Year of the Ultrabook -- or the Ultradud?

Expect hype around Ultrabooks to reach new highs with CES just around the corner. But before you succumb, take a closer look at where the technology's heading

Everybody and his brother's maiden aunt's hairdresser will announce an Ultrabook next week at the Consumer Electronics Show, where the advertising hype will reach new highs -- or lows, depending on how you look at it.

IT's going to field a lot of questions from users pie-eyed at the prospect of Windows machines running in the MacBook Air's footsteps. But before you and your users succumb to the pressure, take a deep breath and consider what's coming down the pike. Next week's Ultrabook may well become next quarter's Ultradud.

Last year, the CES darling toys were 3D TVs and Android tablets. That alone should give you pause.

So what's an Ultrabook? That's easy: Intel trademarked the term, so it's whatever Intel says it is -- this week, anyway. Intel's current Ultrabook specs (PDF) call for a weight under 3.1 pounds, thickness under 0.71 inch, five hours of general-use battery life, SSD storage, Intel Rapid Start Technology to implement resumes "within seconds," and Intel Anti-Theft Technology that disables a lost or stolen Ultrabook.

Although there's no specific prohibition, Ultrabooks as currently constituted contain no more than 4GB of memory (frequently soldered, so it can't be upgraded). They also don't have hard drives, removable batteries, or optical/DVD drives, but they do have more or less full-size keyboards.

Intel's so sure of its Ultrabook ways that it's started an entire website devoted to the topic, entitled Reshaping the PC Experience. Indeed.

Market analysis firm IHS (formerly iSuppli) says there were fewer than 1 million Ultrabooks sold in 2011 -- less than 2 percent of the notebook market -- but the number will run up to 13 percent this year, and by 2015 IHS says that number will grow to 43 percent of the notebook market, or more than 135 million units. Taipei-based TrendForce predicts that 10 percent of all notebooks sold this year will be Ultrabooks. Presumably they're all taking into account how Intel will modify the definition of "Ultrabook" as time goes by. As InfoWorld's Galen Gruman has warned, that Ultrabook label on thin Windows laptops has no real meaning.

You can buy an Ultrabook right now, of course. And next week your choices -- both real and promised -- will expand exponentially. But will any of those machines approach the de facto MacBook Air standard?

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