Apple to refresh MacBook Air in June or July, says report

It's used WWDC to launch new notebooks before

Apple will refresh its popular MacBook Air line of ultra-thin notebooks in June or July, a Taiwanese publication said today, citing unnamed Asian supplier sources.

According to DigiTimes, the MacBook Airs will feature processors from Intel's Sandy Bridge architecture, and boast Thunderbolt connectivity, two moves Apple made in February when it launched new MacBook Pro models.

The current MacBook Air line relies on Intel's Core 2 Duo processors, making it one of the last two Apple systems to use that aged CPU: So far this year, Apple has transitioned both the MacBook Pro and iMac to the dual- and quad-core Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 processors with the Sandy Bridge architecture.

Apple's MacBook Air is expected to get new processors this summer.

Moving the MacBook Air to the same CPUs -- likely to a dual-core to match the entry-level 13-in. MacBook Pro -- would be a natural step for Apple, which typically rolls out processor upgrades in successive lines.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, expects Apple to refresh the MacBook Air soon.

"It's been a very successful product line since last year," said Gottheil, who referred to the October 2010 relaunch of the Air when Apple dropped prices, debuted a smaller 11-in. model and ditched traditional hard drives throughout the line.

Although the MacBook Air -- which starts at $999 -- doesn't seem to have lowered Apple's notebook average sales price (ASP), Gottheil saw the ultra-thin as evidence that Apple means to push market share. "They're continuing to play with packing entry level products, like the MacBook Air, with attractive features without increasing prices," said Gottheil. "This is where Apple wants new Mac buyers to enter."

Analysts have attributed some of Apple's success in maintaining high sales growth rates to a "halo" effect from its surging smartphone and tablet businesses. Gottheil agreed.

"Apple very much wants to grow their share of the PC business," said Gottheil. "In some cases, they're after more market share than profit."

DigiTimes also said its sources had confirmed that the upcoming MacBook Airs would feature the new I/O (input/output) Thunderbolt technology developed by Intel, and aggressively marketed by Apple.

Both the MacBook Pro and iMac refreshes of 2011 have added one or more Thunderbolt ports to the machines.

While DigiTimes did not specify a launch window for the MacBook Air refresh, it could come as early as the first week of June if Apple hews to previous practice.

In June 2009, Apple used its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) to unveil new MacBook Pro machines. At that time, Apple shifted the unibody aluminum MacBooks into the MacBook Pro line, leaving just the white Polycarbonate MacBook to soldier on under the old moniker.

This year's WWDC runs June 6-10. The keynote, which is the only event open to reporters, usually kicks off the conference, and is the platform where Apple makes public announcements.

Further down the road, Gottheil is intrigued with the idea that the MacBook Air will become a hybrid that combines more elements of the iPad -- including more emphasis on the tablet's iOS, and perhaps touchscreen capabilities -- with a traditional notebook format.

"That will be an interesting transition," said Gottheil. "The MacBook Air is sort of the same size as the iPad, but some users want a [physical] keyboard at times."

As Gottheil pointed out, the Air is the Apple laptop most like the iPad: The smallest model of the former takes the tape at 11.8 inches by 7.6 inches, and weighs in 2.3 pounds, while the iPad 2 measures 9.5 inches by 7.3 inches, and tips the scale at 1.3 pounds.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has promised that the next version of Mac OS X, dubbed Lion, will include more iOS-like features, including a centralized screen called "Mission Control" that integrates several Mac OS interface elements.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)
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