Ultrabooks, Tablets and the Space Between

The stage is set for a new battle of mobile form factors. The winner could set a new non-desktop standard for consumers and office workers looking for a better alternative to bulky laptops.

Lighter, thinner and more powerful are the key factors guiding the designs of tablets, convertibles, hybrids and Ultrabooks. All four form factors challenge the range of sizes found in traditional notebook computers.

The netbook is perhaps a casualty of the last round of form factor skirmishing. Those undersized and, to a large extent, underpowered tinybooks just never grabbed enough consumer favor to compete with the iPad and non-Apple wanna-be devices sans keyboards.

New generations of tablet computers running soon-to-be-released. Microsoft Windows 8 and Android’s new Ice Cream Sandwich OSes are coming, and mobile peripherals offer iPad users alternatives for touchscreen interaction. But tablets running traditional Linux distros are nowhere to be seen.

“All types of devices are emerging for the mobile consumer with the latest entry being the Ultrabook. … These are selling below expectations. But that is likely because the initial ones were rushed and didn’t yet have full marketing support,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.

Differences Matter

The new Ultrabooks category should become more in-demand soon, now that they’ve made their mark at the Consumer Electronics Show, said Enderle. Now products will show up with Intel marketing support.

So far many consumers are not sure which form factor best suits their needs. That is making businesses hesitant to commit to new devices until the dust settles.

“Ultrabooks, tablets, convertibles and hybrids are not a one-size-fits-all portable computing model,” Paul Moore, senior director of mobile product management for Fujitsu America, told TechNewsWorld.

That confusion is understandable. To help add some clarity, Moore offers a cheat sheet to tell these devices apart.

Mobile Name Game

A convertible device has the keyboard physically attached. The touch display rotates down for tablet use. A convertible is both a latpop and tablet. An example of this form factor is the Fujitsu Lifebook series. The touchscreen pivots on a convertible device so the keyboard folds behind it to become a tablet. With the Lenovo Yoga, the screen folds back around 360 degrees.

A hybrid is a tablet that offers a keyboard as an optional base. But a hybrid is a tablet first. A hybrid can be either a tablet OR a notebook, depending on whether the keyboard base is attached, or for that matter, even purchased.

Perhaps the best-known example of this new hybrid form factor is the Asus Transformer and Transformer Prime. Asus markets these products with the keyboard sold separately, noted Moore.

The Asus keyboard provides an additional battery and USB ports as well as a full-size SD storage card. The Transformer tablet itself has a micro-SD card and comes with 16 or 32 GB of embedded storage.

Ultrabooks, a word coined and trademarked by Intel, are thin notebook computers. And tablets, of course, are slates without keyboard, though some users buy cases than provide keyboards and connect to tablets via technologies like BlueTooth.

Duking It Out

Recent sales patterns show that a good deal of slugging is occurring between Ultrabooks and convertible tablets. For example, retailer Abt Electronics has not been able to keep up with the demand from customers for the Asus Transformer and Transformer Prime, according to Jon Abt, the company’s copresident.

“Most of our customers ordering that model also requested the keyboard, sold separately. …Thinner, lighter and easier to carry is where a lot of people are going,” Abt told TechNewsWorld.

From a business standpoint, Ultrabooks are in direct competition to the Apple’s Macbook Air, he added. Since most of the world is still on Windows computers, Ultrabook makers so far have not offered Linux versions. So users who want that OS will have to add it themselves.

“It’s the first really ultraportable PC. The Ultrabook is super thin, super light yet a fully functional fast computer,” explained Abt.

Netbook Slayer

Sales in the netbook category have disappeared. A huge increase in sales of Ultrabooks replaced netbook purchases, noted Chad Taylor, the Connect Store manager at Abt Electronics.

“You can do things with these Ultrabooks that you would never dream of doing with a netbook, even to the point where all Ultrabooks are coming with solid state hard drives,” Taylor told TechNewsWorld.

Wide Open Market

It is unlikely that any of these new mobile form factors will soon follow the netbook into oblivion. It is a US$350 million plus market, Enderle said. That makes it big enough to support all four form factors.

However, he also sees the mobile market eventually moving toward a converged product. Users have been reticent to carry both a tablet and a laptop, he predicted.

“The ideal product will likely be a touch product with a transflective screen and the ability to transform between roles at a sub $1,000 price point. I expect such a product in 2013,” Enderle said.

Target Shift

Ultrabooks were intended to compete with tablets in the near term. But research shows between one-third and one-half of Apple users were unhappy with their iPads and bought MacBook Air laptops to supplement them, according to Enderle.

“This suggests that the Ultrabook class, MacBook Air was one of the first, is a better alternative for folks that want something thin, light and capable of doing actual work,” he said.

For instance, older tablets and convertibles were not successful due to high cost, poor battery life and weight for most products. Still, they were often used for filling in forms, something both the Ultrabook and iPad are poor at doing because they lack a digitizer, explained Enderle.

Better alternatives, he said, include the Lenovo ThinkPad tablet. Another new product in these competing form factors will be the Panasonic ToughPad. That will have similar specs to the iPad but will include a digitizer, he said.

Purposeful Purchase

For many consumers, the ultimate decision on what form factor to buy will rest with assessing the device’s intended use. For example, tablets as a concept are not new. They have been used for a long time in specialized industries such as healthcare, government and inventory control, noted Moore.

He spends considerable time traveling and observes how people use their tablets in transit and at terminals. Mostly they play games, watch movies, check out Youtube and update their statuses on social networks.

“They are playing, not really doing serious work. I think the tablet will always be a consumer thing. They use their tablets as an extension of their smartphones,” he said. “What’s happening now is the iPad made it a fun product.”

In other words, consumers mostly use tablet devices today for media consumption. Even with keyboard accessories to replace fingertip typing on virtual touch keyboards, tablets are poor media production devices, he said. But will a hybrid device be the demise of the Ultrabook?

“Clearly it is easy to see why Ultrabooks would appeal to some more than tablets, and vice-versa. Not much overlap here,” said Moore, adding that he doubts hybrids will overtake Ultrabooks.

Inherent Flaws

Ideally, users who prefer a keyboard will prefer the notebook experience. That includes larger screens, bigger storage drives, more memory, larger keyboards, USB and other connection options and more, he explained.

“An Ultrabook user would need to be willing to compromise on several fronts before making the leap over to a hybrid. However, if on the other hand a tablet enthusiast was on the fence, a hybrid would deliver everything a tablet would, plus the convenience of a keyboard,” said Moore.

A portion of the tablet users would enjoy this, but not all, he reasoned. Keyboard devices already are available for tablets and hybrids. But the connect rate for add-on keyboards is far from 100 percent.

“Primarily because the usage patterns, the interface and software that the tablets offer are ideal for finger use. There is little need for a keyboard,” he concluded.

Convenience or Productivity?

Deciding which new form factor — if any — will replace or supplement a laptop impacts businesses differently than consumers. Once the tablet can be used for workers at a cheaper price than providing them with a laptop, you will begin to see tablets move into mainstream business offices, Moore noted.

The Ultrabook replaces the netbook as a tool with more needed power for a higher price point. Meanwhile, tablets will stay popular with consumers.

Convertible users have a tablet for convenience and a notebook for productivity. That is where the majority of his sales are happening.

“Eighty-five percent of what we are selling in North America is the convertible,” said Fujitsu’s Moore.

Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear.

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