Five things the next-gen MacBook Air needs to compete with ultrabooks

The latest ultrabooks haven't beaten the MacBook Air yet, but they're getting closer. Here are some upgrades the next ultrathin Apple laptop could use to maintain the lead.

Apple

A new generation of slim, lightweight laptops has taken the PC world by storm. These ultrabooks (to use Intel's trademarked marketing term) are exactly what many laptop shoppers have been longing for, a PC version of Apple's MacBook Air that runs Windows.

But despite very strong showings from HP, Dell, Lenovo, and others , there still is not an ultrabook on the market right now that really beats the MacBook Air in a head-to-head shootout. That's not because of price, processing power, or features -- the Air is more expensive, has about the same CPU horsepower, and lacks many of the ports and connections found on the best ultrabooks. But it still wins on overall experience, thanks to an excellent keyboard and touch pad, the tight unibody construction, extra-long battery life, and sleep, resume, and instant-on features that actually work.

That said, the current MacBook Air dates from July 2011, and the newest ultrabooks have several important features that Apple's slim laptop lacks. Systems such as the HP Folio 13 and Toshiba Z835 have taken the best parts of the MacBook Air and added the kind of mainstream features we've come to expect in any 13-inch laptop (although some of the ultrabooks we've seen skimp on these features as well).

In order to stay competitive, the next version of the MacBook Air, whenever it is released, should include one or more of these recommended upgrades, so it can stay competitive with the growing wave of ultrabooks, some of which are good enough that Apple really should be looking over its shoulder.

HDMI
This request sounds like a broken record, but there are good reasons we keep coming back to it. Nearly every ultrabook includes this universal audio/video connector, while Apple sticks with Mini DisplayPort. Sure, you can get an adapter, but that's not nearly as convenient as plugging right into a big-screen TV or external monitor with a stock cable that you're likely to find sitting around any office.

Apple

Lower price
A couple of the earliest ultrabooks toyed with $1,099 or $1,199 prices, but most are well under that, at $899 or $999. The entry-level 13-inch MacBook Air, with the same 128GB capacity SSD and Intel Core i5 CPU that you'll find in the $899 HP Folio 13, costs $1,299. Even Dell's MacBook Air-alike, the XPS 13 , is only $999. That's not to say the Air is still not a better overall user experience, but with these price differences, it's getting harder to make the pro-Apple argument.

Ethernet jack
Another feature that current MacBook Air users can get with an external adapter, but it's so important that it seems like the kind of thing that should be built in (and on many, but not all, ultrabooks, it is). Everyone I know with a MacBook Air or other Ethernet-free laptop has run into a situation where the available Wi-Fi has been too slow, or just completely nonfunctional (perhaps at the offices of a major technology Web site...) and had to reach for a Cat5 cable. If you don't have a jack or the adapter dongle, you're out of luck.

Asus UX21
Philip Wong/CNET Asia

USB 3.0
Yes, Apple has its own high-speed data port with Thunderbolt, but that technology has, frankly, never really caught on. To be fair, most of the USB devices you're likely to use are USB 2.0, but every single ultrabook to date, and most other recent laptops, all have at least one USB 3.0 port, and by later in 2012, even budget laptops will likely have at least two.

Josh Miller/CNET

Screen resolution and aspect ratio
Did you know that the 11-inch MacBook Air is the only Apple laptop with a 16:9 aspect ratio? The 13-inch Air and all MacBook Pro models are still 16:10. The relative merits of each can be debated endlessly, but 16:9 is definitely the consumer standard, matches perfectly with your HDTV and HD video content, and allows for a smaller chassis. In the case of the 13-inch MacBook Air, it would likely mean a 1,600x900-pixel native screen resolution, rather than the current 1,440x900-pixel display, although both are preferable to the 1,366x768 in the majority of current ultrabooks (the Asus Zenbook's screen is 1,600x900 pixels).

Has the increased competition made these must-have features for the next MacBook Air? Or would a simple CPU upgrade be more than enough to steal some of the spotlight back from the current generation of ultrabooks? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

 

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