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Smaller MacBook Air Would Reassure Us of Apple’s Commitment to Laptops

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Rumor mills churned after Digitimes’ Yen-Shyang Hwang and Joseph Tsai reported last week that Apple (s aapl) is readying to launch a new generation MacBook Air. This as-yet vaporous machine will allegedly sport an even more svelte form factor facilitated by an 11.6-inch display and an Intel Core i-series ultra-low voltage processor as marquee features, for release sometime in the second half of 2010.


Hwang and Tsai cite Digitimes Research senior analyst Mingchi Kuo referencing discussions with upstream component makers, suggesting that a 11.6-inch MacBook Air will feature an even slimmer and lighter design than the previous-generation models. Technologies used for the “design and concept” are expected to be broadly used in the company’s other product lines to boost its competitiveness. That phraseology implies something more than a form factor restyling and/or new feature additions, and there is speculation that Apple may be cooking up something like a hybrid machine retaining a basic clamshell laptop form factor, but with a detachable iPad-esque display panel. If that were the case, it begs the question of whether the new-generation Air would run OS X with some iOS touchscreen technology grafted in, or (very long shot I think) the iOS itself.

[inline-ad align=”right”]Either way, Kuo expects shipment volumes of the new 11.6-inch MacBook to reach 400,000 units in 2010, which, depending on how late in the year it hits the channels, could be respectable enough.

It seems logical that Apple could have decided that marketing three different 13″ laptops (the others being the white MacBook and the 13″ MacBook Pro) amounts to confusing overlap, and that a downsize would help differentiate the Air from its fuller-featured, more powerful, but thicker and heavier, siblings. However they would presumably want to avoid appearing to embrace the netbook concept, which senior Apple spokespersons like Steve Jobs and Tim Cook have famously scorned and dismissed, and which Apple is successfully challenging with the hot-selling iPad.

If the Digitimes rumor proves accurate, it would mark the MacBook Air’s first major makeover since the sleek and diminutive machine was unveiled in January 2008. Although the Air has received a couple of upgrades and refreshes, it really hasn’t changed a whole lot in 2 1/2 years.

Core i3 Power

Digitimes’ projection that the downsized MacBook Air will sport an Intel Core i-series CULV, if accurate, would make it the first Apple laptop to employ Core i3 technology, which on spec seems ideally suited to deployment in this sort of computer, but raises the question of what sort of graphics support it will have — a point not addressed in the Digitimes report. It’s notable that Apple chose to stick with Core 2 Duo CPUs for the 13-inch MacBook and MacBook Pro so it could use NVIDIA’s new, faster 320M integrated GPU. But with an ultraportable machine like the MacBook Air, raw graphics performance isn’t as high a priority. Few users will be inclined to do high-end graphics, video editing, or serious gaming on an Air, and Intel’s in-house HD Graphics GPU would likely prove adequate for most users.

At What Price?

This is obviously all highly speculative at this point. One of the biggest imponderables remains price. The current MacBook Air at $1,499 can be most charitably described as something less than a bargain. For example, you can buy a white, 2.4 GHz MacBook and a base model iPad both for the same money as one base MacBook Air. The operative question: How contented is Apple for the Air to remain the low-volume boutique piece for well-heeled elites it has been up to now, or does it want to address a larger market, taking lower margins but deriving potentially greater overall profit from higher volumes?

I can fantasize about an 11.6″ MacBook Air slotted in price somewhere between the high-end iPad and the 13″ MacBook Pro — logically the psychologically significant $999 of the white MacBook (or less). However, I’m doubtful that Apple will discount the entry-level MacBook Air threshold by 50 percent.

As for an introduction date, we’re almost past the cutoff point for the fall computer-buying spike already, but students have never been the Air’s market focus anyway. More likely Apple would go with mid-fall to catch the Christmas sales wave. That is, provided a new MacBook Air really is coming this year. If so, it’ll be the most exciting and reassuring development in Mac laptops since the aluminum unibodies in October 2008.

15 Responses to “Smaller MacBook Air Would Reassure Us of Apple’s Commitment to Laptops”

  1. What would be a killer addition to the MacAir would be 3G … Apple has already shoehorned the radio connection into the iPad … what would it take to add it to the MacAir also?

