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Summary:

The biggest speculative conundrum for Mac laptop watchers is, “Whither the MacBook Air?” It’s been over a year since the Air received its last refresh, and the puzzler is whether it will be getting another or just be allowed to fade away from relevance through neglect.

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The biggest speculative conundrum for Mac laptop watchers currently is, “Whither the MacBook Air?” It’s been more than a year since the Air received its last (very modest) refresh, and the operative puzzler is whether it will be getting another or just be allowed to fade away from relevance through neglect.

Just to refresh our memory, the MacBook Air was last breathed on — mildly — in June 2009, when it received a speed bump to 1.86 GHz and 2.13 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processors, NVIDIA GeForce 9400M integrated graphics, and a price reduction to $1,499 for the base model with a 120 GB hard drive, and $1,799 for the 2.13 GHz high-end model with a 120 GB solid-state drive. Since then, Apple has stood pat with the Air. It would be interesting to know how they’ve been selling lately.

There have been spurts of rumors about the potential for, say, a 3G MacBook Air, but nothing came of them, and that particular market niche would appear to now be amply covered by the iPad 3G.

Disinterest From Apple

However, MacBook Air fans shouldn’t give up hope just yet. Earlier this month the Mac mini got a major refresh and new lease on life after a long stretch of apparent disinterest from Apple.

I have no inside knowledge, but what I suspect is that Apple wanted to wait and see what sort of market reception the iPad achieved before committing to a MacBook Air upgrade. Of course, the fact that the iPad has been an out-of-the-park home run in sales performance probably hasn’t enhanced the Air’s prospects for survival, but it’s more complicated than that.

For one thing, the two machines occupy widely divergent points on the price spectrum, and in that context don’t compete directly with each other, although it is entirely conceivable that some users who might otherwise have purchased a MacBook Air will now get an iPad to serve as a light, handy, mobile computing device. I expect more than a few will be of that persuasion, bleeding potential sales from an already limited MacBook Air market.

A “Real” Computer

On the other hand, a sizable cohort of users will still want a “real” ultralight laptop computer with a proper keyboard, a trackpad and stand-up display that can run full-fledged Mac OS X production application software. Despite its virtues, which are many, the iPad meets none of those criteria.

Personally, I’ve resisted the 3-pound, 0.76-inch thick MacBook Air mainly on price, but have also objected to its constrained expandability and connectivity. However, compared with the iPad, which hasn’t even a single real USB port to its name, the Air is almost a power-user machine.

One of the MacBook Air’s problems is that it’s always been arbitrarily positioned and priced as something of a carriage trade accessory and arm candy for well-heeled users, rather than as a serious work tool. In terms of practical capability, the 13-inch MacBook Pro has pretty much all of the same bases covered, aside from extreme thinness and light weight, and in a package that’s not grossly thicker, heavier, or larger in footprint, and which manages to look really great doing it while selling at a relatively bargain basement price. Willingness to carry around an extra 1.5 pounds to get the MacBook Pro’s superior performance is a subjective value judgment and benefit trade-off. These things are relative; the MacBook Air weighs twice as much as an iPad.

Get a MacBook and iPad Both for the Price of a MacBook Air

Another way to look at it is that you can buy a white, entry-level MacBook and a base model iPad for exactly the same money as the base MacBook Air, and essentially have your cake and eat it, too, at no greater cost.

Yet another possible stumbling block in the MacBook Air’s upgrade path is Apple’s CPU vs. GPU dilemma. The current Air has, as noted above, Core 2 Duo processor silicon paired with NVIDIA 9600M integrated graphics processing — both categories being previous-generation hardware. Apple chose to stick with Core 2 Duo for the 13-inch MacBook and MacBook Pro so they could use NVIDIA’s new and much faster 320M integrated GPU, which I think was a good and sensible decision for now. But for an ultraportable machine like the MacBook Air, raw graphics performance is not a first-priority attribute. Few users are likely to be doing high-end graphics, video editing or serious gaming on an Air.

Core i3 Power?

Consequently, Intel’s new low-power consumption Core i3 CPU with its own, in-house HD Graphics GPU and Hyper-Threading technology, which enables each processor core to address two tasks at the same time, might arguably be a more sensible alternative. That would make the Air the only Apple system using Core i3 silicon, which is offered in clock speeds ranging from 1.20 GHz to 2.40 GHz, but presumably it won’t be sticking with Core 2 Duo for the 13-inch MacBooks forever, so it could serve as a relatively low–volume engineering trial.

It would help if Intel could relent and license NVIDIA to make graphics chipsets for core CPUs, but odds of that happening are difficult to gauge.

With the iPad’s spectacular sales success, I have to say I’m skeptical about the MacBook Air having a very auspicious future. However, Apple has surprised us before, and it could again. If you really want a MacBook Air, my best guess is that it might be prudent make your move now while they’re still available, but don’t be mad at me if you do and Apple springs a new Air on us.

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  1. You mean 120GB solid state drive instead of 120 GHz solid state drive, right?

  2. Michael Lamoureux Wednesday, June 30, 2010

    Great article. I thought I was the only one watching for macbook air updates. Perhaps it will come along with a announcement of a iOS / OSX merge and the introduction of touch screen devices for the desktop. I’m sure apple is concerned with cannibalizing their own products. The purchase of a aggressively priced macbook air might not be as beneficial to apple as the purchase of a macbook and a iPad both.

