by Tom Kaneshige

Is Apple’s MacBook Air a Game Changer?

Oct 20, 2010
MobileSmall and Medium Business

New MacBook Air will appeal to everyone -- not just Apple fanboys -- says Gartner analyst.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs ended this week’s Mac news event with his trademark line “one more thing,” which turned out be a completely retooled MacBook Air. Much is different about this MacBook Air, from its inner workings to its outer price tag, and so I checked in with Gartner’s consumer electronics research guru Van Baker to get his take.

First, here’s a summary of the new MacBook Air: Two models, a 13.3-inch Air and an 11.6-inch Air, are thinner than previous models, 0.68 inches at one end that tapers to 0.11 inches. The new Air relies on flash storage built into the motherboard—no hard drives—which leaves more battery space and provides instant-on capability. Each Air comes with two USB ports.

The 13.3-inch Air is powered by a 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo processor and an NVIDIA GeForce 320M graphics processor, and costs $1,299 with 128GB of flash storage and $1,599 with 256GB. The 11.6-inch Air has a 1.4GHz CPU standard and costs $999 with 64GB and $1,199 fwith128GB. (There’s a 1.6GHz upgrade option.) Both models come with 2GB of 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM standard, expandable to 4GB.

macbookair.jpg Flash instead of a hard drive? Is this a good thing?

Baker: Apple chose not to use SSD (solid state disk) but Flash, and that gave them the ability to make an amazingly thin and light package. With Flash, you get instant-on, which is going to be hugely appealing. As people have become more comfortable using smartphones and tablets, they really value pushing a button and doing something immediately rather than sitting there for three minutes while it boots up. What do you give up with Flash?

Baker: You don’t give up much except for capacity. If somebody wants to do serious Final Cut Pro video editing, they’re not going to buy one of these products. What will the new MacBook Air do to the competition?

Baker: It pushes the PC guys back under $1,000 again. A lot of the PC manufacturers play in the $499, $599, $699 price range but have aspirations to get up in the same price range that Apple occupies and compete with Apple. But now Apple has brought two more products to market that are going to blow them away. The MacBook Air is powered by an old Core 2 Duo processor. Doesn’t this take some of the air out of the MacBook Air?

Baker: My suspicion is that they didn’t have enough room to put in a Core i3 or i5. They did put in a graphics co-processor, although it’s not top of the line either. Yes, you lose some performance on the processor but gain some performance on the storage because Flash is about twice as fast as the hard drive.

That’s the card PC manufacturers will probably play: Why do you want a Core 2 Duo system when we can give you a Core i5 system for the same price or less? They can play that performance card, but I don’t know how well performance resonates with consumers anymore.

It’s going to boil down to whether or not the MacBook Air performs at a level that is acceptable to the consumer. The competition can tout processors all day long, but as long as the MacBook Air gives consumers a good user experience it’s not going to matter. I’m sure the new MacBook Air will move Apple fanboys to open up their wallets, but what about other consumers?

Baker: Characterizing Apple users as fanboys is just not legitimate anymore—Apple is mainstream. You don’t do $20 billion in a quarter (a third of which comes from Mac sales) if you’re not mainstream. Apple continues to claim that 50 percent of people buying Macs in its stores have never used a Mac before. They continue to convert Windows users over to Mac.

The previous MacBook Air was not that successful anywhere. It was too expensive and had too many limitations. These new MacBook Airs are priced much more aggressively by comparison. The entry level product is the same price as the entry level MacBook.

I’m pretty impressed, in terms of industrial design and the level of performance. It’s bringing thin and light to a new definition. For an awful lot of people it’s going to be a very nice product. If someone has reservations about typing on an iPad’s on-screen keyboard, for a couple hundred bucks more they’re up to the entry level of the MacBook Air. The MacBook Air has never really fared well in the enterprise. Will these new MacBook Airs change this?

Baker: I think they’ll be pretty successful in the consumer market, which means they’ll do better in the enterprise. As we’ve seen with the iPhone, some executives will get their hands on a MacBook Air and tell the IT guys to make this work. Of course, this doesn’t mean that mainstream IT is going to start spec-ing Apple products.

At Gartner, we’ve been talking about the consumerization of IT for a long time. That is, consumers are going to find products that they like, bring them into the workplace, and put pressure on IT to support them. Is that going to happen with the MacBook Air? You betcha.

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Tom at