MAY 24, 2010

Is the MacBook Air Dead? Over eleven months since the last upgrade [Updated]

First, let me say right up front that I certainly hope that Apple's thin and light MacBook Air is not dead. I travel a lot so I need a small ultra-light portable Mac. But I have been waiting for Apple to refresh the Air to get a new one. So far nada! And, Apple updated the MacBook last week and the MacBook Pros last month.

The Air was first announced in January 2008 but has not been updated since June 2009 when its Core 2 Duo CPUs were upgraded to 1.86 and 2.13 GHz and its prices were dropped to $1499 and $1799 respectively. It was as long ago as October 2008 when its graphics processor was updated to the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M and the capacity of its slow 1.8" 4200 RPM micro hard drive was increased from 80 to 120 GB. So, the first major upgrade came after nine months and the second came after eight additional months. But it has been over 11 months since then.

Why do we need an updated Air? The 2.13 GHz CPU in the high-end model is nearly as fast as the 2.4 GHz CPU in the MacBook and entry level 13" MacBook Pro. My original Air has a 1.6 GHz CPU and it seems fine in that regard so I am sure that 2.13 GHz is just fine. The current high-end Air has a 128 GB solid state drive (SSD). While not the fastest SSD out there, it blows away the iPod-esque 120 GB hard drive used in the current low-end Air. My Air has an aftermarket 128 GB RunCore IV SSD that makes it a speed demon at many things including running Windows 7 with Parallels Desktop for Mac 5.0, a feat the brought the original 80 GB hard drive to its knees.

So what's missing?

Well, it would be nice to have a state of the art mobile graphics processor like the Nvidia GeForce 320M now used in the MacBook and 13" MacBook Pro. The Air could then drive my 30" Cinema Display which it can't with its two-generation-old Intel GMA X3100 mobile graphics processor. This is not critical for an ultra-portable, mind you, and that alone would not cause me to upgrade since the 9400M in the current Air can also do this. But the main reason is the improved battery life that the 320M would bring.

Speaking of battery life, my original Air's battery still has pretty good life. According to Coconut Battery, its capacity stands at 91% of original after 28 months and 78 cycles. It charges to 97-98% of that. More importantly, it gets around 4 hours of use when not using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and with the screen dimmed about half way. This is down about an hour or so from when new (see my review). Apple claims the current Air gets up to 5 hours when using Wi-Fi, a little better than my original Air. But the MacBook and 13" MacBook Pro get up to 10 hours according to Apple's claim, twice what they used to get. Now, I'm not necessarily expecting 10 hours since the Air is an ultra-light with a smaller battery but it should get some 7-8 hours with the current advanced battery and graphics chip technology instead of just 5. Many Air road warriors would die for this extra time.

Most importantly, the Air needs additional RAM, i.e. beyond 2 GB. I need at least 4 GB. I know this uses a bit more power but I would trade some minimal battery life for the ability to run Windows 7 on Parallels and do other things simultaneously without knocking up against the 2 GB limit. In fact, this is the one thing that has me looking longingly at a 13" MacBook Pro while still hoping for an Air upgrade.

Finally, it would be great to include at least one more USB port. FireWire 800 or a memory card port would be nice but are not necessary. I know adding a second USB port runs against the minimalist ethos of the Air and is a potential source of some additional battery drain but countless times I have needed to simply plug in a USB thumb drive while on a secure, wired internet connection using the Air's only USB port.

What are the options?

If Apple does not upgrade the Air soon, the money burning a hole in my pocket will be spent on something else. But what?

One option is the high-end current 2.13 GHz Air with its 9400M graphics chip and 128 GB SSD. I'd still have only one USB port and my need for 4 GB of RAM rules out that $1800 purchase.

The more attractive option is the entry-level 13" MacBook Pro ($1200) with an aftermarket 128 GB SSD ($400) for around $1600. I would get 320M graphics, a 10-hour battery, 4 GB RAM, ports--2 USB, FW800 and memory card--an 8X SuperDrive optical drive and a 2.4 GHz CPU. There is a weight penalty but in reality it is not the full 1.5lbs because I now carry an external USB hard drive and cable with my Air for backups and insurance against drive failure.

Since I never use the Air's external optical drive on the road, it's expendable. I can buy an OptiBay for $99 from MCE to replace the MacBook Pro's SuperDrive with the aftermarket SSD. The OptiBay includes a free external USB case for the SuperDrive so it can be used as needed. The MacBook Pro with its original hard drive, OptiBay and SSD might still be a bit heavier than the Air with external USB drive and cable but it would be all one piece, weigh slightly less than the 4.5lbs without the SuperDrive inside and cost $100 less.

The third option would be to go in the other direction and get an iPad. That's not an option for me because I need to run Windows to use proprietary business software based on Microsoft's blasted proprietary rendition of java. The iPad's file transfer and printing in hotel environments are not yet up-to-snuff although they may be some day. Finally, I've found that intensively editing and writing on a screen smaller than 13" is just too uncomfortable.

While I was disappointed that the latest 13" MacBook Pro did not receive the latest Intel Core i5 mobile CPU, it still looks like the best option for me if Apple fails to upgrade the Air soon with 4 GB RAM or, unfortunately, EOL's it.

[Update--According to an Ars Technica article posted the same day, the MacBook Air is either dead or in for a very long holding pattern as it is. The argument is based on three suppositions. First, Intel will not produce a better/faster "small outline" Core 2 Duo CPU than already exists in the present Air. Second, the potential Intel Core i5 replacement not only has an integrated GPU that performs no better than the current Nvidia 9400M but it doesn't run OpenCL. And, third, all other alternatives will not fit on the Air's tiny motherboard. The article's suppositions, however, are all based on the assumption that a new and faster CPU is needed in order to warrant another upgrade.

It's not clear to me that the assumption is valid. As I pointed out, for what the Air does the CPU is not a bottleneck. My 1.6 GHz Air runs acceptably all applications that I use including Parallels running Windows 7 Professional running Internet Explorer and the Office apps. Running Parallels and Windows is probably more than most people will ever run on an Air and probably more than Apple intended but it does run well with a SSD in place of the micro hard drive--except it consumes most of the 2GB of RAM to do so.

I assume that it is technically feasible to successfully mate the new Nvidia 320M GPU and the current small outline Core 2 Duo CPU on the Air's motherboard along with 4 GB of RAM. If so, and if battery technology has advanced enough in two years to hold more juice at the same weight, an upgrade of these components alone are enough for me. A 2.13 GHz Air with 4GB RAM, Nvidia 320M GPU, 128 GB SSD and a true 8 hour battery for $1699 would fit the bill and poach my wallet. And, after all, Apple did less in the Air's October 2008 upgrade. So, I'm going to wait through the WWDC announcements and, if disappointed, maybe then bite the bullet and give up the Air's ultimate coolness for a 13" MacBook Pro, also a very cool machine.] [Bill Fox]

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