What the Hell Is Happening with the MacBook Air?

It's been more than 10 years since I saw Steve Jobs pull the original MacBook Air out of that famed manila envelope. Sure, there were other ultraportable laptops back then, but Apple really kicked off a laptop revolution.

The ultraslim unibody design was second to none at the time, and every Windows notebook maker rushed to copy Apple's look.

Then, over the next decade, something happened.

Windows ultraportables started to catch up to the Air, and they've now surpassed Apple's iconic machine in terms of design, specs and price. Meanwhile, Apple's ultraportable seems stuck in the past.

"Disheartening" situation

"For people like you and me, we look at that MacBook Air and say, 'Man, that's pretty old tech,'" said Tom Mainelli, program vice president at market research firm IDC. "It's a little disconcerting and disheartening."

Not only does the Air sport an ancient 5th Generation Intel Core processor — the rest of the world is now on 8th Gen — but its screen has a low resolution of 1400 x 900 pixels at a time when full-HD panels have become standard on even $500 Windows laptops.

MORE: The Pros and Cons of Buying a MacBook Air for a College Student

And yet the MacBook Air remains one of the best-selling Macs. A big reason for that is the relatively low price. At $999, the Air's starting price is $300 less than either the 12-inch MacBook or the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Plus, right now, the Air is available for up to $150 off.

"I think what we're already seeing Apple do to address back-to-school is discounts," Mainelli said. "I think they're kicking the can down the road a little bit."

But not everyone believes the MacBook Air is long in the tooth. Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis at NPD, sees the product as an entry-level device that simply doesn't need to be updated very often to keep shoppers happy.

"It may have once been a flagship product for Apple, but now it is their entry-level product into the macOS desktop environment," Baker said. "And, as such, its costs and specs must be managed very carefully."

New Air on horizon?

Fortunately, that might be coming to a stop fairly soon. Taiwan's Economic Daily News recently reported that Apple plans to unveil an updated MacBook Air with an 8th-Gen Core processor and an improved Retina display for less than $1,000 before the end of the year.

You shouldn't necessarily expect a radically new design, however.

"Will the form factor be updated? Sure, eventually, but it seems to me right now that the MBA [MacBook Air] is doing its job inside Apple's product lineup," Baker said. "And I don't see a good reason to spend a lot of time or money right now on revisiting the whole segment."

MORE: Which MacBook Should You Buy? MacBook vs. Air vs. Pro

It's also highly likely that the new MacBook Air will sport a third-generation "butterfly" keyboard, which was introduced with the recent MacBook Pro update. The new layout is quieter and reportedly less susceptible to stuck keys caused by debris getting underneath the keys. The sticky-key situation even spurred some class-action lawsuits.

The quieter keyboard on the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar also benefits from a new silicon layer underneath each key that should keep debris from seeping into the keyboard. And there's no reason to believe that a new Air wouldn't use a similar butterfly mechanism.

What about the 12-inch MacBook?

Assuming the new MacBook Air is slimmer and lighter than its predecessor, it's very possible that the 12-inch MacBook will just disappear. That system tried to raise the bar for mobility when it debuted in 2015, but it proved to be too pricey and a bit underpowered.

"I personally think that it goes away, because the MacBook encroaches too much on the iPad Pro," said Carolina Milanesi, a principal analyst at market research firm Creative Strategies. "I know it's macOS versus iOS, but from a form-factor perspective, it just overlaps too much. I don't know if there's room for the 12-inch MacBook anymore."

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Baker said he agrees that the 12-inch MacBook could disappear in the near future, as it's caught in between the entry-level Air and the more performance-minded Pro laptops.

"I think, at some point, the MacBook goes away sooner rather than later, as it served its purpose," Baker said. "I am not sure this product class, which sells very slowly and is really a very small niche product, is necessary."

Mainelli sees the 12-inch MacBook's fate differently, arguing that Apple can continue to use it as a way to experiment with new technologies. This could include anything from 5G connectivity (when the new networking standard is ready) or its own ARM-based processor that runs macOS.

"It completely fits [Apple's] MO," said Mainelli. "They made the decision early on to do their own silicon for iPhone and iPad, and that has served them ridiculously well. That vertical integration lets them do a lot of interesting things."

Intel has also been criticized for delivering its next-generation processors late, which could wind up accelerating Apple's plans to build its own laptop chips.

A new ARMs race 

Microsoft and its partners are already experimenting with ARM-based laptops such as the Asus NovaGo and the HP Envy x2, which use Qualcomm's chips. However, those systems have yet to catch on with consumers.

"There's no one screaming for LTE in a laptop design," Milanesi said. In fact, she cited stats from Creative Strategies that show that only about 45 percent of iPad sales in the U.S. are LTE-enabled models. And only 25 percent of that 45 percent have live connections attached to them.

The difference with Apple is that the company is already working on making it easier for developers to put their iOS apps in the Mac App Store. Microsoft, by contrast, has had a devil of a time convincing developers to get their wares into the Windows Store.

"At the end of the day, I think Apple would love to have its own silicon in all of its own products, because it helps bring some of that special sauce to the table," Mainelli said. "It helps you take the operating system and fit it perfectly to the silicon and vice versa and do a lot of great things."

But just because Apple has made great strides with its A11 Bionic chip for mobile — and the upcoming 7-nanometer A12 processor is expected to be even faster — that doesn't mean you should expect one in a 12-inch MacBook anytime soon.

"I don't think an ARM chip would be appropriate on one very small piece of their macOS line," Baker said. "If they choose to do that, I would think they would just update everything."

The Chromebook threat

It stands to reason that the MacBook Air will be updated this year, even if it's not a radical overhaul. And that alone could attract a lot more users to macOS at a time when Windows ultraportables like the Dell XPS 13 and the HP Envy 13t are stealing attention from Apple.

There's also the looming threat of more premium Chromebooks, as Google has amped up its marketing to throw shade at MacBooks for their spinning beach balls and incessant upgrade prompts, although Windows was just as big a target in the ad. Chromebooks also benefit from having the Google Play store now, while Apple is still working on bringing iOS apps to the Mac App Store.

The Chromebook wave is coming, Mainelli said, and that threatens both Windows and Apple over the long term. "Eventually, those kids are going to graduate through college, and they're going to go in the workforce," he said. "And they're going to be fully in the Google ecosystem."

So while Apple missed this year's back-to-school boat with a new Air, the company will need to roll out one soon to keep consumers in its own ecosystem. And it looks like a new 12-inch MacBook may not come along for the ride.

Credit: Apple; Illustration: Tom’s Guide

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.