How Apple's MacBook Air Refresh Will Slay Optical Drives, Make You Reconsider Hard Drives

MacBook Air leak

This week we're expecting big things from Apple. One of them is a MacBook Air refresh, and some tempting details surfaced over the weekend. The leaked data inspires one interesting thought: Are we about to say bye-bye to the optical drive?

Engadget landed photos of a prototype for the Air refresh, dating from around April this year—the tech is definitely an advanced engineering model, since it incorporates the same CPU chip from existing Airs (rather than a souped up version that you can expect in a wholly new machine).

We're in for some surprises. Gone is the little flip-down port for the USB socket that Apple proudly patented for the original version. Instead it looks like the entire machine is super-slim, possibly not even sporting the aerodynamic wedge of the current Air. Rumors are saying the base of the device is just a little deeper than a USB port has to be—we're talking in the 8mm-ish range.

To achieve this Apple has ditched the hard drive and the optical drive.

Take note of this—it may be the biggest secret of these new machines, because Apple used the last Air as a test vehicle for the unibody MacBook and iPad designs. Apple's saying you don't need a hard drive, or an optical drive...even if you think you do.. In-built expandable storage is enough, they're available as add-ons if you're so inclined, and with wireless connectivity (and a cheap USB hub) you can access data in many ways, should you need to. Think of the last time you made heavy use of your optical drive, and ponder how many Apple users totally cram up their 320GB hard drives, and you'll see why.

There's also some discussion about those four battery packs in the chassis. They're possibly cheap off-the-shelf units, which Apple may replace with a custom size-optimized version in the real machine, since this could potentially result in greater energy storage capacity. But if Apple keeps the cheaper units in there, they may be able to sell the Air at a newer, lower price point. There's one USB port, one unknown port that looks the wrong shape and geometry to be another USB—it's almost tempting to suggest it may be a microSIM card-slot for 3G connections. There's also an SD card slot, useful for storage expansion since the new Air apparently uses a custom solid-state drive that's more like a USB memory stick. MagSafe power is there, a mini-DVI display port...and that's it.

Discussions about the circuitry aside, the MacBook Air isn't all about raw computing power—of which it makes do with an elegant sufficiency. It's not a netbook, but it's as light as one, and it has a full-size keyboard and a high-end-ish price ticket that positioned it as a luxury device (originally, with price drops it's now a more mainstream-priced computer).

So, what you really want to know about the new Air is how it'll look and feel when you use it. The answer is super-slim, even thinner than the existing Air, but with few compromises over the "traditional" notebook and even the rumored 11.6-inch model should be able to manage a full-size keyboard. The machine will have a long battery life (thanks to the lack of hard drive and optical drive), be almost instant-on, make extensive use of wireless tech—like its iPad and iPhone brethren—and you'll be able to carry it around almost without noticing.

Just like Apple's decision to ditch floppy drives, ahead of the competition, we could be seeing Apple trying to push the boundaries of notebook design with the new Airs—particularly if their design thinking carries over into the regular MacBook line. Assuming, that is, that these photos relate to how the new Air really is—which we're inclined to think is true.

To keep up with this news, and more like it, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

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  • Jon

    There are machines that mix portability with power like the M11x. I actually recently bought an m11x and love it to death. I think that we will see a mixture of portable pc's that utilize dedicated graphics and a fairly intense CPU.

  • Robert Brennan

    While professionals may appreciate the simplicity of Apple's products they are obviously after the higher volume mainstream market. They may have started by producing high end equipment but they are definitely focusing on the main market share now.

    They still probably produce good quality products but you'll have to look elsewhere in their product lines for a laptop that you describe. Although i don't understand why anyone would want to use a laptop for graphics and processing. seems like you're already making large sacrifices in the first place. save the post processing for the desktop.

  • Sheena Medina

    Robert- It's true. Kit points out "the MacBook Air isn't all about raw computing power," and those that need it would probably fare better on a desktop. However, it seems kind of like punishment to those who want to remain mobile along with the rest of the world. Why sacrifice power for mobility? Can't we have both?

  • Robert Brennan

    Like I said, you're going to have to look elsewhere in their line of products. specifically the Macbook Pro.

    I have an old Dell that weighs nearly 15 pounds and is probably slower with a smaller HDD than the modern apple products. It's also nearly eight years old now. At the time it was one of the more powerful laptops available to consumers. Now it's a brick. Give it time.

    Apple has invested a ton into new technologies. I can't wait for solid state hard drives to drop in price. but for now i gotta wait.

  • Bud Thompson

    Sheena is correct. Apple drifts toward gadgets. The iPad is clunky and useless in most professional situations. The laptop non-glare screen, which is highly desirable in studios, is now an expensive option if available at all.

  • Sheena Medina

    This makes me consider what the future might hold for professionals in creative fields such as photography, film/video, audio arts and acoustics, and other professions that require massive amounts of hard drive space as par for the course. What might the future market space be for those that want to be nimble, yet still capable of producing the quality results that are made possible by having the proper tools at your disposal? The Macbook Air, isn't it. Quite frankly the faster Apple, and others, heads towards smaller, more mobile devices, the slower it makes the software companies seem. I'm referring to programs that require massive amount of hard drive, RAM, and processing capabilities such as Pro Tools, Logic, Final Cut, Avid, basically anything made by Adobe etc. Where does this current trend/shift towards mobility leave the professionals who use these tools?

  • Randy Goodrich

    @Sheena Medina - "Where does this current trend/shift towards mobility leave the professionals who use these tools?" You're still free to purchase Apple's powerhouse 17-inch MBP (2.66GHz, Intel Core i7, 8GB Memory, 500GB hard drive, etc). The introduction of a new MBA does not presuppose the demise of more powerful laptops, nor even suggest it. There is no "trend/shift" towards MOBILITY, there is a "trend/shift" towards INNOVATION, and much innovation these days involves making technology smaller and lighter. By no means does that suggest that notebook manufacturers will EVER stop producing the most powerful laptops that they possibly can. There is no reason to read into the MBA as anything more than Apple trying to meet the needs of one specific user... the user who wants an exceptionally portable machine with above-average, albeit not top-of-the-line, specs. There is certainly a market for this.

  • Gabriel Villa

    Professionals should stick to the Pro units; (think MacBook Pro) other units are for the rest of us.
    And for the occasional job, there's always 1TB external HDD available. (i know it's not that fast, but hey, it get's done.)