBook Air


  • FriarNurgle

    The saying “You get what you pay for” hold true. Sure the specs may be comparable or even better than the MBA. Be it build, design, or component quality, something had to be skimped on somewhere. Just the simple fact no one has yet to match the functionality of Apple’s trackpads is enough to warrant getting a Mac. Let alone talking about resale value, etc.

  • dotnetchris

    I don’t understand why ANYONE wants Mac products. They’re just inferior PCs inside shiny overpriced boxes.

  • Karras

    I’m sorry, I may not have been clear. I was referring to one of this site’s mantras, that the iPad killed the netbook. And now slightly more absurdly, that the MacBook Air is killing it as well. The cheapest iPad costs about twice the price of a netbook and the cheapest Air about four times. One of the main selling points of netbooks is that they are cheap. These products are not cheap.

  • Luis Dominguez

    I don’t think that the iPad and Macbook Air was the main reason for netbooks being killed.  I think it has more to due that laptops are much cheaper than they used to be and that was a major selling point for a netbook.  Average netbook is like 250 and for 50 bucks more you can get a laptop that is way more capable.  I mean, Apple computer sales are abismal compared to the pc industry as a whole so how is it possible that they are the sole reason for netbooks going away?  Apple’s main money comes from itunes, app store, iPods, iPhones and iPads.

  • Karras

    I think that you have pretty much hit the nail on the head. Right now in the UK, you can get laptops with 11″ screens for about £50-100 more than a netbook but with substantially better spec in every way, save perhaps the battery life. This really highlights how netbooks can be a false economy, with little room to grow as a user and virtually no scope for performing more demanding tasks. Whilst I suspect that iPads have indeed been stealing some customers away from netbooks, cheap Windows untraportables look like a much bigger nail in the netbook coffin.

    I mean, I like Apple products but the writer of this article is dreaming if he thinks that the average person looking to throw £200-300 at a netbook would be swayed by a computer costing £850+.

  • Luis Dominguez

    I agree.  I do think that the Macbook air will be the best selling Ultrabook compared to everyone else.  But when you combine Samsung, HP, Acer etc…
    I think as a whole the PC Ultrabook will sell way more units.  Give it some time and the price of pc ultrabooks will drop by a lot.  I love apple products.  I am typing this on my macbook pro but I feel that the price of Apple computers are way over priced for what you get. 

  • Ed_Kel

    I would like for you to elaborate on exactly how a Mac is inferior? What can a PC do that a Mac can’t?
    Does there come a time where a Mac can no longer deliver the power an app needs to run correctly? No.
    Are Macs more (or as much for that matter) susceptible to viruses than PCs? No.
    Do Macs become fragmented? No.
    Are Macs overpriced? Most certainly not; ESPECIALLY ultrabooks, given the fact that others can’t deliver a comparable laptop to the Air at a comparable price.

  • Ed_Kel

    Apple’s main money does not come from iTunes and The App Store. If I’m not mistaken, the last financial report stated that iTunes is a wash at best. Their primary niche market is still computers; with the iMac claiming 1/3 of the all-in-one market alone. MBPs are selling faster than they ever have and companies, obviously, are rushing to answer the incredibly popular MBA. iPods, iPhones, and iPads are big money makers, but an insanely high market cap isn’t thanks to products, like the iPhone, that COSTS almost $200 to produce, it’s more so the increasing popularity of their niche, the Apple computer.

    Also, you can’t claim Apple’s sales “abismal” to an entire industry. Company to company, no other PC brand has ever been labeled “the most valuable company in the world”.

  • Luis Dominguez

    I agree with you that macs are great computers but as far as being over priced I would totally agree that they are over priced.  For 600 you can get something that is comparable to a mac at the cost of 1500.  That is severely over priced.  

  • Ed_Kel

    I’m so tired of this argument – overpriced for what you get – as you’re typing on Apple’s most expensive line of notebooks. You and I both know that’s a load of crap.

  • Karras

    I don’t think the prices are so bad when you consider how much other companies charge when they try and play Apple at their own game. The ultra books are a case in point. This is less clear with more conventional laptops like the MacBook Pros but when competitors start playing with things like aluminium chassis for example, their prices tend to end up much closer to Apple’s. iMacs do not stack up too badly to other all in one computers either. Especially as they refresh their products more often, other companies do certainly offer some extras and price reductions are more common. But especially when they release something new, Apple can actually compare quite well.

