The 'Book Review

Stripped 13" Education MacBook Air, SSD in First Gen MacBook Air, 15" MacBook Air?, and More

This Week's PowerBook and iBook News

Compiled by Charles Moore and edited by Dan Knight - 2012.02.17

General Apple and Mac desktop news is covered in Mac News Review. iPad, iPod, iPhone, and Apple TV news is covered in iOS News Review. All prices are in US dollars unless otherwise noted.

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News & Opinion

Apple Releases Bare Bones $999 13" MacBook Air to Education Market

AppleInsider Staff report that Apple quickly slotted a less powerful variant of its 13.3" MacBook Air into the space left by last week's "end-of-life" discontinuation of the white polycarbonate 13" MacBook that had been selling to education customers for $899.

The new 13" MacBook Air model, offered to educational institutions buying in quantities of five or more, will sell for $999 per unit, will only be offered in Apple's education channel, and has pretty much the same internal specification as the 11.6" MacBook Air Apple sells to general consumers for $999, only with the bonus of a larger 13.3" display.

The 13.3" education model and entry-level 11.6" MacBook Air share a 1.6 GHz dual-core Core i5 Intel processor with Intel's HD Graphics 3000 chipset, 2 GB of RAM and a 64 GB solid-state drive (SSD).

9 to 5 Mac's Mark Gurman notes that the 11.6" MacBook Air will also be available in bulk to education institutions starting at $929, and that higher-spec Airs in both sizes will also be offered at commensurately higher prices, culminating with a 13.3" machine powered by a 1.7 GHz Core i CPU, 4 GB RAM, a 128 GB SSD, and AppleCare extended warranty protection at $1,312.

Gurman also reports that Apple is also offering educational institutions a MacBook Air mobile labs program that bundles ten or twenty 1.6 GHz 13.3" MacBook Airs with a mobile cart that incorporates an AirPort Extreme wireless hub. Ten-unit carts will sell for $11,399, while the twenty-unit model $21,599. AppleCare coverage can be added for $2,000 and $4,000 respectively.

For budget-minded "civilian" MacBook Air aspirants, Apple will sell you a refurbished Core 2 Duo Air starting at $699, or $849 for one with Sandy Bridge Core i silicon, supported by the same warranty and AppleCare eligibility as a new machine.

Upgrading a First Generation MacBook Air with SSD

Wired's Brad Moon says that following the success he had with upgrading his MacBook Pro's hard drive with a SSD (solid state drive), he decided to to try the same thing with his Early 2008 MacBook Air - a first generation model with a small capacity hard drive that uses a hard to find ZIF connector. He didn't have to look much further than OWC, the company that supplied the SSD for his earlier project.

Moon says taking apart the MacBook Air was a little more challenging than other models, but the real challenge was reinstalling the OS, and while it took the better part of the day, eventually the old MacBook Air was again operational. The project was deemed worth the effort, and the whole setup reminds Moon of a PowerBook 100 with Word 5.1 set up to run from a RAM disk.

SSD-only 15" MacBook Air Coming?

Hardmac's linathael says that the latest rumors swirling around anticipated new MacBook Pro models seem to indicate that at least for the 15" model, Apple may be fixing eliminate the SuperDrive and the hard drive, and rely on SSD for storage.

While such hardware would be lighter, thinner, and have a longer battery lifetime, linathael observes that if having a more powerful notebook is a key priority, it sounds a bit extreme to rely only on SSD modules for storage, noting that already, save for RAM modules and the hard drive, users can't really modify anything in current Apple notebooks, and it seems to be shaping up that in the future we may not even be able to open the case anymore, upgrade the RAM, or change out the drive for a larger one.

He further speculates that with Apple using a rather specific SSD module technology, currently only available from OWC besides Cupertino, it may be difficult-to-impossible to upgrade future Mac laptop hardware, suggesting that we might even be obliged to pay for RAM at the "Apple rate", meaning 3x to 7x higher cost than the equivalent memory upgrade from top quality third-party manufacturers.

linathael goes on to speculate, perhaps with wistful optimism, that there is still a possibility that Apple will release a MacBook Air with a 15" display while maintaining its current form factor notebook models with hard drive/SSD and optical drive support, noting that while there is evidently a market for 15" ultralight notebook with only limited storage, high performance, and long battery lifetime, that motif would not have to cover the entire lineup of forthcoming notebook models, and observing that having to downsize from the 750 GB or greater hard drive capacity to having only 256 GB on SSD would be a massive setback. But will Apple's response to that be reference to iCloud?

