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Larger 15-in. MacBook Air 'makes sense' for Apple, say analysts

React to report that 15-in. Air due in early 2012 when Apple refreshes line

Apple will launch a 15-in. MacBook Air in the first quarter of 2012, according to a report from a Taiwanese publication that cited unnamed sources in the component supply channel.

A larger MacBook Air -- Apple currently sells 11.6-in. and 13.3-in. Airs -- makes sense, analysts said today, noting that the company will face competition from new "ultrabooks" next year sold by, among others, Hewlett-Packard (HP).

HP is set to start selling its first ultrabook, the name given by Intel to lightweight, thin laptops that will compete with the MacBook Air, on Dec. 7. The HP Folio , which will sport a 13.3-in. display, will sell at prices starting at $900, or $99 under Apple's cheapest MacBook Air.

"I don't have confirmation on a 15-in. MacBook Air, but logically thinking, it does make sense," said Brian Marshall, an analyst with International Strategy and Investment Group (ISI).

Marshall cited the impending debut of HP's Folio -- and the follow-on systems that others will release in early 2012 -- as one reason why Apple would want to extend the Air lineup.

Taiwan-based DigitTimes claimed that supplier sources hinted Apple will ship a 15-in. MacBook Air in the first three months of 2012.

"The sources noted that related upstream players have already started pilot production of the MacBook Air models and will add a 15-inch model into the product line to expand its reach in the ultra-thin notebook market," said the newspaper.

DigiTimes also said that the same sources maintained that Apple will reduce the price of its existing MacBook Air line to prepare for a refresh next year that would presumably include Intel's newest CPUs from its Ivy Bridge architecture.

Those processors, Intel said in September , will double battery life compared to the current Core chips that power the Air line, combine the CPU with the graphics processor, and provide a performance boost to boot.

Some online retailers aggressively cut prices of the MacBook Air on Black Friday, a possible sign that DigiTimes is on the right track. Amazon.com, for example, sold the 1.6GHz 11-in. Air for $850, 15% under list, last Friday.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, also thinks a 15-in. MacBook Air is a sure bet.

"The Air's popularity is driven in part by the iPad," argued Gottheil, taking a different tack than Marshall. "Interest in the Air is not just in thin and light, but like tablets, in instant on, portability and longer battery life."

Other factors that make an expanded MacBook Air roster not only smart but inevitable, said Gottheil, is the jump in hard drive prices, which have skyrocketed because of flooding in Thailand , where nearly half the world's hard disk drives are manufactured.

Some small PC makers have had to raise prices as much as 20% to account for the increase in hard drive costs.

Apple is in a good position to shift sales to notebooks based on SSD, or solid-state drives, because it locks in supplies of the flash memory used in SSDs by pre-paying billions to chip makers, said Gottheil. "Apple will definitely do a 15-in. MacBook Air," he said.

If Apple does expand the MacBook Air to a 15-in. model, neither Marshall or Gottheil expect the company to dump the MacBook Pro line, which comes in 13-in., 15-in. and 17-in. screen configurations.

"Personally, I don't think of the MacBook Pro as really portable, but more of a desktop replacement," said Marshall, who added that the audience for the Air and Pro lines are different enough that Apple will retain the latter.

"They'll sell them until the market says, 'No, thank you.' Apple has shown quite a bit of loyalty to their big machine fans," said Gottheil, pointing to the retention of the poor-selling Mac Pro desktop.

Apple's emphasis on online delivery of software -- in July, it launched Mac OS X 10.7, aka Lion, as an online-only upgrade -- also points to more emphasis on the Air, which shuns an optical drive.

"The optical drive is a thing of the past," said Gottheil. "[In computers], they're now used almost exclusively for playing CDs and DVDs."

Apple currently prices the MacBook Air starting at $999 for the 11-in. model and $1,299 for the 13-in. notebook. The least-expensive 15-in. MacBook Pro lists for $1,799.

The company last refreshed the MacBook Air in July 2011.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is [email protected] .

See more articles by Gregg Keizer .

Read more about macintosh in Computerworld's Macintosh Topic Center.


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