At CES, Ultrabooks take aim at MacBook Air and miss

CES showcases latest, greatest consumer tech -- so why buy hardware that'll be obsolete by June and an OS headed for the dustbin?

When most people look out over the show floor at CES, they see crowds soaking up innovative and clever new devices -- the newest, best, and shiniest stuff electronic manufacturers have to offer.

I don't. I see the Windows laptop market about to implode.

Intel is trying valiantly with its trademarked Ultrabook concept. There were at least a dozen new Ultrabooks from major manufacturers announced this week and available today, sporting the very best technology Wintel has to offer at drop-dead prices. Another several dozen models are waiting in the wings for delivery this summer.

But everywhere -- absolutely everywhere -- the question begs: How is this better than a MacBook Air?

Some individual Ultrabook features may surpass the six-month-old Mighty Mac, and a few customers may actually need or want some of those features. But taken as a whole, for most consumers and many IT departments the Wintel offerings don't even come close.

Hardware checklists, the mainstay of the PC class, won't tell you the important story. Most Ultrabooks are thin and some are light. Many have decent-if-not-awesome displays. They have SSDs just like the MacBook Air. Backlit keyboards? Check. Batteries that don't die in the middle of playing a movie? Check. i3 or i5 or i7 processors? Check check check.

Operating system designed 6 to 10 years ago for the desktop, with a few laptop features bolted on? Check.

Processor technology that's due to be completely revamped in five to six months, with much lower power requirements? Check.

Anybody who buys an Ultrabook in the next couple of months is facing two inevitabilities:

  1. The hardware's going to be obsolete by May or June. The current "Sandy Bridge" i3, i5, and i7 processors suck power like a two-year-old with a milkshake. The new "Ivy Bridge" promises to bring the power demands way down, with beneficial side effects all though the machine.
  2. You know you're buying an operating system that's headed for the dustbin in seven or eight months, yes? In spite of a few glitzy demos -- first at Build, then at CES -- we know very little about the ability of older hardware to handle the demands of Windows 8.

Apple built an entire ecosystem around the MacBook Air: media, apps, backup, file sharing, Apple Store tech support, and much more. Windows 7 has Lync -- end of argument.

Gartner says worldwide PC sales dropped 1.4 percent between 4Q 2010 and 4Q 2011. U.S. PC shipments over the holiday quarter dropped a whopping 5.9 percent, year-on-year. Apple's sales in the United States grew 21 percent over the same time period. There's a reason why.

This story, "At CES, Ultrabooks take aim at MacBook Air and miss," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.