    I think it is more a case of whether or not so called premium products from any company are overpriced than whether Apple’s are specifically, as there are always cheap Windows laptops that seem to offer the same or more on paper than any of them.

  • iDaBoss

    don’t respond to trolls, doofus

  • Luis Dominguez

    Yes they are the most valuable company but that doesn’t change the fact that they only account to 5% of computer sales.  I am talking about PC as a while not just one company.  So when I say abismal I mean numbers of computers.  I am by no means talking profits because Apple kills it in that department.  And its 1 of 3 in All-in-one pcs.  Thats all Apple sells as a computer except for mac pros.  PC makers make tons of desktops compared to pc all-in-ones. 

  • Ed_Kel

    A $600 computer will never be comparable to a $1500 computer. Cuts had to be made to make that price, whether it was that plastic frame or that third-world trackpad; hence the phrase – you get what you pay for.

  • Luis Dominguez

    No, thats not true at all.  I love my macbook but also love my hp.  I am not the only one that would like to see Apple make there prices a little more affordable.  If they made a laptop starting a like 800 bucks i think things would  totally be different.  So to say that i am the only one that thinks that Apple is expensive and a little over priced is ridiculous.  

  • Luis Dominguez

    Itunes is about 10% of their money.  So how is that a wash?  

  • Luis Dominguez

    its not you get what you pay for.  The reason Apple is the most valuable company is because of the price hike they put on there products.

  • Ed_Kel

    iTunes alone costs over a billion/year to run. In other words, a wash.

  • Ed_Kel

    Haha, agreed. I just like to exercise my brain while calling out other’s idiocy.. Thanks for the heads up though, Boss.

  • recyclops117

    Cant tell if your trolling…. Or just stupid.

  • Ed_Kel

    Well, you can’t fix ignorant stupidity. I can’t help you understand the fact that there are truly noticeable differences in part quality and reliability if you aren’t willing to accept it. Do your own research; there are plenty of articles and blogs out there laying to rest the “overpricing” argument. I particularly like an article I came across some time ago comparing the cost of a baseline Mac Pro to a custom built PC with comparable parts – with a whole $5 and change difference – though including iLife put the Mac Pro ahead in terms of cost.

  • Dave

    Hmmm. Why are you bothering to post on a site called “Cult of Mac?” Enjoy tilting at windmills? Think you’re doing everyone a favor by pointing out that what they prefer is inferior to what you hold to be true?

  • Dave

    Exactly. Give me the perceived “overpriced” Apple product versus a shovelware-laden bargain basement product. That’s another point that is frequently missed by the bargain hunting crowd. Those boxes you buy from shopping networks, big box stores, etc., are basically subsidized by all of the relatively useless software products that are bundled with them.

  • Ed_Kel

    You raise a valid point. If I were the CEO of Norton, I wouldn’t mind paying HP to pre-load their computers with my trial software. Personal advertisement for my company and a lower price for the consumer. Win-win assuming, of course, that the consumer is delusional.

  • Harvey Lubin

    If it’s true that “ignorance is bliss”, then you must be ecstatic. ;-)

    Not only are competitors’ “ultrabooks”, coming out at CES this month, copying Apple’s MacBook Air design (which is now 4 years old!), but they are having a difficult time matching it for the same price.

    Some of these competitors are copying Apple’s use of an all-aluminum body and finding it expensive, while others are cheaping-out and using less durable plastic and coloring it silver to make buyers think that it is aluminium.

    Competitors have closely copied Apple’s specs, but they have not been able to match the MacBook Air’s fast startup times, stability, or processing speed.

    And a new version of the MacBook Air will be unveiled soon.

    These other companies will only succeed if they “skate to where the puck will be, instead of where it is today”. In other words, do some innovation, instead of copying what Apple does.

  • aardman

    “. . . gadget makers still can’t make a dent against the iPad, which is cannibalizing their laptop sales. . .”
    Please, cannibalizing means eating your own.  Only other Apple products can cannibalize the iPad.  Don’t perpetuate the misuse of the term.  It is a very useful, concise way to describe a specific situation in the analysis of product markets.  Use the term “displacing” instead.

