Dec 16, 2014 — by: Mark Reschke

Macbook-air-11-vs-13-screen

On January 15, 2008, Apple CEO Steve Jobs took to the stage of MacWorld and revealed an all-new Apple laptop — the MacBook Air. Intel had long floated concept ideas of ultra-thin laptops, but it was Apple who released the world’s thinnest laptop, which featured an Apple specific Intel Core 2 Duo with a smaller package size to make it work. Fast forward to today, and no longer is the MacBook Air considered some executive-only battery sipper. Today, the MacBook Air is everyone’s computer, and it is well overdue for a major update.

The last MacBook Air update was in April of 2014, but only gained 100 MHz in processors speed, moving from 1.3GHz to a 1.4GHz Intel Core i5 (4260U) processor, while Apple lowered the price by $100 to $1,199. Nothing else was done to the MacBook Air, and the frame is nearly identical since its original release. But problems in Apple’s MacBook lineup may occur if Apple updates the MacBook Air too much. 

The biggest issue with updating the MacBook Air in its obvious weak spots are in how it would greatly diminish MacBook Pro w/retina value, and thus sales. The two areas the MacBook Air could make great gains is adding a high-resolution retina display, and a more powerful processor and graphics. Updating these two areas on the MacBook Air would not only squeeze Apple’s margins, but also put a dent in MacBook Pro w/retina sales, making a nearly identical specification laptop, but thinner and less expensive.

The solution would seem obvious that Apple needs to update their MacBook Pro w/retina display accordingly, but how? Apple is so dependent on Intel CPUs with their integrated graphics, there is not really anywhere to go in differentiating the two laptops. However, there is different direction Apple could take the MacBook Air, revolutionizing the product yet again.

Apple is very likely to be on the brink of delivering an A9 processor. This would not be designed for the iPad Air 2 or 3, rather, it would be a desktop class, 64-bit quad-core processor with integrated Imagination Technology graphics, eliminating Intel from the MacBook Air lineup.

There are a dozen or more major ramifications where Apple to make such a bold move with the fundamentals of their MacBook Air’s processing heart. Chiefly, it would need to run some version of iOS, and not OS X Yosemite. This would seem a radical and unnecessary move for Apple to take, but in doing so, some reasonable development work to Apps would quickly have them using a menu and point and click. Apps are essentially point and click as-is, but the input device is a finger, not a track-pad. This direction would also imply a re-skinned iOS looking very close to OS X Yosemite’s look. Both OS X and iOS have been moving closer and closer together with their flat look and feel. Apple does nothing by chance, and the best way to get iOS re-skinned and running quickly is to take out the OS graphical powers required to make things hum. To the consumer, they would simply be buying a Mac that can run hundreds of thousands of more Apps than can an OS X based Mac.

Positives range from lower cost hardware, longer battery life (in terms of hours more runtime over previous Intel-based MacBook Airs), an iOS that receives a full-blown Finder, and a Mac that would be even thinner and lighter.

Apple gains would be in removing yet another shackle of Intel from its development team, lower costs, and the freedom to build its own product timelines. When and what Apple releases would be mainly up to Apple, not a supplier. Apple, by developing their own processors for the MacBook Air, could further differentiate its product from competitors.

Deep level software for video editors, photographers and professionals, requiring office products could easily be addressed by Apple releasing desktop levels of iWork, iMovie, iTunes and the soon to be released Photos apps. Apple’s close relationship with IBM may also be leveraged with iOS coded Apps, having its most popular iOS software quickly make its way to the MacBook Air.

The MacBook Air running iOS under its skin would be the clear demarcation between ultra portable computing, and the MacBook Pro w/retina display, that stands for the creative pro environment, and those that want the latest and greatest Intel desktop-level horsepower.

Would an ARM-based MacBook Air signal the end of all Intel hardware at Apple moving forward? Not likely any time soon. ARM has years to go in order to compete with Intel's beefier chip-sets, but the MacBook Air is certainly ripe for change. The only question remaining, is whether Apple is ready to take the leap.

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6 Comments

  1. Peter ~ Dec. 16, 2014 @ 11:58 am

    To me, the issue with this would be somewhat akin to Microsoft's difficulties with Surface and Windows RT. To many, the issue was that Surface ran something that looked and acted like Windows. But it couldn't run lots of Windows software unless someone had built that software for Windows RT. Confusion reigned. So I buy a MacBook Air. But some software won't run on it even though that software runs fine on my friend's older MacBook Air. What's the deal? No, if Apple does decide to make A9-based laptops, they'd be better off to call it something else. Maybe resurrect "iBook" or something. #
  2. Farkas ~ Dec. 16, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

    Here is an earlier analysis with more detail: http://seekingalpha.com/article/2475175-apple-new-b8-chip-to-start-a-pc-revolution #
  3. Ralph Megna ~ Dec. 16, 2014 @ 3:29 pm

    The author of this article: 1) Obviously knows zilch about Apple and how it evolves its products and technologies; 2) Knows even less about the differences between ARM chips such as the A-series and Intel CISC chips that power the Macs; 3) Is even more clueless about how an A9 "laptop" running some new flavor of iOS would permanently alienate a whole class of user who is already pissed at Apple for how it treats its pro apps on the Mac. #
  4. Joseph Kelley ~ Dec. 20, 2014 @ 12:23 pm

    I strongly disagree that an 64 bit, quad core A9 would have to run iOS. In fact, I think it would be much less of an engineering challenge to port OS X to the A9 than modify iOS to act like a desktop OS. I'd be willing to bet Apple has a version of OS X running on ARM somewhere in Cupertino already. #
  5. Shameer M. ~ Dec. 21, 2014 @ 10:59 am

    @Joseph_Kelly I completely agree. The majority of MBA users are using the device mainly for basic / light computing tasks as it is. A quad-core A9 should have no trouble running a stripped down version of OSX that runs apps only from the Mac App Store. Imagine a 12.2" rMBA with a quad-core A9, 128GB PCIe SSD storage starting at $899 / $999. #
  6. Jeff ~ Feb. 27, 2015 @ 11:13 pm

    The Samsung Exynos 7420 benchmarks in the ballpark of an Intel Haswell Core i5 processor. Nvidia's Tegra X1 destroys Intel graphics on any of their desktop chips. Apple's upcoming A9 should be better than the Exynos in CPU performance and in the ballpark of the Tegra in GPU performance. I am drooling at getting a MacBook Air with that kind of power with an 8 to 10 hour battery life. Or an iPad for that matter. The iPad is limited in that I can't connect it to a larger monitor. Other than that, I have been able to dump my Dell laptop in favor of the iPad. Apple will likely continue manufacturing computers with Intel inside for some time. However, I don't need one and no longer want one. I want the A9's performance and battery life in a laptop. As soon as Apple releases an ARM powered MacBook Air, I definitely will be purchasing one. I have purchased my last computer with an Intel chip. An updated MacBook Air with an Intel chip and its integrated graphics along with poor battery life just doesn't excite me at all. I haven't gotten better than 3.5 hours of battery life in my Mac Air. My iPad routinely gives me 7 hrs. It's enough to get me through my work day without being constantly attached to the charger. iOS compatibility these days is now as important as Windows, and it won't be very long where it will grow to be far more important than Windows on x86. I honestly don't any longer need Wintel. I understand that there are people who do. I don't and I suspect that in the not too distant future, many others will find that also to be true. #

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