Just What Kind of Audience is the MacBook Air Aiming For?

Apple announced the MacBook Air today, an ultrathin, ultraportable, ultralight made-to-be wireless laptop computer.

The Apple Store has a nice little chart comparing the different laptop options, detailing the differences and similarities between the model.

One of the differences between the MacBook Air and the regular MacBook is the difference in thickness, but the overall footprint of the device is the same. The MacBook Air also weighs a great deal less than the other laptops in the MacBook family, 2 pounds less than the MacBook, and 2.4 pounds less than the MacBook Pro. A substantial amount of that weight savings lies in the removal of the optical drive from the MacBook Air, along with a whole bunch of ports (Ethernet, FireWire 400, line-in, and only one USB 2.0 port instead of two) that are standard on the MacBook. An external optical drive is available for the MacBook Air, but with third-party external DVD drives being rather cheap, my guess is that only those that absolutely must have Apple branded products will purchase the $99 SuperDrive. Apple has designed the MacBook Air to be able to share the optical drive from other computers, making the external rather extraneous if they have access to another computer with an optical drive.

The MacBook Air uses the same Intel GMA X3100 graphics processor as the MacBook, so the weakness of this chip is that it uses part of the system memory for graphics memory. The graphics memory is more likely to be accessed by programs that use 3D graphics, intensive graphics programs like Maya, or even complex 3D games will cause this graphics chip to lag.

Processor-wise, the MacBook Air is the slowest of the Mac laptops with its 1.6 GHz ($1799) or 1.8 GHz ($2099) GHz Core 2 Duo processor. The MacBook is available in 2.0 GHz ($1099) and 2.2 GHz ($1299) configurations, while the MacBook Pro includes processors that are a step up from the MacBook, running at 2.2 GHz ($1999) and 2.4 GHz ($2499). While all models except the MacBook come with 2GB of RAM, an upgrade for the MacBook is available for an additional $150, making a similarly equipped MacBook priced at $1249.

for $1249, you can purchase a MacBook with a 2.0 GHz processor, 2 GB of RAM, 80 GB Hard Drive, SuperDrive and all ports included, or for $1799, you can purchase a MacBook Air with 1.6 GHz processor, 2GB of RAM, 80 GB harddrive and no optical drive.The difference? The additional $550 which covers the two-pound weight loss of the MacBook Air. Of course, going the other direction, for just $200 more than the MacBook Air, you could get a very nice 15" MacBook Pro. In all of my cost analysis for this product, I can't figure out where the $550 premium is justified -- the weight savings? The higher cost of aluminum for the MacBook Air case instead of the plastic for the MacBook? The cost of research and development of the product? The cost of manufacturing a smaller form factor? I think part of it also is that in an effort to stratify their laptop lines; while I believe they parked the price too close to that of the MacBook Pro, the $550 premium definitely puts it far above the economic reach of those who should be buying a MacBook and below the logical usability of those who rely on MacBook Pros.

Professionals, artists, designers, engineers and other people who rely on Macs to get their work done are still going to buy MacBook Pros. No other laptop is going to offer the specs that meet their requirements. While I hoped for a 13 inch model that has all the power of the 15 inch ones, the MacBook Air has pretty much torpedoed that hope, as they would have done it by now if it were possible.

Students, who are going to have only one computer to take to school, are still going to buy MacBooks because they're relatively cheap and for the type of work they need to do on it, a MacBook is going to get them through school. An exception is going to have to be made for students who might need more computing power, but most students are going to get by with a MacBook.

Who do we have left? We have people who have multiple computers who can do without an optical drive, and people who use their computers on wireless networks primarily. We also have people who can afford to pay the $550 premium for the weight savings. For a traveling computer I wouldn't mind having this around, just for the size and the weight, but it would not take the place of a primary computer.

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