  • Connor Mulcahey

    Good article John!

  • Clark Olson

    I have several apple products, but my kids won’t use a Mac computer (iPod touch yes but not a computer). So yes have the Air and bought an Asus Zenbook for my teen-aged son. I have to say I prefer the Zenbook! It looks better, has 1600 by 900 graphics and it just feels right! Hope the new Apple line up is a major improve/upgrade cause the PC world is offering real alternatives. 

  • JDWages

    If one defines a “major upgrade” in terms of what the Windows world offers, one will never see such from Apple.  Choosing any Apple computer is in an of itself a “major upgrade” over Windows-based alternatives.  You appear to be very much a Windows die-hard!

  • Stephen Charles Albrecht

    “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.”  …Someone needs to work on their logic.

  • Leiryv

    and their math as well.

  • Leiryv

    Yeah, 2010 Air got Geforce320M…
    The 2011 line only got HD3000 because some kind of limitation of Intel Core I Series…
    (optimus related? I forgot)
    Which also makes Apple uses ATI graphic cards on their MBP line…

    I still hate Intel for making the spec line “uses Intel’s graphic subsystem.”
    every ultrabook maker is using that spec which makes their ultrabooks cant play latest games.. even with low graphic settings…

    iirc 2010 air can play Assassin’s Creed with a decent fps

  • Clark Olson

    Nope, I’m a Mac fan – like I said I use the Mac now, have an Air, but very much like the Zenbook I bought for my son. It’s just that much nicer than my MacBook Air. Window’s based PC’s are not bad products, just needed a little sexing up! Some manufacturers are doing just that – Apple needs to get off the slow product cycle and provide consumers with more choices. I’ve got an Apple iPhone as well, but so many new Android based phones are available, and they all look so much better than my iPhone 4 ( the 4s wasn’t worth me upgrading to – but I’m looking at some Androids)

  • Luis Dominguez

    god forbid you use and like a windows computer because you get called a “Die-hard” or “Fanboy”.  I can’t stand those terms.  I am like you own and use a Mac but also love windows.  Windows 7 is such a beast of an OS that I don’t think people give it any credit.  Sometimes it’s nice to have a choice in hardware.  Macs are great because they just work perfectly especially if you own iDevices like I do.  But if I want to do some very tasking stuff like gaming I choose my windows PC.  I like the option of being able to pick and choose what video card I want to run and it’s nice that I have so many choices.  

  • Todzilla

    That’s a beast that simply owns on my Macbook Pro using Bootcamp.  Windows runs really nicely on a Mac.

    Choice is good. 

  • Todzilla

    Eh, I can’t agree here.  Look at the user.

    I have a $2100 Macbook Air, after an employee discount, early 2011 model 15″.

    I have gotten more value in my photography, writing and music-creation from this Macbook Pro in 11 months, than I ever got from all the PC’s combined.

    I’m not saying a Mac is for everyone, clearly it isn’t and a lot of people end up buying paperweights, because they have no clue on how to use a Mac for productivity.

    But when you do have the need, and you are one of the ones who utilizes the power of the device, there isn’t a price that can be considered too high for a Mac.

  • Todzilla

    Hold a Macbook Air, use it for 30 minutes, then hold another, so-called comparable product, use that for 30 minutes.

    Bet you a coke and a smile, you’re taking the Air.

  • Todzilla

    It does not matter what specs they give these Ultrabooks.

    It doesn’t matter what bloatware they put in it, or if they use any at all.

    What is overlooked is the design of the Mac, as opposed to the average PC.

    When form meets functions as well as a Macbook Air does, there is a minimal amount of room for anything to beat it. 

    Jony Ive doesn’t create pieces of shit, and he learned from the best designer in history, Dieter Rams.  I still have Braun kitchenware Rams designed, that was given to me by my father.

    When something is designed using great principles in the design, like Rams’ 10 Principles For Good Design, it erases a lot of what another product can do to compete fairly against it if it is not designed with the same philosophy.

    The Macbook Air is sturdier than any of those units.  A LOT sturdier.  You don’t need to be told how to start using it, due to the intuitive disposition.  It’s perfect, and you haven’t even turned it on yet before you realize that.

  • Karras

    Not if I only had 300 quid to spend I wouldn’t.

