By Jason Snell
January 8, 2015 1:24 PM PT
The 12” MacBook Air: Back to basics?
[Editor’s note, March 11, 2015: Surprise! It’s the 12-inch MacBook!]
When I first read Mark Gurman’s report about a forthcoming 12-inch MacBook Air, I considered it as the owner of an 11-inch MacBook Air. From that perspective, the rumored device’s slim feature set—most notably a single USB-C port—seems like a strange step back. I had a visceral reaction: I don’t want to replace my MacBook Air with that thing.
But that response makes the (very human) mistake of placing myself at the center of Apple’s MacBook Air strategy, and misses the fact that over the past few years the MacBook Pro has been creeping ever closer to the MacBook Air in terms of features and price. The Retina MacBook Pro line is thinner and lighter than the previous MacBook Pro line, and “thinner and lighter” is really the MacBook Air’s raison d’être1. The 13-inch MacBook Air and MacBook Pro aren’t that different—$300 gets you an extra half a pound, a Retina display, and a processor that’s an awful lot faster.
Meanwhile, consider the trajectory of the MacBook Air. When it was released in 2008, it was a crazy design. It threw away a huge number of what we considered to be standard laptop features in order to be insanely thin and light. In my review of the original Air for Macworld, I used the word “compromise” ten times.
No optical drive. An incredibly slow processor, compared to all other Macs2. A teeny-tiny 80GB hard drive (or an even tinier 64GB SSD for $999 more!). A single USB port. And, to top it all off, a price that started at $1799.
These days the base 11-inch MacBook Air is the cheapest laptop in Apple’s line, but it’s powered by a perfectly decent Core i5 processor. It’s got two USB ports plus a Thunderbolt port. The onboard storage is fine, albeit on the cozy side.
The MacBook Air is now a comfortable, mainstream product that even power users can adopt as their primary system. (Until I bought my iMac, it was my primary machine at home and work for a couple of years.) That’s great, but it’s also a sign that feature creep has been a-creepin’.
Does Apple feel the current MacBook Airs are truly representative of the MacBook Air name? Has the MacBook Pro’s role as the go-to laptop for portable professionals been usurped by the Air?
If Gurman’s reports are accurate, this new model pulls the MacBook Air line away from the MacBook Pro. In fact, it returns the MacBook Air to its roots—as a product full of choices that we consider crazy at first, because they’re out of step with conventional computer design, but that will appeal to a target audience that doesn’t actually care about those de rigueur features.
In other words, would Apple release a laptop with no dedicated power cable, ditch a bunch of traditional ports, and funnel every bit of power and wired connectivity through a connector that it has never before used, all in the name of creating a thinner and lighter laptop? Are you kidding? Of course it would.
In terms of the details of Gurman’s report, I like that this future MacBook Air has a larger screen than the 11-inch model—but is actually narrower than the current 11-inch MacBook Air. Take a good look at a MacBook Air sometime, and you’ll see a whole lot of extra space on the sides of the keyboard and quite a large bezel around the display. In the renderings 9to5Mac commissioned based on Gurman’s information, the keyboard goes almost edge to edge, in the style of the 12-inch PowerBook G43.
The suggestion that the new MacBook Air might have a single USB-C connector seems to be the place where people tend to roll their eyes. As someone who used that original MacBook Air for a year, yeah, it was quite inconvenient when I wanted to plug more than one USB device into it. (I invested in a powered desktop hub and a smaller one for travel.)
But just because it will be inconvenient for some users doesn’t mean that Apple won’t do it. In fact, you can almost hear the stage patter when the feature is unveiled: Most connectivity is wireless these days, we’ve made a great $49 accessory that adds all the ports you’d want, and the included power adapter—the most innovative power adapter ever—features a breakaway magnetic coupler and is itself a USB and Thunderbolt hub. I’m making the details up, but you’ve got to think there would be more to the story than, “Yeah, your power plug is also your USB plug, get used to it.”
Gurman’s report also mentions that this is a fanless design. In an interesting piece of tech speculation at The Verge, Tom Warren cites this as a reason why Apple might use Intel’s Core M processor, which runs cooler and uses less power than the i5 and i7 chips Apple uses in current MacBook Air models. If the Core M powered the MacBook Air, that would open up a gap in speed between the Air and the MacBook Pro models. That’s lousy for people who want their super light laptop to be as powerful as possible, but if being a MacBook Air is about being thin and light and everything else will be sacrificed to serve that goal, it makes sense.
There are numerous other intriguing possibilities suggested by Gurman’s report. A redesigned keyboard would keep its full-sized keycaps (hooray!) but cram them all closer together. As a really fast typist, I’m always worried that keyboard changes are going to slow me down, but until this keyboard comes into existence and I can try it, I guess I’ll reserve judgment. The 9to5Mac renderings show the power key moved to the top left corner, which seems unfortunate since it’s lived in the top right for so long. There’s a suggestion that the MacBook Air might pick up a color scheme from iOS and offer laptops in both silver and “Space Gray,” and as a fan of the old black MacBook I endorse this plan, even if Space Gray is not remotely black.
Finally, there’s the question of price. Warren’s piece at The Verge features the subhead, “Is Apple finally making a cheaper laptop?”4. Apple’s laptops have been creeping down in price over the years—seriously, you can buy a new MacBook Air for $899!—and Apple has never, ever wanted to be the low-price leader in any category. I just can’t look at Gurman’s report and come away thinking that Apple’s designed this thing to be cheap.
I suppose this new model could be cheaper than any current Apple laptop, but I have a hard time seeing it. Here’s my price speculation: Maybe the existing MacBook Airs will continue to kick around at their $899 and $999 starting points (or even drop to $799 and $899)5 and that this model will arrive with a price tag that’s above them, because of the Retina display. And yes, people will scream about how there are faster laptops available at a lower price—just as they did when the original MacBook Air came out. The old-school MacBook Air models will be faster, but they won’t be Retina and they won’t be as thin and light and crazy-new.
If Gurman’s story proves accurate, the new MacBook Air will not be a laptop that’s for everyone. But that’s okay. By returning to its roots—being designed for a very specific set of traits at the cost of ones we take for granted—the MacBook Air might end up being more true to itself.
At some point, getting thinner and lighter becomes pointless. It’s worth arguing about if we’ve reached that point or not, but for the purposes of this exercise, let’s just accept that everyone at Apple thinks it’s necessary. ↩
The first MacBook Air’s processor was slow, but even worse, its cooling system just couldn’t stand up to heavy use. When the processor got too hot, one of its cores would shut down—making the system basically unusable. It was a great laptop to use in a meat locker, a bad one to use in the afternoon with a west-facing window. ↩
The 12-inch PowerBook G4 is one of my favorite Macs of all time, but then, I love small Mac laptops. The 11-inch MacBook Air has since eclipsed it, but I have a whole lot of fondness for that 12-incher, and the 9to5Mac renderings resemble that design. ↩
Warren’s actual thesis in the article is that this model could be “cheap enough to compete with low-end Windows laptops and Chromebooks with hopefully fewer compromises,” which is a much better way of putting it. Apple doesn’t compete with those systems by cheaping out, it does so by offering a better experience at a price that’s appropriately higher. ↩
This is the point where I note that the non-Retina 13-inch MacBook Pro is still for sale for $1099. ↩
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