Intel throws money at faltering Ultrabooks

Burning cash to float lead balloons

Intel - logoUltrabooks have been greeted by the OEMs with all the enthusiasm of an arranged marriage, so it is time to break out the Intel MoneyHose(TM)(R)(C)(P). Enter the brand new $300 million Ultrabook Fund.

If you have been following the PC sector over the past few months, the news from Taiwan is that the OEMs making Ultrabooks(UB) are shouting at the top of their lungs that the numbers Intel is putting out for the Bill of Materials (BoM) costs are, err, optimistic. Early price leaks show that the $1000 target from Intel optimistic by at least 50% if not more.

To take a step back to the reasoning behind the ‘enthusiasm’ surrounding UBs, you have to look at what they are. Take a normal notebook, make it a bit slimmer, and put an emphasis on style/pretty things. Think MacBook Air size but without 90% of the useful things Intel puts in to a $500 notebook. What’s not to love?

Well, to start out with, compared to a ‘real’ laptop, you lose a frightening amount of features. For a little sleeker, you lose almost all the ports, massive amounts of CPU power, and the ability to put any other chips onto the boards. This precludes functional graphics and sticks you with the ULV speed Intel GPUs, parts that hardly get out of their own way at full speed.

Ports are more of a sticking point, USB in particular is going to be mighty scarce on Ultrabooks. Intel’s decision to hamstring the USB3 market by excluding it from Sandy Bridge, coupled with the inability to add more chips to the mobo mean that there is no chance to have real connectivity on these laptops. Road warriors will love that, especially if they are in a hotel that doesn’t have Wi-Fi. The lack of connectivity is going to relegate UBs to coffee shop toys.

Then comes the scariest line from the Intel Ultrabook Fund press release, “Ultrabook systems will marry the performance and capabilities of today’s laptops with tablet-like features.” Hands up everyone who wants to have the touch screens on a laptop that has a keyboard and mouse already? They are on the market, and sell like overly priced blows to the head. Outside of a few limited niche markets, touch screen tablets are pointless, but they cost a lot, add weight, and make the screens a bit worse in every way.

Screens are a major sticking point according to Taiwan Inc, yields aren’t there, costs are too high, and well, the ones slated for UBs simply suck. Remember the reduced functionality mentioned earlier? How does a dim 1366 * 768 screen sound on a laptop that costs 3x as much as one less than half an inch thicker sound? Remember though that the cheaper one sports many more features and a faster CPU. How about a GPU in the UB that can barely power a casual game at that resolution? Something tells me that you dear reader aren’t sold by this pitch.

Then comes storage. When space is this much of a premium, don’t expect a 1.8″ HD, much less a 2.5″, or even a half-mini-PCIe card. You need something like Sandisk’s amazing BGA SSDs. They now come in capacities up to 128GB, so you know about where SSDs are going to top out for storage. If you want more, tough. To get to these Z-heights, everything is going to be soldered down, so no upgrades for your new toy. Don’t look to plug in much more externally either, ports are basically non-existent and no chance for USB3 either.

To summarize, you have a pretty and light notebook that lacks connectivity, is slow, has awful graphics, a painful screen, and is totally unexpandable, but it costs 3x as much as a slightly thicker laptop with none of the drawbacks. Add in a bunch of checkbox features about as useful as the extra brand-centric function keys on consumer machines (“Press this flashing button to purchase 7 crates of HP brand photo paper automatically”) and you have an Ultrabook. OEMs are squeezed, parts are in short, if any, supply, and Intel is riding companies to get them out the door. Sounds great, eh?

So enter the money hose called the Intel Ultrabook Fund. Take balking OEMs and throw large amounts of cash at them to soothe frayed balance sheets. Do this to ostensibly build up the market for the aforementioned checkbox features nobody actually wants, much less wants to pay for, and you have a winner, right? Money talks loudly among the targeted OEMs, so this fund will help a lot. I foresee most of the money going into the back doors of balking OEMs, and Digitimes rants being reduced proportionately until the hose runs dry.

In the end, Ultrabooks are still a bad idea. Instead taking all the power of a laptop and making it better, Intel is aiming to take all the useful parts and replace them with a checkbox list of pointless tablet features. At a high cost. Intel simply doesn’t get the market, which probably explains why they have lost almost all the “35 innovative “Oak Trail” design wins”” touted at IDF in April already.

Ultrabooks are shaping up to be round two. $300 million isn’t something you have to toss out two months in to the program unless you are looking at market numbers familiar to a Kin salesman. Instead of chasing marketing niches, Intel should focus on products people actually want.S|A

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also available through Guidepoint and Mosaic. FullyAccurate