    As it happens though, I have found myself in both situations. When I wanted a laptop for £250-300, a netbook was pretty much the only way to go besides second hand and even then a Mac would have been tough to find for that because they hold their value so well. But this was a PC that could not grow with my needs and I found myself using it less and less.

    Then when I found myself in the market for a higher spec and quality machine, I genuinely did appreciate many of the design and quality aspects of the Apple options and chose them over a Windows alternative, so I can appreciate what you are saying (although I chose the Pro over the Air).

    But my point is basically that the massive disparity in price puts them into different markets, even if the price difference is justified.

  • crosswired

    There’s a reason why every other PC maker is copying the macbook air design. It’s the best out there. They didn’t think of it first. One thing they can never compete on is the user experience. They can only compete on the price. Give me a Samsung or Sony at half the price of an MBA and I may just get one. 

  • gareth edwards

    Good insight, completely agree about the Rams comment. Ives deffo understands the value of creating something that focuses on usability. Form and function done right is a great thing.

  • Birkmeister

    I THOUGHT MACBOOKS and other Apple products were a passing fad until I used an iMac recently.  Holy cow.  Apple is 10-years ahead of the PC trash makers.   I didn’t realize I was using PC trash until I used that iMac.

    After it is revealed that Intel is attacking Apple for using AMD processors (read the recent articles at Apple Core on ZDnet), I hope the Justice Department does its job and slices Intel the monopolist into 10 pieces.

  • orthorim

    Zenbook may look nice – and I kind of disagree, actually, it looks a bit like an air rip-off, and has worse performance parameters, but I digress. Then you turn it on and are greeted by the fugly clunky crap that is Windows.

    My son just got his first iPad. He’s 4. By the time he needs a laptop laptops may not be around anymore… 

  • orthorim

    Yep. Totally agree. Netbooks are actually not all that useful, unless you get them with a 10″ or 11″ screen and good specs – and then you’re already in laptop price range. Netbooks are the trend that never was. The main – only? – reason to buy them was price and that’s gone away.
    And if you want a portable secondary computer, nothing beats the iPad. Unlike netbooks, iPads are actually useful, not to mention elegant, small, etc.

  • orthorim

    I agree again.

    That’s simply because so-called ultra books are laptops 2 years from now. Why buy anything else? The ultra book gets rid of some needless stuff like the CD drive; and it’s smaller. And it will cost the same as a laptop. 

    It has less processing power than a full blown laptop but the thing is people don’t need a Core i7 quad to surf the net and do Facebook. An ultra low power processor is just fine…

  • orthorim

    There’s a difference between expensive and overpriced. Apple is expensive, but not overpriced.

    You get what you pay for. 

  • DavoteK

    Thats pretty much the same argument applied to the iPhone vs Android “debate”. The iPhone outsells any single device and probably any single company, but combine the never ending stream of Android devices into one column and that outsells the iPhone. 

    Bottom line though, why would you care, as a consumer, whether or not they have market share or sell more than something else?

    I didn’t pick an iMac because it was selling more or less than other computers. I picked it because I wanted to use OSX (still have laptops running Windows 7, but they are rarely used now) and also have an all in one with a 27″ screen. 

    Personal choice over financial reports guys :-)

  • Luis Dominguez

    I haven’t run windows on my mac yet but I do not think that my mac is capable at running my games at max settings and stuff.  But I am sure other than that it runs awesome on a mac.

  • chitoiu

    “MacBook Air accounted for 28% of laptop sales…” That’s a big figure John. If that’s true, again Apple’s ingenuity is proved. Anyway i see ultrabooks like a normal step in notebooks life, because are just upgraded laptops, the evolution is calling for internal and external upgrades. We are going to see prices under $500 after CES, you already can buy Toshiba Portege under $700 … 

  • stevem64

    Beware!  The new Ultrabooks have GREAT DANGER!

    See: The
    Decapitator: The Thinnest Ultrabook Ever!


    Warning! Video
    contains violent animated content!

  • Frederick Malouf

    I only hope they make the 17in an Air as well. I am sure this will be more successful than the current Pro. Sooner the better. And, lose mechanical keyboards. If people are becoming used to typing on a screen, than a touch keyboard would be an awesome introduction to the new line.