2012 will be a good year for laptops
Under AU$1000: these days, what that price gets you in a laptop is pretty impressive. Sure, it'll be bulkier than the latest rash of slender slips designed to drive your desire, but performance is generally fine for a large portion of the laptop-buying audience. It's now the price point du jour, that area where people are comfortable making sacrifices in usability and quality for the sake of "good enough" performance.
This has led to an interesting change in priorities for reviewing; while specs are still important, we tend to criticise other factors. By and large, it's now things like battery life and build quality. Keyboard and touch pad feel. Viewing angles on screens, colour representation and vibrancy. How nice the thing looks, and how usable it is. Whether the manufacturer has bothered fitting in good speakers, or whether they just paid for a licence to get some logo and software slapped on to pretend the audio is good instead. The specs only really enter into it when you talk about a laptop from a gaming or workstation perspective, something that really isn't the bulk of the market. Want proof? Just check out which graphics manufacturer has the largest market share.
So it's only just now that I'm really beginning to appreciate Intel's ultrabook plan. I admit, like many, to succumbing to the all-too-cynical approach of assuming that it was just aping the MacBook Air. But that's not Intel's game — it only looks like that as a result of unimaginative vendors wrestling with new concepts, and reaching for the low-hanging Apple. If anything, the only page taken out of Apple's book has been this: user experience is paramount.
Translate this into the perspective of a hardware company, and the ultrabook program becomes an incredibly aggressive push to raise the entry-level performance and experience of all laptops.
Thin and sexy are just selling points — the motivation to move people off bulky, heaving things that already "do the job", but are actually keeping the industry from progressing, due to having to allow for low-end specs. The real stars here are SSDs, processors with excellent performance but low power requirements and stellar battery life. Ivy Bridge will help push that further again, by aiming for double the graphics performance, and finally allowing the whole industry to aim at Direct X 11 as a baseline spec.
The current rash of ultrabooks also tell an interesting story: outside of Asus' high-performance ZenBooks, almost every vendor supplied its ultrabook with a Core i5 2467M, 4GB of RAM and an SSD. It could be purely because this is the best price point that Intel is offering, but this level of platform homogenisation has created an interesting knock-on effect: vendors need other unique selling points than just processor, RAM and hard drive to stand above the crowd. The net effect? Other areas of the laptop, traditionally ignored, are starting to improve.
There's not yet one laptop that does everything perfectly, but you can see everything falling into place piecemeal. Backlit keyboards and SSDs are fast becoming the norm. Samsung's Series 5 Ultra has great sound for a laptop of its size, something that I hope others strive for. HP's build quality, battery life and keyboards in its Folio 13 and Spectre are great. Asus' new ZenBook Primes, out soon, sport 1080p, matte, IPS screens (no doubt due to competitive pressure from tablets), and there's even a version with discrete graphics slated, if you need more power.
Build quality was occasionally a bit wobbly in some ultrabook models, as vendors got used to the process of making something so thin, but some got it right from the get go, and I expect that to be mostly addressed for the Ivy Bridge updates.
And all the while, vendors are striving to improve quality while still decreasing price. This is not an easy thing to do. Right now, the comfortable "do everything and still look good" price is around AU$1400. It'll hit sub AU$1000 by the end of the year. As consumers, we're poised to be in an incredibly good place, and if the majority of companies execute on this promise (which admittedly is a tall ask; there will very definitely be misses along the way), a very significant portion of the market will be able to raise itself up, allowing all computing to improve as companies can start aiming at a higher baseline.
Of course, that's the hardware side, and purely focusing on the standard laptop. Whether or not Windows 8 plays well into this vision is another thing altogether, and it will no doubt inspire a rash of experiments in touchscreens, tablet/laptop hybrids and freakier things. Some of these won't make any sense, and some will inevitably make sacrifices in all the wrong places in order to hit a price point. I'm completely prepared to call it when these things don't come up to scratch.
But by and large, from where I'm standing, things look optimistic. I'm calling it: this will be a great year for laptops.