How About a 15" MacBook Air with a Pro Docking Station?

Hardmac's Lionel says his colleague linathael's report (above) of a rumor of a forthcoming MacBook Air-like MacBook Pro (MBP) has been generating a lot of reaction, most of it driven by the fear of seeing Apple moving to an entirely closed system.

Lionel speculates that there might be room in the new Pro laptops for a 2.5" hard drive in addition to the default SSD and observes that Thunderbolt facilitates high-speed access to other peripherals.

However, he notes that a light and powerful MacBook Pro with an "Air style" would particularly benefit from a docking station via Thunderbolt to get provide access numerous peripherals without the need for multiple additional ports on the laptop's enclosure. Essentially, he says, the notebook would only need a power port, ethernet, two USB 3, and one Thunderbolt port. Current MacBook Airs only support ethernet through an optional dongle and don't support USB 3 at all natively. (Your editor is not anticipating USB 3 support on the coming redesigned machines.)

Lionel also observes that the current MacBook Air uses an "Ultra Low Voltage" (ULV) version of Intel's mobile CPUs, so it's quite clear that Apple will have a hard time reaching the same performance level as the current MBP, meaning a likelihood of higher TDP and power consumption. Of course that issue is expected to be addressed to some degree by Intel's forthcoming Ivy Bridge silicon. Another point that remains unclear is whether a new, MacBook Air-like MBP will retain the current 15" and 17" Pro models' discrete GPU in addition to Intel integrated graphical chipset. A discrete GPU would require a dedicated cooling system too, and he suggests it will be a challenge to cool down the tandem CPU/GPU at once, especially if the Thunderbolt is used as the "universal" connection point.

Consequently, Lionel maintains that if Apple wants to move to a SuperDrive-free MBP, the computer's enclosure will be thinner, but most likely not as thin as the MacBook Air due to need to accommodate a cooling system. The possible alternative would be that the 15" MBP "Air style" will be essentially a MacBook Air with a 15" display, hosting the fastest CPU and the Intel graphical chipset, which would leave many current Apple Pro laptop users out of luck.

Apple Poised to Disrupt Notebook Space Yet Again

Charles Moore, in his latest 'Book Mystique column on says:

"The Windows laptop makers are just beginning to get their Ultrabook production ramped-up to take on the year-and-a-half old MacBook Air, but Apple is expected to disrupt the laptop computer market again this year with a complete top-to-bottom overhaul of its notebook Mac lineup.

"It's in the category of rumor yet, but it seems like a near-certainty that Apple will announce a 15" laptop in the MacBook Air thin wedge design motif sometime this year. The operative question is whether it will be called a MacBook Air, a MacBook Pro, or perhaps even something else. Recent scuttlebutt has it that Apple is fixing to do a major overhaul of its entire notebook lineup in 2012, presumably timed to coincide with availability of Intel's forthcoming Ivy Bridge Core i CPUs.

"Intel estimates that it Ivy Bridge will provide a 20 percent performance boost with comparable Sandy Bridge laptops. Ivy Bridge also provides a 30 percent boost in integrated graphics performance

"When Steve Jobs said that the MacBook Air was the future of laptops, he was right as usual. To the disgust of a vocal minority, it's only logical that Apple will take the same design steps with their MacBook Pro.

"It also seems likely that there will be some rationalization of the MacBook Pro with the hot-selling MacBook Air, and the 13" MacBook Pro seems a potential casualty. While both new 15" and 17" professional MacBooks rumored to be in the works, there's been nothing, at least that I have heard, about a redesigned Ivy Bridge 13" MacBook Pro. That could be because if the Pro models are to share the MacBook Air's styling and engineering, it might be deemed illogical to have very similar 13" MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros. On the other hand, AppleInsider's Kasper Jade thinks there could be room for a somewhat upgraded feature set version of the MacBook Air to be slotted in as a new 13" MacBook Pro."

Ultrabooks Are Just MacBook Air Clones and Unlikely to Succeed

Barrons' Tech Trader Daily columnist Tiernan Ray cites J.P. Morgan hardware analyst Mark Moskowitz hosting a conference call regarding ultrabook laptops summarizing his thoughts about the new crop of thin-and-light laptops that have been spun out of Intel's Ultrabook initiative and $300 million subsidy, touted as the future of mobile PCs.

Attentive Apple followers will recall that the late Steve Jobs declared the MacBook Air to the the future of notebook computing back in October 2010, a prophetic observation, as it turns out, what with the stellar success of the Air and acknowledgment that Ultrabooks amount to frank flattery of the MacBook Air as paradigmatic to the super-thin, super-light laptop category.

