Rumor: 11.6-inch MacBook Air This Year

According to the Taipei newspaper/rumormonger DigiTimes, Quanta Computer “has reportedly landed orders for 11.6-inch MacBooks from Apple. Shipments of 11.6-inch MacBooks are expected to top 400,000-500,000 units in 2010.”

I want to believe, too, but the facts get in the way.

First, there’s the source: Digitimes has a wildly uneven track record regarding Apple (s aapl) rumors. Some of the worst predictions include Apple laptops running everything from the PPC G5 to AMD CPUs, though regarding the MacBook Air, the record is better.

In December 2007, DigiTimes reported on a deal for 90,000 13.3-inch backlit-LED displays for an “upcoming laptop,” which turned out to be the MacBook Air. A month later, DigiTimes was the first to report that Quanta had been contracted to build the MacBook Air. While not a big surprise, as Quanta had built other MacBook models, it was still an accurate report.

More recently, a senior analyst at DigiTimes Research first predicted an 11.6″ MacBook Air running an Intel (s intc) Core CPU for the second half of this year, though it should be noted the same analyst also predicted a 3-megapixel camera in the latest iPod touch. Nonetheless, a decent track record on the MacBook Air, plus a second rumor on the 11.6-inch model Air should at least have us pondering whether it’s possible.

The biggest engineering problem would appear to be impact on the rest of the enclosure from reducing the diagonal of the display by 1.7 inches. As the image of a MacBook Air logic board next to a pencil illustrates, there’s not a lot  left to reduce. One place where the Air could possibly lose some volume would be around the bezel, at least on the sides. Between the edge of the lid and the actual screen of the MacBook Air, there’s just over half-an-inch on each side.

The logic board itself would definitely benefit from Intel’s new microprocessor architecture, Sandy Bridge, which puts the CPU and GPU on the same die. Since the new integrated CPU also supports OpenCL, which Apple is a big supporter of, it’s possible the discrete GPU could be eliminated. However, Sandy Bridge isn’t entering production until early next year, and these rumors call for both current Core-series CPUs and a ship date in 2010. Of course, Apple has received special assistance from Intel on the MacBook Air before: the original Core 2 Duo being a one-off fabrication that was 60 percent the size of the standard version.

However, there’s another manufacturing issue of concern. At a paltry five hours, the MacBook Air already has the worst battery life of any Mac portable. While it’s true a smaller display would consume less power, a smaller battery has less to consume. Beyond that, there’s the minor issue of Steve Jobs’ and Apple’s design philosophy. When the original 13.3″ MacBook Air was introduced, Jobs asserted that 11-inch displays were too much of a “compromise” in design. Perhaps the overwhelming success of the 9.7″ iPad has changed his mind.

While it seems highly unlikely that a new MacBook Air would be released this year with a first-generation Core CPU, an Apple event in January seems like the last, best hope for the MacBook Air.

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