Let’s Really Think About This ‘New Low-Cost Laptop to Succeed MacBook Air’ Thing


I’m still thinking about Monday’s report from Mark Gurman and Debby Wu at Bloomberg regarding “a new low-cost laptop” coming later this year from Apple. Their entire description:

The new laptop will look similar to the current MacBook Air, but will include thinner bezels around the screen. The display, which will remain about 13-inches, will be a higher-resolution “Retina” version that Apple uses on other products, the people said. They asked not to be identified discussing products still in development.

My expectation for the last few years is that Apple has been keeping the MacBook Air around only until the 12-inch MacBook could drop in price to $999. Then the MacBook Air would just go away and Apple would have just MacBooks (no adjective) and MacBook Pros. Simple. For most of the modern era at Apple, the company’s Mac portable lineup has been simple, dating back to Steve Jobs’s 4-square product matrix in 1998. iBooks and PowerBooks. Then, in the Intel era, plastic MacBooks and aluminum MacBook Pros. Lower-priced for consumers, higher-priced for pros.

The original MacBook Air threw a monkey wrench in this simple lineup, though. When it debuted in 2008, the MacBook Air was a premium portable, starting at $1799 with an 80 GB hard drive, and going up to $3098 for a version with a faster CPU and 64 GB of SSD storage. It was a different type of premium portable than a MacBook Pro, focused on a remarkably svelte (for the time) form factor. When Steve Jobs revealed that first MacBook Air by pulling it from a manila envelope on stage at Macworld Expo, there were gasps.

As the years went on, the entry price for a MacBook Air steadily dropped, and it eventually took over as Apple’s entry-level consumer portable. The 11-inch MacBook Air cost just $899 when it was discontinued two years ago.

The 12-inch MacBook struck me as a repeat of the Air strategy in 2015: stunningly svelte form factor, premium display, but relatively expensive (compared to an Air at least) at $1299 to start. My guess, again, was that it would eventually drop to $999 and the Air would be discontinued. Even their names suggested this as the long-term strategy. “Air” denotes thinness and lightness, but the 12-inch MacBook is by far Apple’s thinnest and lightest notebook ever.

But a 12-inch MacBook dropping in price to $999 is not what Gurman is reporting. Back in May, Gurman reported that Apple was working both on a refreshed 12-inch MacBook and “a new low-cost laptop to succeed MacBook Air”.

What exactly could this look like? I can imagine a few scenarios, but none of them make complete sense to me.

Scenario 1: The Obvious Route

Just take the existing MacBook Air and replace the display with a retina display. This is what MacBook Air fans — and there are a lot of them — have been clamoring for from Apple for years. Presumably, in this scenario, they’d even keep the name “MacBook Air”.

But can we really expect Apple to announce a major new MacBook Air design with the old 2014-style keyboard? And what about ports? Apple’s post-2015 MacBook designs are all-in on USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports. Would Apple release a new MacBook Air with MagSafe, old-school USB 3 ports, and things like an SD card reader? I know a lot of you are reading this thinking, “Yes, that’s exactly what I want — I want the old keyboard, the old ports, I love MagSafe, and I don’t give a crap about a Touch Bar.” I get it. I prefer the old keyboard and I definitely miss MagSafe. But a new MacBook Air that’s very similar to the current one but with a retina display would be, to at least some extent, a repudiation of the last three years of MacBook and MacBook Pro design. That doesn’t sound like Apple to me.

Scenario 2: A Bigger Modern MacBook

Apple could replace the Air with a new, slightly bigger version of the 12-inch MacBook. A 13- or 14-inch display, ultra thin and light, two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, the new post-2015 butterfly-switch keyboard. That could be a very appealing machine — I’m sure many people would love a bigger portable display without paying 15-inch MacBook Pro prices. One problem with my years-long “Someday the 12-inch MacBook will drop to $999 and replace the Air” theory is that I suspect a lot of people think the 12-inch MacBook is too small. But a 13- or 14-inch big brother to the 12-inch MacBook would presumably cost more, not less, which would contradict Gurman’s description of it as a “new low-cost laptop to succeed MacBook Air”. Something like the 12-inch MacBook but bigger sounds to me like something Apple would do, but nothing like what Gurman has reported.