  3. 1) Not all Apple products need to be updated on an aggressive yearly time frame. Sometimes a product is well engineered and malleable enough that it can have a longer life cycle. I don’t know if we should call that neglect or smart engineering.

    2) Yes, it is too expensive for the feature set is offered. I’d like to see Apple take an iPhone approach to this. Keep selling the current “good enough” version at a significantly lower price point, e.g. 50% off, and offer a new version with expanded capabilities…bigger hard drive, more memory, 3G. Maybe even launch a new feature like gesture recognition that will make its way into other Apple products. That’s what I do anyway.

  4. i’m anxiously waiting for a MacBook Air Update. Most people don’t really get it until they use one. It’s the one Apple product people would stop and ask about when I was in a cafe and I’d always demo it and every person that knew of one would act surprised and say, “I thought this was supposed to be slower. That’s what I heard.”

    Yes it’s pricey but I always look to the resale value. In fact, I sold my MBA in March in anticipation of an upgrade very soon and have been using my 2.1Ghz Core2 MacBook. Bit mistake but their speeds are very similar and both have the 2GB cap but the weight and size are no comparison between the two. The MacBook Air blows it away (albeit for $700 more).

    I hope Apple ups the SSD to 256, bumps up the ram and boosts the CPU by a few Ghz in the next update. Everything else about the MBA is perfect.

    1. agreed.

      i had a 1st gen, rev A macbook air. upgraded the crappy platter 80GB hdd to the 64GB SSD and loved it. i used it for about a year and then decided i needed more power and in turn when with a MBP13 (which i love too!).

      however, if apple does refresh the Macbook Air line, i may consider jumping back on that wagon. it would only take two things for me to bite:
      1. upgradeable memory (not soldered onto the mainboard)
      2. more hdd choices if possible
      3. spare mini pci-e port for 3G/4G broadband card upgrades or potential

      one really does need to use a macbook air and travel with one for a week to really appreciate its form factor. it feels like a piece of art (in a good way)

      1. Yeah. The SSD is something every MBA needs. Sorry that I forgot to add built in 3G and user upgradeable ram. My USB 3G card from AT&T won’t fit in the MBA usb slot so I have to use this 2 foot extension cord which is pretty ugly. I’d happily pay for the built in option if available.
        Let’s hope the MBA doesn’t go away for good.

  5. I bought a new “late 2008″ Air just after the June 09 updates came out. I thought I would use it just when traveling, etc. and stick to my heftier “late 2007″ 15″ MBPro for daily use. I was wrong. I use my Air almost exclusively and whereas I always debated whether I would need my laptop when I went out (with the Pro because of the heft), I almost always take my Air with me.

    I still get stopped at the airport or elsewhere with people in awe of my Air. My only real complaint is I’d like a bigger hard drive as mine is only 180G. Yet, it does help me to be more organized and delete things I don’t need.

    Would I buy another Air? Yes.

  6. My favourite thing in the world is sitting in coffee shops and programming which the MacBook Air would be perfect for. Alas for a student they’ve always been way too expensive.

    Apple have made it clear their target audience for the Air isn’t people like me, but it’d still be great if they made it much cheaper for (as you say Charles) people like us who still need a proper keyboard and stand up display for full applications.

    I can’t see myself coding on an iPad any time soon, though who knows what the landscape will be like in a few years.

  7. Emerson Takahashi Wednesday, June 30, 2010

    I believe Apple will soon have a update for the MacBook Air using the Athlon Neo processor and a GPU from AMD/ATI. They’re just waiting for a solution to be made for the 13″ and they will have all MacBooks refreshed

  8. I would suspect the Macbook Air is going to be updated in October with the rest of the laptop line and the iPad.

    Either way truth be told Apple probably wouldn’t be missing anything if they did just drop it from their lineup. Although it’s a very cool piece of kit… it really doesn’t fit anywhere into their product line up. Anywhere you can take a Macbook Air you can take a 13 in Macbook Pro. And for everything else there’s an iPhone or iPad.

  9. Austin Ledzian Wednesday, June 30, 2010

    They need to integrate the A4 chip, give it better graphics, have no moving internal parts, and make it consistently thin (it looks like a wedge). They need to have an application to keep the files seamlessly in sync with the primary computer, and have a less feature-rich os, with applications focused on the main computing goal. You won’t need most of the utilities. That would make it faster too. Most of all they need to LOWER the price. It should be between the iPad and base MacBook Pro. Then people will stop looking at it like arm candy for fanboys.

    1. I agree on most points, except for two. Firstly, I’m unsure about the A4. It’s a 1 GHz chip! Not much for Snow Leopard. My 2003 PowerBook G4 has 1.33 GHz and runs Tiger, as Leopard users report performance issues on this computer. Also, keep in mind the different architectures the OSs were developed for. Mac OS won’t run on an A4, that’s for sure. It’s Intel-only. Secondly, I disagree about a different OS version for the Air. Apple shouldn’t make things complicated like Microsoft did with the different SKUs of Windows. I’d rather love a bigger hard drive and a Mac OS update for all Macs for increasing performance. Oh, and a more scratch resistant casing would be good as well.

  10. I do a lot of writing and spreadsheet work on my MBA. I’ve had it sense the first introduction. My needs are modest, but the form factor and weight make all the difference. I bought an iPad for my wife and have played with it a lot – it’s great, but it is not a replacement for my MBA. They are just two different animals. I’d like to see a refreshed MBA and would consider buying another if the upgrade was worthwhile.

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