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Apple's New MacBook Air: The End of the Conventional Hard Drive?

Apple introduced the latest version of the MacBook Air today, and it's a feat of miniaturization. Steve Jobs described it as "what would happen if a MacBook and an iPad hooked up." Perhaps most intriguingly, the new MacBook Air replaces a traditional hard drive with solid state (read: Flash) storage. Is this the end of the hard drive?

A solid state hard drive means that the Air turns on instantly (much like the iPad), has a seven-hour battery life, and can live in standby mode for up to 30 days. The new flash drive is also a staggering 90% tinier and lighter than a standard laptop hard drive, and it's more reliable than a hard drive, too (no moving parts).

Apple 's decision to eschew a regular hard drive does make the Air pricey; the 1.4 GHz 11-inch model with 2GB of memory and 64GB of flash storage starts at $999, with the highest-end model (13.3-inch Air with 256GB of flash memory) climbing to $1,599.

There's another reason why we won't see hard drives disappear completely any time soon: no hard drive means no CD/DVD drive, either. It could be argued that downloading, the Mac app store, and Netflix-like online services will replace the need for these drives a few years down the line—but not quite yet.

The Air's stats are impressive for such a small device. There's a 1.8GHZ processor and 128GB of flash memory inside the 13 inch model, and a 1.8GHz processor and 256GB of flash in the 11 inch model. Both offer silent operation—no hard drive means no fans—a FaceTime camera (formerly iSight), multi-touch trackpad, full keyboard, Core 2 Duo processor, and NVidia 320M graphics.

Apple has also applied the unibody frame construction that was lately introduced to the MacBook Pro line. One result of that is that the Air is an astonishingly thin 0.11 inches at its thinnest wedge, and 0.68 inches at its thickest. The weight is just 2.3 pounds for the 11-inch model. The 13-inch model, though, weighs-in at 2.9 pounds—which is the same as the previous generation. 

The new MacBook Air models are available today.