Ray reports that Moskowitz considers Ultrabooks to be little more than MacBook Air ripoffs - nothing new at all, just the Wintel crowd scrambling to catch up with Apple, contending that despite increasing vendor hype and media focus on Ultrabooks, he doesn't not expect the overall PC market's growth profile to manifest much incremental uplift as a result, and predicting that the PC crowd will be humbled again as they struggle to get prices to the right level while offering something distinctive to set respective vendors' offerings apart.

Moskowitz thinks the first generation of Ultrabooks, with base prices typically $899-1,299 are too expensive and doesn't anticipate their achieving the market traction that would be required to stem the tide of customer dollars flowing toward smartphones and tablets.

MacBook Airs, Ultrabooks, and Windows 8

WinSuperSite's Paul Thurrott says he recently purchased an Asus Zenbook, one of a handful of first-generation Ultrabooks currently in the market - and the one he thinks most closely resembles Apple's MacBook Air.

Thurrott allows that while he's very enthusiastic about the Ultrabook form factor overall, he's not sure he can recommend this particular rendition, at least not universally.

Windows-centric Thurrott concedes that the MacBook Air is a fine machine, but he maintains that it's not ideal as a Windows laptop, although it's beautiful to look at and, thanks to its thin profile and low weight, an ideal travel companion. If only it were better suited to running Windows. (The Verge's Joanna Stern disagrees - see below.)

Enter the Ultrabook, which Thurrott acknowledges is a bald-faced attempt to copy Apple's design for the MacBook Air and apply it to Windows PCs, an endeavor that's not yet been entirely successful. However, he notes that second generation Ultrabooks will ship throughout 2012 featuring more efficient third-generation Intel Core i-Series ("Ivy Bridge") processors anticipated to offer better performance, better battery life, and allow for even thinner and lighter form factors. That said, he observes, "most of these machines won't move very far beyond the basic look and feel of the MacBook Air."

However, Thurrott predicts that things will get a lot more interesting with third generation Ultrabooks, which he says will be hybrid devices whose "guts" will live behind the display rather than under the keyboard, meaning that they can be used as pure tablet devices, but with the ability to plug into a keyboard dock and become traditional clamshell laptops. He says these hybrid devices will ship with Windows 8 in late 2012, with true third generation Ultrabooks more closely resembling iPads with a clip-on keyboard base. He expects Windows 8 to unleash further Ultrabook design innovations and predicts that the next year is going to be an amazing one for portable computing.

Publisher's note: The MacBook Air has already entered its third generation thanks to the addition of Thunderbolt in Mid 2011, and Apple's iPad is expected to enter its third generation within months. By the time "third generation" tablet-cum-laptop ultrabooks finally ship, Apple should be another generation ahead of the game. dk

Does Putting Windows 7 on the MacBook Air Make It the Ultrabook to Rule Them All?

The Verge's Joanna Stern observes that the ultrabook phenomenon in Windows PC space is essentially Intel and the rest of the PC industry's reaction to Apple's MacBook Air, but while the sundry ultrabooks brought to market have all tried to mimic and beat the Air, none have managed to pull it off.

However, Stern observes that it really isn't an apples to apples comparison, because the Air doesn't run Windows 7 out of the box, and many who buy ultrabooks are presumably looking for a very thin and light Windows PC, not a Mac OS X laptop. She also notes that a MacBook Air running Windows 7 costs a minimum of $1,419 (the cost of the computer plus Windows Home Premium) - quite a bit more than a typical $1,000 Ultrabook.

So, she queries, is the MacBook Air worth the extra cash? Are there any tradeoffs? Does Apple make the best Windows ultrabook?

She endeavors to make a fair comparison to find out.

The takeaway is that while Apple is never going to make the perfect Windows 7 machine, in many ways its MacBook Air hardware supports the best Windows experience right now.

Tech Trends

Ultrabook Prices Unlikely to Achieve 'Sweet Spot' Until 2013

DigiTimes' Aaron Lee and Joseph Tsai report that despite notebook vendors all understanding that price is key to significantly driving demand for Ultrabooks, especially when approaching the "sweet spot" at about $599-699, considering their profitability, the vendors believe ultrabook ASPs are unlikely reach that level until 2013, according to insider sources at notebook vendors.

