When it comes to debates about technology, the Mac-versus-PC one is perhaps the longest-running and most contentious. While there are fervent proponents and detractors on either side, most can agree that consumers have a wide variety of options when it comes to meeting their computing needs.
With that ongoing conflict in mind, recently attention turned to the rise of ultrabooks—ultra-thin notebook computers that are more capable than the laptops of yesteryear. Until recently, Apple had cornered the market for such devices with its MacBook Air.
Debuting four years ago as the first ultra-thin notebook, the MacBook Air enjoyed a healthy lead over its competition due to an exclusive deal with Intel, which manufactured the chipsets required for such thin computers. However, with the exclusivity deal now over, PC manufacturers have decided to step up to the plate.
The result? Ultrabooks such as the Asus Zenbook and the Samsung Series 9, two of the top PC–based ultrabooks on the market today, which boast specs that surpass even those of the MacBook Air in some respects.
Over at Richmond-based computer retailer NCIX, product manager Linus Sebastian isn’t so sure Apple’s dominance in the ultrabook field can last. According to him, the issue doesn’t seem to be which device is better, but which one people know about.
“I think if the public was more aware, we’d see a lot more momentum and a lot more of the market being taken away from the MacBook Air, because a lot of the alternatives are very compelling,” Sebastian said by phone.
Of note, he said, is the way manufacturers such as Asus and Samsung stick with technological trends, including pricing, throughout a product’s life cycle.
“If [manufacturers] see that all of a sudden…a 256-gigabyte SSD [solid-state drive] costs the same to them as the 128-gigabyte, you’ll probably see an upgraded spec that comes in at the same price point as the old one,” Sebastian explained. “Apple, on the other hand, seems to stick with the pricing they have at launch, so you’ll always see things like SSDs that are priced three or four times what they are in other ultrabooks.”
Another thing working in favour of ultrabooks, aside from thinness and accompanying portability, is the usability of such devices.
According to Jean-Paul Desmarais, marketing manager for IT solutions at Samsung Canada, ultrabooks offer exactly what people need in this age of cloud computing and digital lifestyles. Usability is something he says was missing from netbooks—subcompact laptops boasting screens about seven inches in size and retaining the thickness of traditional notebooks.
“With netbooks, people wanted them for the portability and because phones weren’t at the point where they are today,” Desmarais explained by phone. “But those devices were still limited in what they could do. With ultrabooks, you have the portability people want with the capabilities that people need.”
But like any device, ultrabooks have their disadvantages.
“With any lesser device, one of the cons is going to be that it’s somewhat fragile because of how thin the form factor is,” Sebastian said. “With the Zenbook, the Series 9, and the MacBook Air, I don’t think that’s a concern, but I have seen ultrabooks where I’ve thought, ‘I wouldn’t want to carry this around with me all day.’ ”
Another potential con for consumers is that ultrabooks aren’t able to do the heavy lifting some require from their computers. While miles ahead of netbooks in pretty much every respect, ultrabooks still have a way to go when compared to desktop rigs.
“Ultrabooks are…not useful for gaming or any sort of intense applications,” Sebastian said. “Even for the most powerful notebooks out there—we’re talking notebooks that weigh 15 pounds—they still don’t touch a desktop. There are so many things you can do with a desktop today that you won’t be able to do with a notebook even three, five years from now.”
As for where ultrabooks will eventually end up in the computing device timeline, Desmarais is confident they’ll be around for quite some time and won’t end up being a trend like netbooks.
“I know Samsung is committed to their lineup of ultrabooks, and what we’ve heard from Intel is that they’re committed to seeing this out for the long haul,” he said.
Sebastian agreed, adding that consumers could see some interesting features introduced with the launch of Windows 8 later this year.
“We’re going to see touchscreen ultrabooks,” he said. “I’d be very surprised if we don’t see touchscreen ultrabooks in the next two to four months because Windows 8 is going to be fully touch-enabled, and an ultrabook will be that perfect form factor between a tablet and full-sized notebook. With ultrabook touchscreen integration, you’ve also got a proper keyboard and a proper mouse pad, so you’ll truly be able to use your computer however you want.”