MacBook Air rumours rounded up

October and November are a traditional calendar slot for Apple new or refreshed notebook model introductions. With Apple's "Back To The Mac" media event coming on October 20, and rumours of a new, downsized MacBook Air percolating for several months now, the pieces are falling into place for "something new in the Air" to be unveiled by Mr. Jobs come Wednesday.

Indeed, AppleInsider's Kasper Jade reports that according to several independent sources, including one "with a proven track record of pinpoint accuracy," Apple's new subnotebooks are already in production at Apple's Taiwanese subcontractors' works, and should reach retail channels on, or shortly after, an expected Wednesday introduction.

A new model Air will mark the first major makeover for the smallest member of Apple's MacBook family since it was first introduced in January, 2008, and if the firming-up rumours and "insider source" reports are correct, it will have been worth the wait.

Being an Apple laptop junkie, I've been intently scanning the scuttlebutt, and it's looking like the new Air will be built around a smaller, probably 11.6-inch, display that will facilitate a smaller
footprint device. Whether they will be able to squeeze in a full sized keyboard like the one in the first-generation 13.3-inch display Air remains to be seen, but fans of the erstwhile 12-inch PowerBook G4 who had complained that the Air occupied too much desk or airline tray space
should be pleased.

Kasper Jade says that another of AppleInsider's sources thinks that aside from the smaller screen and form factor, the new MacBook Air will feature something new called a "SSD Card" in lieu of a hard disk or solid state storage drive, possibly some sort of proprietary solid
state memory alternative configuration designed by Apple.

Other rumoured features include use of lightweight carbon fiber case components and possibly Apple's first use of silicon from AMD rather than Intel, although AppleInsider thinks that's a highly unlikely long shot.

Electronista says the MacBook Air may be priced "significantly lower" than the current model, and still use Core 2 Duo CPUs instead of the otherwise rumoured Intel Core i3 CULV (Consumer Ultra Low Voltage) mobile chips. Core 2 Duo silicon supports Nvidia's fast GeForce 320M integrated graphics chipsets, which can't be teamed with Core "i" family processors due to a licensing dispute between Intel and Nvidia, considered largely the reason why the MacBook and 13" MacBook Pro still come with Core 2 Duo rather than Core "i" processor chips.

According to CNET's Erica Ogg, one of CNETs sources tells them that, everything about the new MacBook Air will be smaller, including its price, projected to be "significantly lower" than the current entry-level Air's US$1,499, and concurs with Electronista that it will use an older Intel Core 2 Duo processor paired with Nvidia's MCP89 (GeForce 320M) integrated graphics processor unit, offer longer battery life, and move closer to the iPad's "instant-on" capabilities.

Speaking of the iPad, TiPB's Rene Ritchie notes that Apple originally pitched the MacBook Air as the ultimate ultra-light, bereft of an internal optical drive, and with just a single, lonesome USB port, yet still featuring a 13-inch screen and full-sized keyboard. Light thin but powerful and a fully capable OS X Mac, the first-generation MacBook Air was the anti-netbook, as well as "the best text and photo blogging machine on the market at the time."

However, Ritchie believes that while the iPad can't run Photoshop, or drag and drop between multiple windows, or do a whole raft of other things Mac OS X excels at, it does the things it does do very well, at a much lower cost, with far more intimacy and immediacy. He suggests
that with the new MacBook Air, Apple will have two very different contenders vying in the ultra-portable category, and the operative paradigm has been that when you go to Apple to buy something, they don't want you confused over what you should buy.

He observes that the iPad has cut deeply into PC netbook and cheap laptop sales, but so far hasn't hurt Apple's MacBooks much if at all. However a smaller and lighter 11-inch MacBook Air with a hardware keyboard and able to run OS X selling for around $1000 would crowd the
market for the $800-plus fully tricked out iPad 3G 64GB.

TechCrunch's MG Siegler says he's never used the optical drive in the MacBook Pro he bought just before the iPad's re;ease last spring, and doesn't imagine he ever will - other than perhaps an emergency CD-boot if his computer dies. He thinks the optical drive is a huge waste of space, ergo what he really needs is a MacBook Air, and if a, downsized 11.6-inch Air weighing around two pounds and possibly with a new sort of solid state memory system that would allow it to have an even thinner form factor as well as able to boot faster materializes, that would be exactly what he wants in a portable computer.

I expect it's exactly what a lot of mobile computing fans smitten with the iPad's easy portability but frustrated that the tablet's inability to run OS X , lack of a hardware keyboard and mouse support, lack of USB or any other convenient data transfer modes cripple it as a serious content creation platform want.

Focusing back on the optical drive issue, Siegler contends that Apple was simply ahead of the curve in dropping the built-in optical drive from the original MacBook Air, arguing that backups and software installs can be done via USB or Firewire or over the Internet.

Well, yes, but an optical drive comes in mighty handy when you need to install software or access data stored on disk. I'm not ready to give up on CD/DVD support yet, but find the MacBook Air's optional external USB optical drive an acceptable workaround, just as I did back in the day before the PowerBook 1400c arrived as the first Mac laptop with internal optical drive support.

I've observed that few if any of the MacBook Air predictions I've encountered has mentioned touchscreens, and frankly I can't see the point on a clamshell format laptop with a hardware keyboard and trackpad, especially if the latter supports touch gestures.

What Siegler says he wants in a portable system is one that instantly boots, is always connected to the Internet, lasts for a very, very long time, and lightweight and compact enough that he won't have to think twice about carrying it around. Again, him and a lot of others
I'm certain. If Apple meets those criteria with a new MacBook Air at a price users will be able to rationalise, it should have another hot-seller on it hands.