Last week, Hewlett-Packard introduced a new category of laptop that made consumer technology enthusiasts hang their heads. Called "Sleekbooks," the specific machines that HP revealed actually don't sound bad: they're thin, relatively cheap, and boast up to nine hours of battery life. The problem is that the word "Sleekbook" doesn't necessarily mean anything.
Words have meaning, and if left unchecked, their meaning can change over time. For instance, in 2007, the word "netbook" stood for an exceptionally tiny, inexpensive laptop with unheard-of battery life. Fast-forward a few years, though, and netbook is practically a derogatory term. It's used to describe a machine that's sorely underpowered. That's because despite the fact that the original 1.6GHz Intel Atom + 1GB RAM + 250GB hard drive formula eventually evolved to include dual-core processors, graphics accelerators, AMD silicon, and pleasingly thin designs, there was never a evolving standard to make sure that manufacturers kept up with the times. Unchecked, netbook prices floated into the $600 range, where low-end laptops offered far more bang for the buck. After Apple's iPad showed the world what $500 could buy, the netbook market more or less closed up.
That's the kind of future Intel is hoping to avoid with the idea of an "ultrabook." Where netbook was an informal designation that manufacturers could bend at will, the word ultrabook carries weight: unless your laptop is under a certain thickness, has a certain amount of battery life, and wakes from sleep in a certain amount of time, it's not an ultrabook. In other words, Intel's intent is to enforce a minimum standard, a phrase customers can latch on to ensure they get a decent machine... and though some might argue Intel's standard doesn't go far enough to ensure quality in some areas, like screen quality and weight, the company has pledged to update the ultrabook designation year after year (although we need to see if last year's ultrabooks can still be called that after each change). The other thing Intel has pledged is a gigantic marketing campaign: if your company doesn't build ultrabooks, it doesn't get the benefits of the $300 million sunk into these wild west gunslinger ads, among other things:
That is, unless you're HP.
We've tested plenty of ultrabooks, and so far, the best come from HP. If you want an exceptionally thin notebook under $900, you can't do much better than the Folio 13, and though the $1,399 Envy 14 Spectre is pricy, it's absolutely a quality machine. Now, though, the company is looking to leverage the success of the inherently pricy ultrabook into cheaper, more profitable PCs.
So tell me honestly: If you heard that HP had the best ultrabooks, and found this Envy 4, would you buy it instead of the Folio 13, which costs more and looks comparatively dull? Here's the rub: unless you pay $50 to add a solid state drive cache to the Envy 4, it isn't an ultrabook. Though it looks identical from the outside, the Envy 4 Sleekbook has only a traditional magnetic hard drive inside by default, which means it'll probably be slower to boot and generally less responsive.
Maybe that doesn't sound like a huge deal, but now that HP has very visibly challenged the definition of an ultrabook, we can probably expect other companies to do the same. After all, HP had good reason to do so: by definition, Intel's ultrabook standard shuts out processors from AMD. What PC manufacturer would want to put all its eggs in one basket when it comes to procuring a critical component — the CPU — and lose the ability to negotiate on price?
There's presently no alternative to "ultrabook" as a standard for minimum laptop quality
The problem is that there's presently no alternative to Intel's ultrabook when it comes to a standard for minimum quality. "Sleekbook" is just a marketing buzzword, and when other companies come to the same realization as HP, they may cut even more corners in order to compete on price. In short, the word sleekbook is no better a word than "ultraportable," or "thin-and-light," or any of the nebulous categories that have come before, and worse, it describes a laptop that's inherently cheaping out in order to democratize a form factor rather than a superior user experience. Apple's MacBook Air raised the bar for responsiveness, battery life, and thin design, but at this rate, its impact on the Windows PC industry may be limited to visual appeal instead of the crucial components inside.
Honestly, I'm not quite sure what the solution is. You can't really expect Intel to rewrite its ultrabook definition to include AMD. Perhaps AMD could come up with a parallel standard, but the company already told us it won't promote an ultrabook competitor. Microsoft has a vested interest in making sure Windows runs well on every machine, so perhaps it could be up to the task: its existing "Windows Experience Index" benchmark already provides abstract numerical scores for most major component of a systems, and Microsoft is also mandating screen resolution, sensor, and multitouch standards for some Windows 8 machines.
All I know is that unless we find a better definition of the next-generation laptop, we're not building that laptop as quickly or efficiently as could be, and in the meanwhile the market may get flooded with notebooks that are lower quality than they seem. No matter what seemingly synonymous category names manufacturers might cook up, the only name that matters today is ultrabook.