Will the MacBook Air Survive?

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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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