Blog Post

Will the MacBook Air Survive?

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

The biggest speculative conundrum for Mac (s aapl) 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 (s nvda) 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 (s nvda) 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 (s intc) 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.

33 Responses to “Will the MacBook Air Survive?”

  1. An update to the MBA is a must… If anything the success of the iPad shows there is a huge market for a ultra-light “full” computing device using OSX.. I am awaiting an update before I buy… C’mon apple you can do it…

  2. I sold my Rev A MacBook Air because it was just not able to handle basic flash and the like. Even still, it’s my favourite computer of all time and Apple took care of those issues with the next revision.

    If the MBA comes with a 256GB SSD, ≥4GB RAM (user upgradable?) and a small CPU bump I’d be a happy camper. Only other thing I’d like to see is a price drop (UK pricing sucks) and updated display surrounds and trackpads (though the glass trackpads are pretty hefty).

  3. I’d like to add my two cents here, since I think sometimes people get easily confused while talking about the MBA and finding its position in the current market.

    The MBA is an ultraportable. One of the most powerful in the market, and one of the lightest. The iPad is not a computer. Its like comparing apples (ah!) to oranges, really. The iPad could (and maybe will) replace your netbook, not your laptop.
    If you can’t find a reason why chosing an MBA is better than buying a MBP, you don’t need an ultraportable.
    If you can’t find a reason why chosing an MBA is better than buying an iPad, then, again, you don’t need an ultraportable.

    The MBA is NOT expensive. Please go and compare it to equivalent models from competitors. Dell Adamo? Lenovo Thinkpad? Toshiba Portege R600? An obscure Sony model(please don’t make me talk about sony)? These will be overpriced, definitely uglier, often weightier, sometimes underpowered compared to the MBA.
    You could see a spark of hope in the new ultraportable Asus models, or in one of MSI, but taking a closer look at them you soon realize they are to the MBA what a low-price laptop is to the MBP. Sure its notable, until recently “cheap uptraportable” was just an oxymoron.

    Does the MBA need an update because it still has a “physical button”? Come on, be serious.
    The reason many wait for an MBA update its just because its arrival has been speculated from some time now, and someone is waiting for the refresh to buy in the best moment possible.
    Also, someone is waiting for a better hardware (2gb ram is too poor nowadays for a MBA).

    Apple dropping the MBA would be a pity, because its a great hardware at a great price.
    I don’t think we will see that soon, by the way.
    At most, it will be neglected for a while, so, if you have to buy it and have plenty of money, just buy it, otherwise be prepared to wait: even if it will end up being another year or so, it will be worth it.

    • Uhmmm, at 1500$ for a 1.83ghz C2Duo, 120gb hd, 2gb ram, 1 usb port it *is* overpriced and fairly limited nowadays.
      There’s much more on the market these days than Adamos and Proteges.

      And at 13.3″ with a huge bezel it’s not really that ultraportable either.

      Then ok, it runs OS X and it’s decently powerful, thin, light, and better built than all the alternatives, but still I don’t feel it offers enough to be considered a decent buy.

      • Alessio

        I’m not convinced. As I said before, a RAM upgrade would be nice, but by all means, it still is on par with the competitors, if not only for the GPU.
        Also, most of the other solutions on the market use CULV processors which can’t be easily compared to the Core 2 Duo in the MBA, and this is just one of the many reasons that make the MBA stand out to the cheaper solutions, just like the MBP stands to some plastic HP-something laptop.
        I agree about the respec: it would be nice, but I think they can afford to wait, since the competitors that address the same market (for example, the Adamo) are still ages behind.
        More than that, it’s one of the lightest (if not the lightest) 13.3″: that makes it ultraportable (you wouldn’t call a Dell Vostro 13″ an ultraportable because it’s a 13″).
        Also, an ultraportable doesn’t need that much USB ports: one is more than enough to attach the occasional usb pen drive, for the rest, screw the cables, go Bluetooth.
        As I said before, MBA is one of the most powerful ultraportables out there, but as I said before, if it seems wrong probably you’re searching for something else.

        Nonetheless the problem with the MBA lays in the overall Apple strategy: while the iPad seems (erroneously) the MBA killer to someone, the real threat to the MBA right now it’s just Apple (smart) strategy to go for quality AND quantity. The iphone, the ipad, the new macbook all share this: they are meant to be sold to a large market. MBA maybe doesn’t have enough market share as it is to be enough profitable compared to other Apple products, and this could be the one reason to kill it.

      • Yep Alessio, it all boils down to personal preferences in the end.
        I see your points and the issue is mostly that the MBA is not the machine for me.
        I’m the kind of user that probably would choose a 13 MBP over the MBA even if they were priced the same, so go figure =)

        If I went for an ultraportable, it would be for lighter tasks, and for those a CULV cpu instead a regular C2Duo wouldn’t make the slightest difference.
        So one big selling point, good notebook-class cpu and gpu, is quite lost to me.

        The other one, thin and light form factor with a spacious screen and keyboard, is also quite lost, because in the end the MBA footprint is not so small, and I’m also irritated by the huge bezels that could be easily reduced if the goal is to provide a top class ultraportable.

        The single USB port… I agree that in real world use you just don’t need more most of the time, but it also irritates me, I think I’d curse Apple any single time I’d have to swap a device because there’s plenty of space for more I/O and it just looks like an artificial limitation.