They also say intelligence received from inside the the supply chain is pointing out that production cost of Ultrabooks is still relatively high, especially the cost of SSDs, which are still a whopping 10x higher than traditional hard drives, and that custom-made ultrathin panels and components also represent large factors in vendors' overall cost, although there is a chance that Ultrabook ASPs could reach as low as $799 in the second quarter - albeit with profitability "significantly pressed" and improved shipment volume the key to sustainability.

Unfortunately for the Ultrabook brigade, volume thus far has been disappointing, with Acer and Asus reportedly struggling to gain traction in a MacBook Air dominated market, obliging them to reduce initial Ultrabook orders by as much as 40% and looking for more generous marketing subsidies from Intel to help keep prices competitive.

Ultrabook Prices to Drop 20-30% in Early March to April

DigiTimes' Ocean Chen and Joseph Tsai say prices of the currently available crop of ultrabooks are expected to see a 20-30% drop in early March to April to help digesting notebook vendors' inventories as Intel prepares to announce its next-generation Ivy Bridge platform in April, according to analysis offered by sources from channel retailers.

Chen and Tsai project that mainstream notebooks and desktops powered by the current Sandy Bridge family of Intel Core i5 and i7 CPUs will also drop in price to clear out stocks.

Taiwan Manufacturers Report Ultrabooks Slow Sellers in Europe

DigiTimes' Aaron Lee and Adam Hwang report that the proportion of global notebook sales represented by Ultrabooks in 2012 is estimated at only 20%, lower than a target of 30% or even 40% as projected by Intel, attributable mainly to Ultrabooks selling sluggishly in Europe, according to Taiwan-based supply chain makers.

Lee and Hwang's sources tell them consumers in Europe prefer notebook models of 15" or more, and among notebooks currently available in the global market, 40-45% are 15" models (there are currently no 15" Ultrabook models, but the report says Acer plans to launch 14 and 15" Timeline Ultra series notebooks featuring a slim design, Instant-on technology, and Always Connect technology specifically for North America and Europe), 35-40% are of 14" models and only Hewlett-Packard has launched a 14" ultrabook, the Envy 14 Spectre, but its price is as high as US$1,399.99.

Apple is widely expected to be preparing a 15", thinner and lighter MacBook Pro for release in 2012, although whether there will also be a "consumer" oriented 15" MacBook Air as well remains a matter of conjecture.

Intel's first-phase Ultrabook design guideline specifies notebooks less than 21 mm thick, weighing no more than 3.1 pounds, with flash-based SSD data storage and at least 5 to 8 hours of battery life, and selling for around $1,000.

Ultrabooks have so far been launched to test market response and Lee and Hwang's sources maintain that if vendors want to increase sales, they have to lower prices from US$1,000 to US$699.

Products & Services

Stylish Laptop Bags to Match Spring Fashion and Tech Trends

PR: Jill-e Designs, the leading maker of sophisticated career bags, laptop bags, and carry bags for today's technology-rich lifestyle, has released their Spring 2012 Trend Report. With spring right around the corner, the report outlines some stylish ways for tech-savvy women to warm up their style in the upcoming season with Jill-e Designs new E-GO Leather Collection.

  • Leather E-GO Collection career bagsClean Classics: Simple, classic looks are in season and the new, stylish Leather E-GO Collection career bags will be available just in time to make wardrobe updates.
  • Rockin Leather: With its classic, yet cutting edge connotations, leather is the perfect style for the modern woman. The E-GO Leather Collection offers go-to, staple pieces to complement all lifestyles.
  • Head Into the White: With warm weather ahead, looks accentuated with a shade of white keep styles cool. Be sleek and stand out with the Jill-e Metro Tablet Bag or luxe and rich in style with the Leather E-GO Tablet Messenger in Vanilla.
  • Survival of the Fittest: Make a fierce fashion statement with a carry bag accessory that is decadent and daring. The Chocolate Croc Laptop Tote takes looks from subtle to stunning.

"Jill-e Designs style mavens understand women need a stylish option that can bring their favorite Apple and tech products safely and stylishly from one season to the next," says Gail Backal, Jill-e Designs President. "We are thrilled to offer the innovation and dependability that our E-GO Collection is known for, with the added versatility and timelessness of high quality leather."

Keeping up with the hottest spring trends, Jill-e's new E-GO Leather Collection of chic career bags will be available just in time to celebrate the new season. On sale February 20, the new line of leather bags for the E-GO Collection safeguards Apple and other popular tech products, while offering a polished, versatile look for women on-the-go. From stylish laptop bags to wristlets, Jill-e Designs offers a carry bag designed to hold her favorite lifestyle essentials, no matter what her needs and personality may be.

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