Intel unveils new vision for laptops

Intel has unveiled its vision for a new class of mobile computers that it hopes could take over from netbooks as the growth engine for the core PC market and help protect it against the threat from tablets.

Sean Maloney, the new chairman of Intel China, launched the Intel-powered Ultrabook category in a speech at the Computex trade show in Taiwan on Tuesday.

He was joined on stage by Jonney Shih, chairman of Asus, the Taiwanese computer maker that virtually invented the netbook category with its successful Eee PC, introduced in 2007.

“Transforming the PC into an ultra-thin, ultra-responsive device will change the way people interact with their PC,” said Mr Shih, showing off the Asus UX21, the first of the new Ultrabooks.

It is an aluminium sliver of a laptop weighing about two pounds, with a high-resolution 11.6-inch screen and a solid-state drive that will enable long battery life and an almost instant-on capability.

It bears a strong resemblance to Apple’s latest MacBook Air, which Steve Jobs, Apple chief executive, described at its unveiling last October as drawing on the best features of a tablet to become the future of notebooks.

Intel and its partners are clearly following Apple’s lead. “[Ultrabooks] will marry the performance and capabilities of today’s laptops with tablet-like features and deliver a highly responsive and secure experience, in a thin, light and elegant design,” Intel said

Intel’s Atom processors have dominated the netbook category, but the appeal of these low-priced small laptops has faded next to tablets such as Apple’s iPad.

Intel is beefing up Ultrabooks with its more powerful second-generation Core processors, which are also frugal in battery usage.

Navin Shenoy, Asia Pacific general manager for Intel, said this type of ultra-thin laptop comprised only about 5 per cent of the consumer notebook PC market, but by the end of 2012 Intel expected it to account for 40 per cent.

While the Ultrabooks will not be nearly as cheap as netbooks, Mr Shenoy sees a “sweet spot” for PC makers to price models between $799 and $999, compared with more than $1,000 for the MacBook Air. Netbooks will be getting even cheaper. Asus announced on Monday that its next Eee PC netbook would sell for $199.

Intel is also accelerating the introduction of new generations of its Atom processor to try to capture market share in tablets and smartphones, where it has lost out so far to processors based on designs by Arm of the UK.

“We believe the changes Intel is making to its road maps, together with strong industry collaboration, will bring about an exciting change in personal computing over the next few years,” said Mr Maloney.

“Intel is revisiting the netbook concept and pretty much eliminating it with these ultrabooks to re-establish the notebook as the pre-eminent form factor, albeit with a much richer technology underneath it,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle group.

Its success against tablets would come down to marketing, he added. “Apple’s done a stunning job with the iPad and Intel’s going to have to change that mindset, it’s a battle for hearts and minds at the moment.”

Paul Otellini, Intel’s chief executive, spoke about the reinvention of the PC at the company’s analyst day earlier this month.

He predicted the PC would be transformed within two years into a more mainstream-priced consumer electronics device that would be “ultra-thin, ultra-capable” and with all-day battery life, higher performance than the fastest laptops of today, instant-on capabilities, touch features and constant internet connectivity.

Technology companies have struggled to define new mobile categories over the past decade. Microsoft made little headway with its ultra-mobile PC concept, while Qualcomm received no buy-in from manufacturers on its smartbook category and Intel failed to set pulses racing with its concept of Mids – mobile internet devices.

Additional reporting by Robin Kwong in Taipei

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