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MacBook Air Loses Hard Drive and Debuts at $999

Apple’s smallest laptop model, the MacBook Air, has long been due for an update, and as the “one more thing” part of last week’s media event, the new models didn’t disappoint. That’s right, “models,” plural, since the MacBook Air now comes in two sizes: one with the traditional 13.3-inch screen, and an even smaller and lighter unit with an 11.6-inch screen. (Jeff Carlson was on site for Apple’s event—he edited this article via in-flight Wi-Fi on a new 11-inch MacBook Air while he flew back from California—and he’ll have more hands-on details soon.)

The 13-inch MacBook Air sports an aluminum unibody construction that’s incredibly thin, measuring just 0.68 inches (1.72 cm) at the thickest side by the screen hinge, and tapering to 0.11 inches (0.28 cm). It’s also lighter, dropping 0.1 pound (45 g) to 2.9 pounds (1.31 kg). It’s powered by a 1.86 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 6 MB of on-chip shared L2 cache and a 1066 MHz frontside bus; a 2.13 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with the same cache is available as an option. The resolution of its 13.3-inch screen is 1440 by 900 pixels. Apple claims 7 hours of “wireless productivity” battery life and up to 30 days of standby time, as if you’d let your shiny new Mac sit unused that long.

The 11-inch MacBook Air drops to 2.3 pounds (1.06 kg), and also loses a full 1 inch of width and 1.38 inches of depth to clock in at 11.8 inches (29.95 cm) wide and 7.56 inches (19.2 cm) deep. On the processor side, you can get either a 1.4 GHz or 1.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 3 MB of L2 cache and an 800 MHz frontside bus. Its 11.6-inch screen, while obviously small, has an amazing resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels. The 11-inch model’s smaller battery claims a still-impressive 5 hours of wireless productivity life and the same 30 days of standby time.

All four models offer only solid-state storage for persistent memory—there’s no hard drive, nor even space for one! The 11-inch model comes in 64 GB and 128 GB varieties, while the 13-inch Air is available in 128 GB and 256 GB versions. This flash memory isn’t packaged as a swap-in hard drive replacement, like most solid-state drives (SSDs), where the shape and package looks like a standard laptop drive. Rather, the memory is arrayed on cards that are permanently installed. You can’t upgrade it—although you never know if a third party will figure out a solution later. (The folks at iFixit disassembled a MacBook Air and found that there is an SSD controller inside, however, which makes a computer think that the memory it’s talking to is a hard drive.)

In both sizes, 2 GB of RAM is standard, but you can bump that to 4 GB for $100 at the time you order; note that you cannot install RAM after purchase. Other standard features include the FaceTime video camera, two USB 2.0 ports (which are flush with the edges, no small flip-down door as found in the previous generations), a Mini DisplayPort, headphone jack, built-in microphone, stereo speakers, and a MagSafe adapter. Both also have Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics adapters with 256 MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with main memory. On the networking side, both sport 802.11n AirPort Extreme wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR; the Apple USB Ethernet adapter is sold separately. The 13-inch model also has room for an SD card slot. In a particularly nice feature, Apple now ships a USB Software Reinstall Drive to help if and when you need to reinstall Mac OS X. That’s handier, more compact, and more durable than a DVD—and no second computer is required for the reinstallation.

Pricing is impressive, and leads one to wonder how long the white polycarbonate MacBook will remain in the lineup. The 11-inch MacBook Air with a 1.4 GHz CPU, 64 GB of storage, and 2 GB of RAM checks in at $999. Increasing the storage to 128 GB bumps the price to $1,199. Switching to a 1.6 GHz CPU adds $100, as does increasing the RAM to 4 GB.

The 13-inch model starts at $1,299 for a 1.86 GHz CPU, 128 GB of storage, and 2 GB of RAM. For $1,599, you can increase the storage to 256 GB, and once again, increasing the CPU speed to 2.13 GHz adds $100 to the price, as does going to 4 GB of RAM. (And you really, really want at least 4 GB of RAM, especially in a machine you can’t upgrade. Trust us on this.)


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Comments about MacBook Air Loses Hard Drive and Debuts at $999
(Comments are closed.)

Vu Tien Khang  2010-10-25 14:10
Would the next MacOS Lion be delivered on an USB stick too? Without a DVD drive how will I be able to upgrade a MBA I'd buy now to MacOS Lion next year? Maybe I should wait and buy only next year a MBA?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-10-29 04:30
You can use CD/DVD sharing to access the Mac OS X installer disc on a Mac that does have an optical drive, just as with the previous generation MacBook Air.
Turner Bain  2010-10-25 17:04
Will the DVD drive that I bought that works only with Air work with this generation?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-10-29 04:28
Yes, the MacBook Air SuperDrive from Apple is compatible with all models (old and new) of the MacBook Air.
Hans Erik  2010-10-28 12:36
Will the 'harddrive' show performance degration once it gets filled up? Flash memory that contains 'trashed' files has to be erased in one pass and then written in a second pass, which is always slower than when the memory cells are 'clean'.
So when you delete a file, will OSX erase the information or merely remove the directory entry?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-10-29 04:25
This is a good question, and not one I really know the answer to. There's a feature of SSDs called TRIM, which deals with this problem, but it's not currently supported by Mac OS X.
MacBook Air is an iPad replacement for those who don't like all that exposed glass, and have money to burn. It can't seriously replace the MacBook since it has no optical drive and needs another Mac for missing functions, just like the iPad. The least Apple could have done is put an SD card slot. I wouldn't buy either one. They're too limited. For those who do mostly surfing, email, basic games, video, fine. MacBook Air is an overpriced, under powered, accessory that's has fewer features than a netbook the same size for half the price. Skinny and pretty isn't enough. Big disappointment.