Editorial: Don't call it an ultrabook

Every year at CES, the tech-watching masses engage in a bit of trendspotting -- an attempt to identify the one or two big themes of the show that may or may not come to define the year in technology. Some years those are easy to spot (tablets and 3D TV were two big ones recently), and other times they involve a bit of guesswork. This year, one of the most oft-cited trends is the "ultrabook." Judging from the companies' announcements at the show and some of the coverage they've received, you might think that's a new sort of device or a radically new type of laptop. But, really, they're just laptops. Small, thin laptops -- but laptops.

It's actually Ultrabook, with a capital "U," and a (TM). The name is a wholly-owned creation of Intel, and the hype you've seen for them at CES is only just the beginning. Intel is reportedly planning its biggest advertising push in eight years to promote Ultrabooks, and it's clearly already done a decent job of bringing hardware manufacturers on board the bandwagon. How many new "laptop" announcements do you remember from CES?

Though they received a bit less hype at the time, Ultrabooks actually made their official debut in May of last year at the Computex trade show in Taiwan, where Intel described the devices as computers that "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." ASUS Chairman Jonney Shih went even further, promising that Ultrabooks will do nothing short of "change the way people interact with their PC."

"Ultrabooks" may yet evolve into something that's truly different, but right now it's hard to see how they're deserving of a title all their own, let alone the hype surrounding it. Outside of some concept devices, none have what can legitimately be called "tablet-like features," and we're already seeing the term being applied to devices that are indistinguishable from the average mid-sized laptop released over the last few years. Even Intel itself says that 50 percent of 75+ Ultrabooks expected this year will have 14- or 15-inch screens. And just as tellingly, Intel was also using another term, CULV, to describe these very sorts of laptops until it came up with the catchier Ultrabook moniker.

That's not to say they're not great products. It's exciting to see laptops that are smaller, thinner and just as capable as their larger counterparts, but that's just how laptops have been evolving all these years. The obvious example is the MacBook Air -- which you technically can't call an Ultrabook, even though it is arguably the main competitor to all of the new devices introduced at CES. The first version released back in 2008 was certainly thin and light, but it was also severely underpowered. Then, last summer, Apple released a pair of new models that were not only thin and light, but truly powerful enough to be a viable alternative to the MacBook Pro -- at least for those who don't absolutely need a larger screen and a built-in optical drive. Still, it's a laptop.

Another comparison that often comes up is the netbook. It's a term that has managed to exist alongside laptop (and notebook, for that matter), but it's useful because it defines what the device is not more than what it is. A netbook is not a laptop replacement for most people. It's smaller and generally far less expensive than a proper laptop, but that comes with some real trade-offs. Indeed, calling netbooks laptops would actually be doing a disservice to consumers.

So why all the hype for Ultrabooks? As is often the case, there's not a single reason, but there are a couple of big factors. Kit Eaton recently explored some possibilities in a piece for Fast Company, including not just the threat from Apple, but the growing reach of ARM-based devices -- soon to include Windows 8-based tablets. More broadly, tablets in general do seem to be one of the big factors fueling the Ultrabook hype. They are a legitimately "new thing," and are drawing attention away from the old thing: laptops, and Intel currently has a much bigger stake in the latter than the former.

Ultrabooks, on the other hand, can only be considered a manufactured "new thing." Less "laptops are dead, long live the Ultrabook," more "meet the new boss, same as the old boss." It's not just hype, it's misplaced hype, which may help Intel and computer manufacturers in the short-term, but does little to benefit anyone else. I should note that this is hardly a unique observation on my part -- Gizmodo's Sam Biddle beat me to the punch with a similar argument earlier this week, and the general sentiment among many of my colleagues is that the whole notion of Ultrabooks as something new is a little silly.

There is plenty of potential for some real innovation in the space between laptops and tablets, though. My dream device is a tablet that's a tablet on its own (with a simple, touch-centered interface), and a full-fledged laptop with a "real OS" when it's attached to a keyboard dock (or a desktop dock with an external monitor), much like what our own Darren Murph suggested on a recent podcast. Right now, you can get a tablet that docks with a keyboard, but it doesn't replace a laptop, and you can get a laptop that converts into a tablet, but it doesn't replace a tablet. Windows 8 opens the door to just such devices (Lenovo's IdeaPad Yoga, pictured above, is close but not quite there), and it seems that Apple is moving in a similar direction as well, given the narrowing gap between OS X and iOS. Those devices will truly be deserving of some hype, maybe even a new name.