One of the companies that I’ve been hoping to see at CES has been AMD. I’ve seen all I can stand of Intel based ultrabooks and I’ve seen my share of them sit in a warehouse and rot. I’m quite intrigued by what AMD has to offer, but first of all, here’s why I’m not as excited about Ultrabooks.
It’s Like a High End Netbook, Right?
What bugs me the most about ultrabooks is that they all use CULV or Compact Ultra Low Voltage processors. These chips will range from 1.4-1.8 Ghz, but while the power in these chips are probably good enough for the average user, they aren’t priced at average consumer prices. Run several applications at the same time, some heavy photoshop or video rendering tasks (you know, the stuff that Intel is supposed to be really good at) and you’ll see a noticeable difference compared to a typical Core i5 laptop. Even with Turbo-Boost, the chips in a $1000+ Ultrabook are slower than the chips in a $600 or under notebook, and that seems a little stupid.
Where netbooks exceled is that they were portable but cheap. Most people have a primary computer (desktop or laptop) at home which will do their heavy duty tasks. What most consumers are looking for is a portable machine that can do some work, entertainment, and maybe even some photoshop work on the go, but they don’t want to buy yet another computer just for on the go work.
Finding the Right Mobile Platform
Netbooks were popular for a couple years because they were cheap, portable, had great battery life and ran Windows which allowed for basic legacy work and some basic web and email access. Unfortunately, Intel’s Atom processor proved too slow and too low end.
Tablets ended up becoming replacements for Netbooks because they are great entertainment machines, are light and portable, offer great battery life, and offer a range of apps that can give most of the functionality of a standard computer. Unfortunately, they don’t run Windows, which means the average user will have problems keeping OSX/Android synced up with their Windows-based home PC. Not to mention, you can’t have the same programs on each, making it more difficult to switch from platform to platform.
Seeing netbooks die to ARM-based tablets made Intel twitch but when Apple crafted their new lower priced Macbook Airs, then Intel got the idea to bring this to Windows. It made absolute sense at first. The biggest problem with netbooks was the low performance of its processor. Bringing Core i3, i5, and i7 processors to a thin and light form factor while maintaining great battery life would be the perfect mobile platform. Plus, what Apple can do, Windows can do cheaper right? Well, apparently not.
For the Price of Two Laptops, You Can Have a Second Computer
The problem with Ultrabooks is that Intel jumped from the low end of the spectrum to the high end, while ignoring anything in the mid range. Intel obviously wants to sell SSDs and CULV processors and at the same time try to capture the quickly mobilizing market. Unfortunately, CULV processors are more expensive than full power CPUs, just as SSDs are more expensive than HDDs. The only result could be that consumers would be asked to spend twice as much as they spent on their home computer on a portable laptop that had less ports, no optical drive, slower processors, and low storage space. People are used to premiums on tablets, but not that much. Express cache and magnetic hard drives are helping price but now we are seeing “budget” Ultrabooks or “Ultra-Laptops” as if removing the SSD knocks them down a rung from “Ultra”-ness.
The one thing that Intel forgot when they looked at the Macbook Air is that the reason its considered a value is because Apple computers start at $1200. In a time when most consumers are buying $400-$700 laptops as primary computers, spending over $1000 on machine that appears to be designed to be a secondary machine is ridiculous.
Even if you were to consider that the power in an Ultrabook could make it a primary computer for most people, paying a $300-$600 premium for something with, once again, less power, less storage, less ports, no optical drive, and happens to be almost (but not quite) as portable as a tablet is also ridiculous. Most consumers that I have asked would rather spend the same amount of money on a midrange production laptop for home and a tablet that is more portable than an Ultrabook that does an average job of being both.
Enter the APU
For the last year, AMD’s CPU efforts, aka the APU, have positioned them uniquely for the ultra portable market. Frankly, I’m surprised that AMD’s E-series Brazos processor never arrived in significant quantities within ultra-portable laptops, but did arrive as a Celeron replacement for cheap 15” laptops. the E-350 and 450 seemed to me to be a natural fit for a 12 or 13 inch ultra-portable in a way that the Atom was never able to. Brazos combines a CPU that does what Atom did, but better, included better multitasking, and a powerful GPU that could run HD video, flash video, and some basic games all at a price that made it highly competitive.
Now that AMD has created Llano, it makes even more sense. Now, for a $400-500 price range (the price of a tablet by the way…) someone can have an ultrathin device with great battery life that can play games, HD video, get full web access, multitask, and even run some quick photoshop edits. Sure the Intel based ultrabooks are faster, more powerful, and typically have SSDs, but is it worth paying twice the price? Well to many of us bloggers, it might be, but to the general public, it won’t be.
Check out this quick sneak peak of an ASUS ultrathin powered by an AMD A-Series Processor
Here’s another video showing off the machine itself.
I wish someone other than ASUS would have been on board to show some hardware because ASUS’s reference design here is pretty ugly. I wouldn’t expect high end materials in a $400-$500 Ultra-portable, but I can tell this is based on ASUS’ K-Series design, which is gawd awful. But regardless, the power inside the machine is impressive.
Am I Going Crazy Here?
While bloggers go crazy over Ultrabooks, I can’t help but yawn. Yeah they’re cool, fast and look great but I’d almost rather get a Macbook Air if I was going to spend a grand on something ultraportable. I don’t consider myself an AMD fanboy. Maybe I’m biased because I like to play games on my laptops. Maybe I just see way too many Ultrabooks rot on retail store shelves. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that Ultrabooks are inevitably going to fail unless they see drastic price reductions.
AMD has a chance, but only because they seem to have realized that ultra portable CPUs need to be cheaper than full powered processors. Sure, it’s a bit of a strange reversal. Not long ago, it was expected that one would pay more for a more portable machine. But the dominance of netbooks and tablets have change that perception.
And so I feel that Intel’s Ultrabooks will fall to the same fate that tablets did after the introduction of the iPad and iPad 2. Eventually they’ll get cheaper and start selling finally. Because honestly, Apple is really good at being Apple. Let Apple be Apple and stop copying them.