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 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.

Hybrid?

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.

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