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Apple MacBook: Change is in the Air

Posted by comtech3 on July 7, 2008

from CNet

Posted by Brooke Crothers

The Apple MacBook Air has been a ground-breaking first-generation product (in my opinion). So, what will Apple do to top it when an update comes later this year? There are some telling indicators already. This is what I expect–and hope for–as a user.

First, a disclaimer. I am not an Apple fanatic. The MacBook Air is the first Apple product I have ever used. For well over a decade, I have been wedded to Wintel (Windows-Intel) laptops.

Before I dive into upcoming features, I should also mention that I have been extremely pleased with the Air and have used it almost every day for the last four months. But I would be remiss if I didn’t say it is overpriced, as all subnotebooks are.

• Overpriced but still an amazing design Apple made a very studied decision to exclude certain features. This makes the Air an Air. Apple could have included more ports and a little more of this and pinch of that–but then it would have been just another subnotebook.

So, I expect Apple to maintain the uniqueness of the Air for the next refresh.

But improvements are always welcome. And here are a few things that potential buyers can expect to see when a new Air is rolled out.

Apple has begun to give us hints of things to come. A $500 price cut for the solid state drive (SSD) model is one of the biggest indicators so far.

• A bigger, better solid state drive The next Air will offer drives that range in size to more than 100GB. A likely offering would be 128GB from vendors like STEC. (Samsung supplies the current SSD.) Intel and Micron Technology can’t be ruled out. Their drives will come in 80GB and 160GB capacities.

These SSDs will also likely use multiple-level cell (MLC) technology, in contrast with current drives that use single-level-cell (SLC). MLC allows higher-capacities but presents power and data reliability challenges, which suppliers claim to have overcome.

• Processors Invariably, all notebooks get upgraded with better processors and graphics. I think the Air’s current performance is superb for a subnotebook. I have owned many subnotebooks over the years and anemic performance can render them practically unusable as an everyday machine. But I haven’t had this problem with the Air (see note at bottom).

Intel’s upcoming 45-nanometer “Montevina” (Centrino 2) low-power offerings should make this experience even better. Though an initial Montevina refresh is slated for July 14, low-power versions won’t appear until this fall. Intel refers to these as SFF (small form factor) processors. They will come in high-performance, low-voltage, and ultra-low-voltage variants.

SFF Montevina processors will range from 25-watt (2.4GHz) to 17-watt (1.86GHz) to 10-watt (1.2GHz). The current Intel processor used in the Air is rated at 20 watts at 1.8GHz.

Whether Apple chooses one of these or opts for something not currently on the Intel roadmap of course remains to be seen.

• Graphics Graphics will get upgraded. Montevina will come with Intel’s GMA X4500 graphics, which Intel has said repeatedly will be three times faster than current X3100 integrated graphics.

• Battery Insufficient battery life is a problem that plagues all subnotebooks. It has often been suggested that Apple include a removable battery (for easy replacement), but that could compromise the ultraslim design. Having said that, I have been pleased with the battery life compared with other notebooks I have owned.

Hazarding a guess at other features such as upgraded hard disk drives, better screens, and external extras like a docking station is too speculative (and the latter would also compromise the design), so I’ll refrain from making any predictions.

But the Air shouldn’t change too much. With a simple performance upgrade, it would be an even more remarkable computer.

(Note: No, the Air is not as fast as a 14-inch Hewlett-Packard 6910P, for example, but no PC maker can squeeze that kind of performance into a Air-like form factor.)


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