updated 01:00 pm EST, Thu February 24, 2011
New MacBook Pros give clues to MacBook Air update
Some have been disappointed that the new MacBook Pros weren't accompanied by an early MacBook Air update. While Apple's most portable system now lags considerably behind most of the MacBook range, the unveilings on Thursday have given a strong sign of what to expect for the Air's rumored June update. Read on for the practical implications.
The most obvious conlusions are for the use of Thunderbolt. Even on the 11-inch Air, Apple already has a Mini DisplayPort jack; it's entirely likely that the systems will convert these to Thunderbolt ports. Switching would let even the most diminutive system run a RAID array or a Fiber Channel connection at full speed, something which had been inconceivable even for full-size notebooks just days ago.
Moreover, the 13-inch MacBook Pro's switch to Intel's 2011 Core chips also suggests a major leap in speed is ahead for the Air. Apple will still have to use low-power processors but can go to Core i3, i5 and even i7 processors if it likes; all are more efficient than the Core 2 Duo, and the i5 and i7 can sometimes behave like quad-core processors through Intel's Hyperthreading. At present, Apple wouldn't have many options for processors, but the 1.4GHz Core i5 2537M and 1.6GHz Core i7 2657M are both prime candidates for the 11-inch Air. On the 13-inch notebook, the choices may be limited to Core i7s like the 2.1GHz 2629M and 2.3GHz 2649M, but either would go well beyond the 1.86GHz and 2.13GHz Core 2 Duos of today.
The lineup also assumes Intel doesn't change its lineup. It's known to often introduce mid-year updates that improve the clock speed without changing the entire design, so faster systems will be possible.
Any of these systems would have to switch to Intel-only video through their tight size constraints, but the much more acceptable performance of Intel's Sandy Bridge architecture should make any perceived slowdown minimal. Apple has said the Intel HD 3000 graphics accelerate movie playback and could reduce gripes with Flash-based HD video. Battery life also stands a slight chance of going up, since Apple would be jumping up two generations of Intel processors.
There's much we still don't know about the future MacBook Air, including the SSD capacities, RAM and longevity, but all indications are that it should be transformed when updated later this year. Right now, the 11-inch Air isn't considered ideal for heavy-duty work; with Thunderbolt and a Core i5 or better, it could very nearly serve as an only system. The 13-inch Air may also see distinctions blur as only clock speed and storage separate it from the MacBook Pro.
Both are also being clearly tailor-made for Mac OS X Lion. The future software's emphases on auto-resuming apps on boot, automatic saving, and AirDrop network sharing are all friendly to Macs with very fast storage. New MacBook Airs would handle all this virtually transparently and, through Thunderbolt and new processors, would have almost no bottlenecks.