In Tapei Monday at the Computex show, PC makers unveiled the next generation of ultrabook PCs. These systems are more than just another turn of the screw. They are game-changers with the potential to disrupt the way we interact with our personal electronics.
I've written plenty about how Microsoft's missteps with Windows 8 have hampered OEMs' ability to sell new PCs for the past year. And about how the timing of the Windows 8.1 release is going to clip the sales potential of this new crop of systems. That's all still true. The PC OEMs are facing yet another daunting selling season.
Let's be clear, though: the challenging market climate in no way undermines what this new spate of ultrabooks brings to the table. They sport a host of improvements over the last wave of ultrabooks, impressive as they were from a pure hardware perspective. Instant on, for example, is now becoming a reality. As well, the fourth-generation Intel Core processors inside afford OEMs the opportunity to build sleek, sexy systems that boast up to twice the battery life of last year's models -- without sacrificing performance. If you are in the market for a new laptop, it means you should be able to find an ultrabook that lasts all day on a single charge.
[ Overwhelmed by tablet options and features? Here's how to narrow the field. Tablet Buying Demystified: 10 Tips. ]
That's the game-changing part. Buy yourself an ultrabook with instant-on capability and all-day battery life, and you'll find yourself reaching for your PC instead of your smartphone or tablet more often than you do today.
That said, these cool new systems aren't going to convince any of us to toss our tablets. Most of us will continue to maintain three devices in our personal electronics arsenal for the foreseeable future. What these new ultrabooks have a chance to do, however, is help the PC vendors reclaim some of the mindshare they've lost to the other devices during the past few years.
We may not do it consciously, but every time we turn to one device over the others, we make our choice by sifting through a complex matrix of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the three. The choice really comes down to how easy it is to get what we want or need, and the cost of getting it.
I like to refer to smartphones as our first responders. They serve as our phones, after all, so they're never far away from us. As a result, we're far more likely to deploy them when a need arises. Just the other day at lunch, for example, I fired up the browser on my cell phone to settle a bet with a friend. (Answer: it was the Incas, not the Mayans.) But I wouldn't dream of researching a trip to Machu Picchu on my phone -- I'd wait until I could spend some time in front of my laptop, with its larger display, no-compromise keyboard and other superior research tools.
Historically, the big knocks against laptops had been that they had poor battery life, and that they took forever to wake up and hop to attention. So we thought twice before we opened up our laptops. Did we want to wait that long before we looked up the ancients? Could we afford to expend scarce battery life on such a non-essential activity?
Such shortcomings were what gave tablet vendors the opening they needed to pry their way into the market in the first place.
Now, finally, PC vendors have closed the gaping holes that gave rise to the tablet market. Of course, that's not going to shove tablets back into their hole. But this will be an interesting period to watch. The smartphone and tablet markets are maturing, which means new gains will be harder to come by. Meantime, the renaissance in PC design is coming into full swing.
It will be fun to watch as the ultrabook initiative tries to change the momentum. But there will be plenty of time for that. This summer, I'm going computer shopping.