Strong demand, spot shortages for new MacBook Air, says analyst

Dismisses talk of a 15-in. Air; "defeats the purpose" of the small, lightweight form factor

Spot shortages of the MacBook Air show that demand for Apple's recently-revamped notebook is off to a strong start, a Wall Street analyst said today.

"Certain models at some Apple stores are at times in short supply," said Brian White of Ticonderoga Securities. "In some cases, it's the high-end 11-inch [that's out of stock], while in others it's the low-end 13-inch. I don't think [the shortages] are broad-based, but demand is very, very strong."

White based his conclusion on spot checks of Apple retail stores.

Apple's online store, however, has indicated no shortages of MacBook Airs: Since the line's refresh on July 20, all models have shown a ship time within 24 hours of ordering.

White attributed the strong demand for the MacBook Air to the boost Apple gave to the machine's performance. Apple increased the RAM on three of the four Air models from 2GB to 4GB, and exchanged the older Intel Core 2 Duo processors for faster CPUs based on that company's Sandy Bridge architecture.

The new MacBook Airs are priced the same as previous models -- the line still starts at $999 and tops out at $1,599 -- and the notebooks feature few external design changes from Apple's October 2010 overhaul.

"The Air used to mean giving up a lot to get a thin and light notebook," noted White. "But this time [customers] are getting a high-performance system."

Benchmark tests confirm White's assertion.

Last week, Macworld, a Computerworld sister publication also owned by IDG, said that the new $999 11-in. MacBook Air is " more than twice as fast at many processing tasks" as the same October 2010 model.

Macworld's tests also showed that the new 13-in. MacBook Airs are "stiff competition for the entry-level, $1,199 13-inch 2.3GHz Core i5 MacBook Pro," attributing some of the Airs' better results to the flash-based drive in the lightweight laptop.

White conceded that he has no idea exactly how well the MacBook Air is selling, pointing out that Apple doesn't break out its two notebook lines -- Air and Pro -- in its quarterly sales figures.

"[But] we would not be surprised if the MacBook Air is the best-selling mac product at many Apple stores," White said in a research note he sent to clients today. "The product has been and remains a very important driver of overall Mac growth."

White does have a point about Mac growth. Apple sold 2.8 million notebooks in the quarter that ended June 30, an increase of 13% from the same period in 2010. Overall, Mac sales were up 14%, significantly greater than the computer industry overall, which grew between 2.3% and 2.6% according to Gartner and IDC.

But while a rival analyst agreed with White's second statement, he disputed the first.

"It's a sizable percentage of sales, but not the majority [of notebook sales for Apple] by any means," said Stephen Baker of the NPD Group, referring to Air sales before the July 20 refresh.

Baker cited Apple's ASP, or average sales price, as proof: After the October 2010 introduction of the redesigned MacBook Air, Apple's notebook ASP actually went up, even though the $999 model was one of only two company laptops at that price.

White also rejected rumors that Apple will introduce a 15-in. MacBook Air anytime soon.

"People prefer the smaller, lighter Air because of its convenient size for travel," said White, responding to questions about the speculation of a larger MacBook Air . "A 15-inch Air defeats that purpose."

In fact, White said his checks have indicated a slight edge to the smaller 11-in. MacBook Air in sales.

"There's still a place for the MacBook Pro," he continued, when asked whether Apple will condense its laptop lines from two to just one. "The storage of an Air can fill up pretty quickly."

Unlike the MacBook Pro, which relies on a traditional platter-based hard drive, the Air uses a solid-state drive (SSD) that has no moving parts. But the Air's onboard storage space tops out at 256GB in a standard configuration, compared to a 13-in. MacBook Pro's standard 500GB hard drive or the 750GB drive included in the top-end 15-in. Pro.

"The Air is another big hit for Apple," said White. "It keeps the momentum going in the portfolio, keeps the buzz going" as Apple heads toward the third quarter, when White and most other analysts expect the company to launch the next-generation iPhone.

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

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