Published: 21 November, 2011
Intel faces all kinds of challenges breaking into the tablet market, where the platforms are essentially those of the mobile phone. Its hedge against failure is the ultrabook, its own reference platform for an ultraslim, cloud oriented notebook, which will evolve into something more akin to a true network computer like a Google Chromebook. Initial sales of ultrabooks are reported to be slow, mainly because the first models have been priced well over $1,000, and so have problems differentiating from the real blueprint for the category, the MacBook Air. However, analysts believe that the picture will be very different in 2012, and the ultrabook will start to shake up the mobile computer ecosystem.
Success for designs that prioritize web connectivity over local apps and storage shifts the balance in the chip market, researchers at IHS iSuppli point out. Tablets and ultrabooks will boost firms supplying sensors, power and analog chips, but disadvantage memory module vendors. The analyst firm predicts that shipments of ultrabooks will rise to 136.5m in 2015 from fewer than one million in 2011, and by 2015, ultrabooks will account for 42% of notebook shipments.
"In terms of usage of sensors, ultrabooks much more closely resemble media tablets than conventional notebooks," said Jérémie Bouchaud, principal analyst for MEMS and sensors at IHS. Conventional notebooks make limited use of sensors such as accelerometers and compasses, but this is reversed in ultrabooks. Another major opportunity lies in analog chips, particularly power-management devices, according to HIS, because the tiny size of ultrabooks will require more highly integrated components, increasing the value of power management electronics in each device.
The chief loser, says the research firm, will be the DRAM module segment, especially modules used for memory upgrades. Clifford Leimbach, memory demand analyst at IHS, told EETimes most ultrabooks have DRAM chips soldered directly onto the motherboard. By 2015, he believes the ultrabook will reduce the number of upgrade notebook PC modules shipped by 13.5% or about 10.8m units.
Intel's definition of the ultrabook is a notebook that is less than 20mm thick, with no optical drive and using a solid state drive for all storage, weighing less than 1.4 kilograms and with 5-8 hours of battery life. The first reference design is based on the Core i5 or i7 processors but Atom versions are expected in future to reduce cost and power. Hewlett-Packard recently joined Acer, Asus and Lenovo in launching an ultrabook but reports say that about 50 models will debut at January's Consumer Electronics Show, which should see prices fall below $1,000 (Intel's target price) and greater integration of 3G or 4G, which would be an important differentiator from the MacBook Air.