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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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