In computer terms, it’s been a very long time since the MacBook Air had a major redesign. More than four years have elapsed since Apple recast what had originally been more a pricy boutique device than a serious laptop suitable for deployment as a general purpose personal computer and work platform.
That changed on October 20, 2010 when Apple took the MacBook Air mainstream as its entry-level laptop, unveiling second-generation with a lower price and a completely new form factor available in two sizes — both of which were available with only speedy solid state data storage drives and capable of filling the role of only PC for those who are just having one.
The Mark II Airs have received four CPU and integrated graphics processor upgrades over the years, transitioning through Intel Penryn, Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge, and Haswell family Core i5 and i7 processors, and Nvidia GeForce 320 M and Intel HD Graphics 3000, 4000, and 5000 series IGPUs. At this writing, the most recent speed bump was in April, 2014 — a modest 100 MHz uptick of their Haswell chips moving from 1.3GHz to a 1.4GHz Intel Core i5 processor. Battery life has also substantially improved, especially with the Haswell powered Airs, the current 13-inch model rated nominally at 12 hours runtime between charges, and the 11-incher at a still very respectable nine hours. Prices have also been cut, presumably to blunt competition from Windows Ultrabooks, and also thanks to amortization of design and development costs over a long production run.
Speaking as owner of a mid-2013 model Haswell MacBook Air, I can affirm that a major reason why the second generation MacBook Air has been one of Apple’s longest production life designs is that they got it right from the get-go, and I can say without hesitation that the Air is the best PC I’ve ever owned, and that’s as the latest in a string of really good ones.
One reason of course that Apple has moved the MacBook Air somewhat downmarket is to put more distance between it and the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display, which aside “from its higher- resolution panel is otherwise nearly identical to the 13-inch MacBook Air in specification. There’s been speculation that Apple would update the Air with a Retina display for a couple of years now, but so far it hasn’t happened, and I don’t believe that the current model Airs will ever get Retina panels because of that marketing distance issue.
However another rumor has been making the rounds throughout pretty much all of 2014 about a new MacBook Air sized midway between the current Air models with a 12-inch Retina panel, which I think is quite likely in that among other things it would be more clearly differentiated from the 13-inch Pro but still allow them to offer the high-res panel. It would also eventually replace a two-size MBA lineup with a single model, yielding obvious logistics benefits to Apple. That said, I’m inclined to think Apple will keep building the second-gen Airs for some time after the third generation is released – probably with another round of price reductions – as Apple’s entry-level and education laptop. That’s almost certainly as far as Apple will go with the next round of MacBook Air upgrades, and it should be provisionally far enough to secure Apple’s hold on the upper end of the thin and light laptop category. Indeed, the latest scuttlebutt in the East Asian IT media is that mass production of the new 12-incher is poised to commence next month, and that it will pack the latest “Broadwell” family Intel Core silicon.
A 12-inch Retina display should be quite satisfactory for most users, and for those who want more, the 13 and 15-inch Pro models will still be available, and the expected release of a 12-inch iPad will to some extent compensate for eventual termination of the 11-inch Air. Speaking of which, Appleinsider’s Neil Hughes cites an investor’s note this week issued by Cowen and Company Analyst Timothy Arcuri this week also reporting that his supply chain sources suggest Apple is on track to launch a 12.9-inch iPad (Pro?) model in the spring of 2015, and saying he expects a larger iPad to “reinvigorate” the tablet market, forecasting initial shipments of 15 million to 20 million units.
However, there’s a more radical avenue of laptop model differentiation Apple could pursue that’s also been a subject of persistent speculation. That would be to drop Intel Core, and switch to Apple’s in-house A-Series ARM systems-on-chip.
That would require a lot more than just grafting an A-chip onto the new MacBook’s logic board. OS X or perhaps a merged “iOS X” would have to be ported to run A-series hardware, and to support a Mac laptop adequately, an A-chip would have to be a fair bit more powerful, especially in graphics power, than the current high water mark A8X SoC’s three-core 1.5GHz CPU with quad-core GPU SoC and 2 GB of RAM found In the new iPad Air.
A Mac with A-Series chippery would need OS support for more advanced 3D effects, a real Finder providing a user-accessible file directory, real multitasking with support for multiple open windows, and mouse, print, and other drivers, all stuff that production oriented iPad users like me want to see on the iOS anyway, and which we may see on the tablet well before any Mac switchover to ARM silicon.
With the push on to promote Apple portable devices to the enterprise community, as a serious and credible. business/productivity platform, the iOS’s lack of a Finder, no mouse driver, and its inability to multitask or display multiple open windows simultaneously now require more urgent address, and anticipated introduction of a 12-inch iPad Pro in the first half of 2015 could prove to be a tipping point.
While it’s all speculative at this point, the next six months could turn out to be a particularly interesting interval in product evolution for Apple watchers.
And a Merry Christmas to all!