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If demand for larger tablets erodes, can Ultrabooks take their place?

Ultrabook sales may be poised for a boost as more people give up larger tablets like the iPad in favor of 7-inch slates

Tablets may be killing PCs right now, but  Ultrabooks could be poised for a boost as more people give up their almost 10-inch iPads in favor of 7-inch slates like the iPad Mini, Nexus 7, and the Kindle Fire.

Once people start ignoring 10-inch slates for smaller screens, they'll still need something with a larger display and keyboard to get some work done, and that's where Ultrabooks come in. Or at least that's a popular prediction in PC circles these days, backed up by a trend among manufacturers of moving away from larger slates in favor of pocket-friendly tablets.

For instance, market research firm NPD DisplaySearch in late February predicted smaller-sized tablets would become more popular than larger slates in 2013. NPD's predictions were based on discussions with major component suppliers.

Several months earlier, in October, IHS iSuppli was a little more cautious: it predicted 7-inch media tablets would rise to 33 percent of all tablets sold in 2013, up from 28 percent in 2012.

Kirk Skaugen, vice president and general manager of Intel's PC Client Group, was bullish recently about the prospects for Ultrabooks as smaller tablets become more popular. Skaugen believes the market for 10-inch tablets will "rapidly erode" as people look to smaller, more portable tablets, CRN reports. Skaugen's comments came during Intel's Solutions Summit in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

Windows 8 is key

Ultrabooks, meanwhile, will merge tablet and laptop form factors into single devices with 11- and 13-inch displays that run Microsoft's touch-centric Windows 8 OS. Skaugen sees an Ultrabook future where 13-inch Ultrabooks are mostly convertible devices with screens that flip around from a laptop to a tablet, according to CRN.

Smaller 11-inch Ultrabooks, meanwhile, will trend towards hybrid devices with detachable screens.

Early versions of these devices have already appeared such as Dell's XPS 12 laptop (shown at the top of this story), which has a display that swings in its bezel to fold into a tablet. Lenovo in January was showing off the ThinkPad Helix, an 11.6-inch "rip-and-flip" laptop featuring a detachable screen for tablet mode.

The prospects for PC sales could certainly do with a boost from Ultrabooks. Market research firm IDC in January said PC shipments were down 6 percent during the fourth quarter of 2012 compared to the previous year, while Gartner said the drop was closer to 5 percent. Whether it's closer to 5 or 6 percent, PCs are clearly trending down, while tablets are only becoming more popular.

Roadblocks ahead

But even if 7-inch tablets do cannibalize the market for larger tablets over the next few months, there are two big roadblocks to Ultrabooks filling a prospective gap left by 10-inch devices. Current pricing for hybrid and convertible laptops starts around $1000, while the iPad and other 10-inch tablets start at half that.

It may be more reasonable then for PC buyers to look to traditional clamshell laptops, which cost from $500 to $600, and offer touchscreens rather than buying fancy hybrid devices.

The other problem for Ultrabooks is Windows 8. Microsoft's latest OS, while selling fairly well, is not yet a blockbuster. Windows 8 didn't do much to boost PC sales over the holiday season, and computer manufacturers are starting to explore options for PCs beyond Windows such as Chromebooks.

Windows is still the most important OS for PC makers, of course, but Microsoft's bold experiment with merging a tablet and desktop interface into one system has yet to pay off.

Microsoft is expected later in 2013 to release a major update for Windows 8, dubbed Windows Blue, which could make the OS more appealing to everyday users. If Windows 8 gains more appeal at the same time as manufacturers are able to lower prices for convertibles and laptops with detachable screens, then it's conceivable for Ultrabooks to become a popular choice.

But a lot of variables have to line up just right for Ultrabooks to take off in the face of a potential decline in 10-inch tablets.


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