When Steve Jobs first pulled the MacBook Air out of a manila envelope in 2008, it wasn't just a crazy-thin laptop -- it was a downright crazy idea. For nearly $US2000, you got a notebook with no DVD drive, a minuscule amount of storage and ports, and an underpowered processor.
That crazy idea turned out to be the future of laptops. Nearly six years later, the laptop -- from its tapered aluminium exterior to its compact internal organs -- has been copied by nearly every Windows PC maker.
Yet over the past few years, Apple's ultra-thin original has stayed on top with upgrades and price drops, the most recent of which came last week when Apple cut the base price to $US899 during a minor refresh. That once outrageously priced laptop is now the most affordable laptop Apple has ever sold. But has the best stopped getting better? And if so, what should Apple pull out of the envelope next? Should it even be a laptop?
The only tweak this time is a slightly faster Intel Core i5 processor -- faster on paper, that is. In my tests comparing the latest and previous models, I didn't even notice a difference. Performance was already fine for most needs. The processor, coupled with the baseline 4GB of RAM, can drive a large second monitor, muscle through most photo editing and basic video editing, and even run Windows through software like Parallels. All that with enough battery life to get you through the day.
It's still got the same unmatched trackpad response, comfortable backlit keyboard and sturdy aluminium build. The 11-inch version costs $US899 and has nine hours of battery life, but I'd suggest going for the $US999 13-inch version if you need more screen and keyboard real estate, an SD card slot and 12 hours of battery life. Even if you double the internal storage to 256GB and double the RAM to 8GB, the total cost is still $US1299.
My verdict: If you need a new laptop, this is the one to buy, especially with the $US100 price cut. In fact, that's been my verdict on the Air for several years. I've never met a better laptop. And I've met a lot of laptops.
As confident as I am that the Air is the best laptop ever made, I'm now confident that the best laptop has for the moment stopped getting better. What happens after the once-envelope-pushing notebook becomes the mainstream standard?
There are some improvements I'd still like to see in a future MacBook Air. The first is a high-definition Retina display, like on the latest MacBook Pros. Even the iPads that Apple sells for $US399 have more pixels per inch than the MacBook Airs. Meanwhile, Toshiba will soon ship a laptop with an Ultra HD screen that's four times the resolution of your TV. Presumably, Apple is worried about sacrificing battery life for a better screen, but the company won't comment on these issues.
I'd also like a fresh look. Now that everyone has copied the Air's silver, I'm yearning for something darker, similar to the 'space grey' iPhone.
There has been speculation that Apple is preparing to release a 12-inch Air with a Retina screen and a new design later this year, to coincide with the release of the next version of the Mac's OS X. The company declined to comment.
Those aren't revolutionary updates, though. Some believe true laptop innovation is dead, that laptops are relics in comparison with 'post-PC' tablets and smartphones. They're wrong. Laptops can be just as post-PC as tablets. The only real difference currently separating them is the form factor.
And even that is changing, as tablets and laptops careen toward each other. Just look at the plethora of Windows 8.1 touch-screen laptop hybrids, or Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro, which is beefed up with a keyboard and app multitasking. People who want to do more on their tablets are turning them back into laptops.
Apple CEO Tim Cook compared Microsoft's Windows 8 strategy -- combine mobile and desktop operating systems -- to breeding a toaster with a refrigerator. Yet Apple itself is slowly doing the same thing, bringing tablet features like iMessage, iBooks and an App Store to its Macs while making it easier to connect keyboards and external displays to iPads. Apple is even expected to introduce a redesigned version of its Mac operating system this year that looks more like iOS 7.
Consumers are increasingly confused by the blurring lines, too. When weighing the 11-inch MacBook Air versus the 9.7-inch iPad Air, both are highly portable computers with a similar footprint, especially when you attach a keyboard to the iPad. With the iPad you get a great tablet experience capable of some laptop tasks. With the littlest MacBook, you get a computer that is comfortable on your lap, but no fun to read on in bed.
What I really want to come out of the envelope one day is a piece of hardware that pushes both Airs together without compromise. Yes, that means a super-slim machine with a touch screen, some sort of keyboard, 4G connectivity and multi-day battery life. But I want other features, too, that can liberate us from the ways we interacted with computers in the PC era.
How about Siri, managing email on our phones and laptops? Gesture control to manipulate on-screen objects with a wave of the hand? Wireless or even solar power, so I can ditch the charger? Connection ports disappearing altogether, as everything goes wireless and up into the cloud?
That all may sound crazy, but so did the original Air. Now look how normal it seems.