  2. If Apple can currently sell the plain-jane 13″ MacBook (with a Core 2 Duo CPU) for $999 why could they sell a 11.6″ MacBook Air with no DVD-RW and a far less costly CPU for well under $999 without eating into their current profit margin?

  3. I would like to see Macbook Air morph into iPad Pro:

    * 11.6″ screen
    * i3 processor
    * OS X + iOS evolution (full OS with touch addded)
    * Single and dual SSD configs
    * Pad only with full keyboard + mouse support via Bluetooth (no clamshell)
    * I/O options: wifi, 4G, ethernet, mini displayport, USB3, eSata, maybe FW or emerging standards?
    * OS Server + Apple Remote Desktop option

    Such a device could function as a laptop or touch control surface; replace a mini, media server or AppleTV, etc.

  4. Hamranhansenhansen

    The idea that Apple is not committed to notebooks or to Mac OS is crazy. Something like 9 out of 10 high-end laptops that are sold are Macs. I have an iPad and love it, but it doesn’t run Logic Pro or Final Cut Pro, it doesn’t run Apache or BBEdit, it doesn’t run Photoshop and AppleScript, it doesn’t run Xcode, which is used not only to create all iOS apps, but also iOS itself. What are we going to use? Windows? Apple does not deploy Windows internally, and neither does Google, or Genentech, and many others. The Mac will get touch, but there will always need to be a pro system and consumer system because iOS has no programming and that is a feature. You can’t get to the Unix core, and that is a feature. The core of Mac OS and iOS is already the same OS X, there’s no reason to kill either of the interfaces or programming interfaces. Same as there is no reason to kill either Final Cut Pro or iMovie, which are both video editors. It makes sense for iMovie to move to iOS, but not for Final Cut Pro to move there.

    Even the idea that iPad replaces MacBook Air is crazy. MacBook Air is not a netbook, it’s a full-size notebook in the smallest possible size. Netbooks have cramped keyboards and a single-core Atom, while MacBook Air has a full-size keyboard and dual-core Core 2 Duo. I carry an iPad and a MacBook Air everywhere, and together they weigh less than a typical notebook, and fit into a case that looks like it should not hold even one computer, let alone two.

    I’m a little skeptical of a 12-inch MacBook Air. I found the 12-inch PowerBook cramped and it didn’t fit on my lap well because it couldn’t reach the middle of both legs. But the 13-inch MacBook Air does not feel cramped at all. The low thickness and low weight are positives with no negatives. But you certainly never know what Apple may do. I would be happy to see the same form factor just with more memory, battery life, and possibly even lower price. It’s a keyboard with a computer built-in, and a very capable workstation. With the displays, I would like to see Retina displays come in across the line with touch and Mac OS 11 in a year or two.

  5. IcyFog

    I’m curious to see how Apple handles the MBA. For myself I would’ve been more inclined to buy one had it a smaller screen, even if it was priced slightly above the 13-inch MBP.

    Also, the first paragraph, second sentence under “At What Price?” is jacked up is it not?
    “For example, you can buy a white, 2.4 GHz MacBook and a base model iPad for exactly the same money as one base MacBook Air both for the same money as one base MacBook Air.”

  6. So the author believes if Apple does not produce a smaller Macbook Air, they will not be committed to laptops? Sorry to ask, but what planet does the author come from?

  7. I still wish they would make a netbook. Was in the Apple Store just a few hours ago and after seeing the iPad my mom still went “I wish they would make one like this (pointing at the white MacBook) only smaller.” A 10 inch screen would probably be perfect.

  8. pobrian

    The smaller form factor is a negative. A small keyboard and screen negate the two things that I like best about my MBA. This is a great machine for writing as is.

  9. My girlfriend has wanted a Macbook Air forever, but it’s a bit too pricey for our taste. I use an old, 2006 Macbook when I need to and Nicole typically uses her iPad when she goes to class instead of her old laptop. If the price isn’t too hard to swallow, I’d definitely consider picking one of these up!

  10. Sadly, I fear that this rumor may never materialize, despite the undoubted demand amongst Apple users, including myself. I do hope I’m wrong though.

    With the original Air, Apple were quick to emphasize the full size screen and keyboard as setting it apart from the netbook world. A smaller Air competes directly with the iPad, and would simply take consumers away from the iOS ecosystem – certainly against Apple’s financial interests and future.

    Besides, the original Air is light enough – I think most users would actually prefer a larger screen and more battery life.