        Nowadays on the PC side of the market there’s a lot of option for ultraportables with 11.6″, 12″ and 13″ screens that have much beefy specs in RAM, HD and ports, similar battery life, and decent build quality.
        No one match MBA style and assembly, but they all cost much much less…

        I mean, just for an example take a look at Acer Timeline 3820, it packs an i5 cpu, 4gb ram, 500gb hd, plenty of ports, 8hrs of juice, build quality is acceptable (very very good for an Acer)… and you can get it for half the price of the MBA.

        I want to use OS X so that’s not an option, but the match-up is embarassing.

  4. The main reason I’ve never gotten a Macbook Air is because of its limited storage capacity. If Apple would double the machine’s HD or SSD capacity, then I’d most likely get one.

  5. I certainly appreciate the aesthetics of the MacBook Air, but for getting serious work done I’d still probably prefer a MacBook. It’d be nice if they could somehow marry the lightweight convenience of the Air with the raw power of the MacBook pro!

  6. I’ve been patiently waiting for a MB Air update. I want an ultra-portable (with keyboard) for school and travel with, my old 15″ MB Pro (pre-unibody redesign) is just too heavy to carry daily. and before this one, I used to have a 17″ PB G4 that was providing a good cardio workout just to put in the bag.
    I know I could get a 13″ MB Pro, a MB, or worse, a netbook. but damn my vanity, I want this sexy thin air! hopefully they make it more powerful and add more usb port. until then, at least i’m saving money by using what i’ve got.

  7. Mervyn

    At present, I don’t need to upgrade my MBA (Rev 2); the performance from the SSD makes this the fastest Mac I’ve ever owned. It is good for travelling—unbelievably good. And when at my desk, I set it on a lovely aluminium stand, dock it to a 24″ cinema thing, all my usb peripherals are there waiting for me via a 16 port usb hub (again, encased in aluminium) so immediately I’m wired up to ethernet, time capsule, fujitsu scanner, portable backup drive, mouse & keyboard, superdrive. The printer is wireless. Point is, it travels effortlessly and when I’m at the desk, it’s as functional as I need a traditional desktop to be.

    One issue, battery life is down to a little over 2 hours, so I ration my usage when I’m away from the adapter. Maybe a new battery is in order soon.

    Honestly, if they update it in a couple of years, I’ll happily join the queue.

  8. I often completely fail to understand why it costs so much more to remove a DVD drive, all the usb and expansion ports, the faster video, and use a smaller screen, the slowest CPU of any current Mac, and use less aluminium than a macbook?
    Although the cheaper option than the macbook and iPad combo is a Mac mini and iPad combo. Setup back-to-my-mac, or even simply allow VNC in, and you can have full OS X desktop from the iPad from anywhere you have net access. Then when at home, just use the Mini as a full fledged desktop. Actually, just find last years model as a reconditioned or buy second hand from someone upgrading and you get pretty much the same spec as the air anyway, plus you can take the RAM up to 8GB in the mini if you want to.

  9. Cool, I got here from another post about the MacBook Air, and decided to do a search, but found this on the front page. Great article!

    I’m currently a PC-nerd, but am peeking at the Mac-world, since I love my iPhone, and would consider learning to get used to OSX. Right now I’m using my Dell ATG D620, which has an amazing screen that works great in direct sunlight, and I don’t want to switch to a much less brighter screen.

    I’ve seen that the new MacBook’s have brighter screens than the old ones. I’d say the old MacBook (from 2006) is 75% in brightness of the new one. Are there any info on that somewhere? I’m curious if the MacBook Air has the same screen as those old ones?

    It would make me a little sad if I bought an MBA now and a new one with a brighter screen came out.

    I don’t see why everyone’s complaining about the MacBook Air and expandability. It looks perfect for me, but a 3G-modem hanging out wouldn’t be so sexy. So of course, an internal 3G would be amazing.

    I’d be thankful if anyone has any info on how the current latest MBA works in direct sunlight, since I love working in the sun… :)

    • Charles Moore

      Hi Niclas;

      Re: brighter displays on later model MacBooks. The have been several more subtle improvements, such as enhanced color gamut on the mid-2009 and later 13″ screen models, but the biggest difference in brightness came with the switch to LCD backlighting, which all iterations of the MacBook Air have had. LCD backlights came on the 13″ MacBook with the aluminum unibody model in October, 2008, and on the white plastic MacBook when it switched to unibody construction (sort of) last fall. Previous to those points the initial series plastic (white and black) MacBooks had CCFL backlights, as did the pre-unibody 15″ MacBook Pros prior to the June 2008 refresh (I think).

      Charles Moore

  10. I just got back from Europe where the Air fit snuggly inside my single carry on. After travelling with a 17″ MacBook, I decided that the profile was much better suited to my needs. I do serious work in terms of design, and recognize the limits of such a laptop, but power is necessary as is graphics performance.

    I feel that the best scenario would be to combine the Air with the regular MacBook into a light yet reasonably powerful device. As an owner of several very cool PowerBook 2400s, this niche is akin to a high-end NetBook. Make it docable.

    The coolest scenario would be to have a tablet mac that uses the iPads screen and deepens the case as necessary. Dock it with a keyboard and a larger monitor! Use it as a Wacom tablet!

  11. pobrian

    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.

  12. 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.

    • KsbjA

      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.

  13. Victor

    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.

  14. 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

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. Adam Jackson

    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.

    • 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)

      • Adam Jackson

        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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.