A new MacBook Air? Playing the guessing game

Rumor has it that at Wednesday’s Mac-themed event in Cupertino, Apple may introduce a major revision to the MacBook Air, a product whose exterior has remained unchanged since it was introduced three years ago. The Air is near and dear to my heart—I have used one almost every single day of its existence—which may qualify me as its biggest booster and critic.

A couple years back, when all the pre-iPad rumors of Apple releasing a Netbook were raging, I hacked a PC Netbook to run OS X and tried to imagine what Apple would release if it chose to make its next tiny device a Mac rather than the more obvious choice of a larger iPhone-based tablet. That process gave me some insight, I believe, on Apple’s self-imposed limits when it comes to laptop design.

Sizing things up

Most small Netbooks have tiny, shrunken-down keyboards. The full-sized keyboard found on every Mac laptop simply won’t fit on a laptop smaller than about 11 inches wide. (For reference, the longest dimension of the iPad is 9.6 inches.) Those tiny keyboards are so cramped and uncomfortable, they are a serious hindrance on productivity. I can type almost as fast on my iPad’s software keyboard in landscape mode as I can on a Netbook keyboard. (And this from someone who can type 115 words per minute on a standard keyboard.)

Given that, I think the narrowest Mac laptop we’ll see (barring a wacky IBM-style butterfly design, which seems inelegant and un-Apple to me) will be as wide as the standard keyboard itself. Fans of small Apple laptops will remember this approach from the 12-inch PowerBook and iBook models. Unlike the current 13-inch MacBook and MacBook Air, in which the laptop body extends beyond the left and right edges of the keyboard, on those 12-inch models the edges of the keyboard were the edge of the world. Beyond there was no more computer.

The 12-inch PowerBook's size compared to a PC netbook.

However narrow it was, the 12-inch PowerBook was a pretty big device. Its 4:3 aspect-ratio screen extended its length, and the laptop components of the day required it to be pretty darned thick. I expect a putative next-generation Air to improve on both counts.

In terms of display, I’d guess a new Air would offer one with a more widescreen aspect ratio, such as 16:10, though since the iPad has a 4:3, 1024x768-pixel screen, it’s possible that Apple could go in that direction. But the more square the screen, the taller it has to be, and a squat screen could fit better. I do think the display will need to be of a fairly high resolution: it’s really hard to run most of today’s Mac apps on a 1024x768 monitor. (My server at home uses such a monitor, and scrolling in the various iTunes device tabs is pretty ugly.)

Keep in mind that in addition to the keyboard, any Mac laptop is presumably going to need a trackpad. That adds some more depth on top of the keyboard’s depth, which puts a fairly hard limit on the length of the laptop.

And for any laptop to be called a MacBook Air—assuming that the name is sticking, which is not a foregone conclusion—it’s got to be thin and light. If Apple reduces the length and width of the Air, it may not be able to maintain the current Air’s thickness. But I’d still expect any such device to thinner and lighter than any MacBook.

Getting warmer

As with any laptop that’s so small and light, any new Air will continue to run slower than larger, more full-featured Mac laptops. Even with a relatively slow processor, the current Air has suffered with heat-dissipation issues from day one. Though the second generation of the product featured a much better tuned system for dealing with heat, the fact is that even current Airs get severely poky in warm conditions. (Run a MacBook Air in a meat locker, however, and it’s fast.)

My hope is that any new small Mac laptop deals with heat better than the current Air does. But there’s a pretty tough game engineers have to play with speed, power consumption, and heat, and reducing speed gets you more battery life and less heat… Which brings us back to the fact that any tiny laptop is going to be pretty poky. People who want small laptops are willing to sacrifice speed for size, yet this concept seemed to surprise many early critics of the Air.

In terms of ports and storage, that’s a bit of a guessing game. The rumors that the new laptop uses a small integrated solid-state drive make a lot of sense to me; by standardizing on SSD and not using a classic internal laptop drive size, Apple could save a whole lot of interior space. Beyond that, my guess would be that Apple will put on as few ports as it can get away with. That probably means a single USB port—and as someone who has strung seven devices off a MacBook Air’s single USB port, here’s hoping that the faster USB 3 spec is part of the equation—a Mini DisplayPort, and a headphone jack.

The price is right

Which brings us, inevitably, to price. I have the distinct feeling that Apple has learned that pricing a small, light laptop way above the price of more full-featured laptops is not a recipe for success. I don’t see a new MacBook air rivaling the $999 price of the MacBook, but I would imagine it will be cheaper than the current $1,499 base-model Air. Put me down for $1,199 in the pool.

So, to sum up this exercise in making things up out of whole cloth: 11 inches wide, 8 inches deep, 16:9 display with 1366x768 resolution, 1.86GHz dual-core Intel processor, all for $1,199. But that’s just my wild guess. What’s yours?

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