An 11.6-inch MacBook Air? Sounds like a netbook

If the latest rumor is true, Apple may be entering the netbook market it once held in disdain.

The MacBook Air, despite its ultra-thin, eye-grabbing design, has never been one of Apple's top draws. Too pricey for mainstream buyers--even after the Apple lowered the introductory price from US$1800 to $1500--the oh-so-stylish portable has become the anorexic black sheep of the MacBook family. Like Dell's copycat Adamo, the Air is a showy business notebook best suited for status-seeking corporate execs.

But maybe there's hope for the MacBook Air. If today's rumor from the Taiwanese tech news site DigiTimes is true, Apple soon will launch a new Air model with an 11.6-inch display and an Intel Core i-series low voltage CPU.

If the new MacBook Air does feature an 11.6-inch display--significantly smaller that the current model's 13.3-inch screen--would that mean that Cupertino has changed its stance on netbooks? Apple management in the past hasn't been shy about expressing its disdain for Windows-based mini-notebooks, particularly models in the sub-$500 price range.

The new model will also be slimmer and lighter than today's amazingly thin MacBook Air, according to Digitimes Research senior analyst Mingchi Kuo.

(Kuo also says the next iPod touch will have a 3-megapixel camera and, like the iPhone 4, will feature Apple's new A4 processor. A U.K.-based rumor from last week said the iPod touch would add a 5-megapixel camera and FaceTime video chat.)

In October 2008, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said his company wouldn't "know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk, and our DNA will not let us ship that." And in January 2009, Apple COO Tim Cook restated Jobs' anti-netbook mantra during an earnings conference call.

I'm not suggesting that the new MacBook Air will cost $500. In fact, it'll almost certainly be north of $1000. And whatever its specs, I suspect it'll remain a high-end business laptop designed for an upscale, niche market.

But would a smaller display also mean an ergonomically-challenged laptop? Let's hope not. In my experiences with Windows-based netbooks, the tiny screens and hard-to-use keyboards get very irritating after an hour or so. Business travelers may appreciate a mini-notebook's light carrying weight, but usability is often poor.

If Apple launches a high-end netbook, the keyboard, display, and processor would be key areas of concern. The keyboard would need to be relatively spacious for a smaller notebook; a high-resolution screen (perhaps similar to the iPhone 4's excellent retina display) would be essential; and the low-voltage CPU would hopefully resolve the heat issues that have plagued some current MacBook Air users.

Today's MacBook Air is a business notebook that business users don't want. Would a more netbook-like design boost its popularity?

Contact Jeff Bertolucci via Twitter http://twitter.com/jbertolucci) or at jbertolucci.blogspot.com.

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Jeff Bertolucci

PC World (US online)
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