Although we weren't flooded by ultrabooks at CES to quite the extent we expected, the word itself was unavoidable. The skinny-sized laptops abounded, each alluring in its own way! That's when we realized that there's no such thing as an ultrabook. And we shouldn't pretend that there is.
"The Ultrabook" is less a thing than a marketing idea carefully baked by Intel: let's spend hundreds of millions of dollars promoting a word (Ultrabook), and in turn, companies can use that word to sell thin, fast, light computers. Tablets (iPads) and the MacBook Air present enormous existential threats to Ye Olde Windows Laptop, and now that the HPs and Dells of the word finally have the means to fight them, might as well market the hell out of them.
Let me make this very clear: thin, light, fast computers are a good thing. There should be more of them. And the fact that they each offer something different is remarkable and wonderful and new.
But the capital-U Ultrabook movement is a bad thing for everyone who buys computers—it's a trademark, not a technology—and it's lumping in a diversity of rigs without much in common beyond a buzzword.
What is an Ultrabook? Intel says they're supposed to be affordable (around $1,000), thin (no more than 0.8 inches), light (no more than 3.1 pounds) and tenacious in the battery. They're to have speedy SSD storage. That is Plato's Ultrabook.
But what will we be seeing on our Best Buy shelves this year? We've got Acer's Aspire S3, an Ultrabook sans the SSD storage cited by Intel. There's the Asus Zenbook, with less than five hours of battery life. Is my MacBook Air an Ultrabook? I don't know.
And then there's the brand new HP Spectre 14, a computer that simultaneously wins our adoration and makes vivid the sloppiness of Ultrabookdom: It costs way more than $1,000. HP says it weighs "under 4 pounds," but that this will "vary"—as will the battery life, of course.
It all varies. Everything varies. The Ultrabook is a slippery minnow—reach your hand in the online shopping cart for one, and who knows what you'll get. SSD? Maybe! Battery life? Who knows! Price? Affordable. Or not! The Ultrabook is loose to point of meaninglessness, because Intel is selling a word, not a computer. You might know that, but Joe Gigabyte walking into Best Buy doesn't—and if he asks for an ultrabook, who knows what the hell he'll walk out with. Ideally, a new portable computer that matches his needs and budgets, just like any other year any other guy would have walked into any other store for a PC. And if he doesn't, he'll be pissed off at ultrabooks for being too expensive or too fat or not fast enough, depending on what rig he ends up with.
Which is why the buzzword is so worthless. Ultrabooks aren't some ascendant species—they're just the way computers are starting to be now. Laptops of the near future won't be like laptops of the recent past. Like everything else with a screen and electricity running through it, the next notebook waves will get smaller, lighter, faster, and better. That's not called Ultra, that's called inevitable human progress. When every laptop is an ultrabook, do we go back to calling them laptops? Will we be talking about megabooks in two years? Superbooks in four? We're running out of prefixes.
When Apple went skinny-yet-powerful with the MacBook Air—the current ne plus ultra—it didn't try to create a new genre. It just made the best laptop it could. That's reasonable, right? Let technology stand on their own, no matter how super, ultra, mecha, mega, or turbo we'd like to think they are.
Update: Intel emailed us to point out they've never formally defined what an ultrabook is. "Intel does not designate any weight, price or hard drive specifications as you note in your story." They have, however, publicly designated a target price: "around $1,000."
Still, Intel's lack of an ultrabook definition just reinforces what we're saying: there's no such thing as an ultrabook.