Scenario 3: The MacBook Pro “Escape” Drops to $999

Right now Apple has two portable Macs that start at $1299 — the 12-inch MacBook and the 13-inch MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar, a.k.a. the “MacBook Escape”. But the $1299 12-inch MacBook comes with 256 GB of storage; the $1299 MacBook Pro has a measly 128 GB of storage. Bump it up to 256 GB and the price goes to $1499. That suggests to me that if one of these two machines is going to drop to $999, it would be the 12-inch MacBook. And, again, a mere price drop doesn’t jibe with Gurman’s reporting, not to mention that it would make no marketing sense whatsoever for the lowest-price MacBook to have the “Pro” moniker.

It seems notable, too, that the 13-inch MacBook Pro without Touch Bar was not updated last month along with the Touch Bar models. If Apple updates the 13-inch MacBook Escape this fall, and unveils a new 13-inch low-cost MacBook Air successor with a retina display, that seems like a product lineup that would be more muddled than ever. It sucks that today’s MacBook Air has a non-retina display, but at least that helps clarify in a very obvious way why someone might want to spend a few hundred dollars more on the MacBook Escape. A 13-inch MacBook Air with a retina display and a 13-inch MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar are very similar fundamentally.

This is one of those columns where I started with one idea, but in the course of writing it, drastically changed my mind. I find none of these scenarios satisfying, but I started out with the idea that the one thing Apple wouldn’t do is simply update the MacBook Air, as we know it or very similar, and just give it a retina display. I’ve been saying this for a few years now, that I saw the future as just MacBooks and MacBook Pros, and that the MacBook Air remained in the lineup only until the 12-inch MacBook could drop in price.

But the more I think about it, the more I think that something along the lines of the “just put a retina display in the MacBook Air” scenario seems the most likely. Nomenclaturally it makes no sense. The computer named just-plain “MacBook” should logically be the one that is the baseline best-selling model for the masses. The one named “Air” should be the one that is as thin and lightweight as is feasible. But today we’re three years into the era when the just-plain MacBook is the radically thin and light model, and the Air is the best-selling baseline model that isn’t really any thinner or lighter than the Pro models. Well, so what? We drive on parkways and park on driveways and no one is confused.

Look past the product names, though, and it mostly makes sense — a retina MacBook Air starting at $999 would maintain the overall status quo of Apple’s MacBook lineup since 2015. If indeed this is Apple’s plan for the fall, I’ll be most interested to see just what gets updated other than the display and what doesn’t — particularly the ports and keyboard, both of which have been genuinely controversial.

And maybe there’s a middle ground between my scenarios 1 and 2 — something that is more of a total redesign than just putting a retina display in the MacBook Air as we know it. Apple couldn’t only change the display and bezel width if the display remains “around 13 inches”. If they keep the overall footprint the exact same dimensions as the current MacBook Air and reduce the width of the bezels, the display would have be more like 14 inches. And Gurman isn’t the only person claiming it’s a 13-inch display. DigiTimes reported in March that Apple was working on a new entry-level portable and was very specific about the display:1

The 13.3-inch a-Si panels for the new notebook feature the same resolution as Apple’s 13.3-inch MacBook Pro at 2,560 by 1,600. LG Display will begin supplying the panel in April with the new MacBook scheduled to enter mass production at the end of May or the beginning of June.

So if all these reports are true and Apple is coming out with a new entry-level portable with a 13.3-inch display and reduced bezels, the footprint of the device should shrink a bit too. That’s why the current 13.3-inch MacBook Pro has a smaller footprint than the current 13.3-inch MacBook Air (11.97 × 8.36 inches vs. 12.8 × 8.94 inches). So maybe it’s something obviously distinguishable from the current MacBook Air, even while the lid is closed — sort of a middle ground between the MacBook Pro and 12-inch MacBook. Something that keeps the Air’s traditional teardrop-shaped profile, but noticeably thicker and larger than a 12-inch MacBook. If that’s the case, I’d also expect modernized ports (USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 only?), and a modernized keyboard (alas) and Force Touch trackpad. Then, rather than repudiating the last three years of Apple’s MacBook design trends, this new entry-level MacBook would embody them.