What the MacBook Air needs next

A processor bump and price cut are nice, but a next-gen laptop from Apple needs more updated features.

MacBook Air 13
Sarah Tew/CNET
It's a regular ritual now. Apple announces updates to the popular MacBook Air laptop line, sometimes at a major event such as WWDC, sometimes quietly in the middle of the night, as in the case of the most recent spec and price tweaks. Everyone nods and says the laptop is an even better deal now, but that it's still essentially the same machine we've seen for years.

And that's because the current MacBook Air model dates from 2010, and has undergone only minor tweaks since then, mostly to its CPU, networking hardware, and camera. How many other laptops, or even other consumer technology gadgets, can you say the same thing about?

Despite this, the current 13-inch (and even the 11-inch) MacBook Air laptops remain popular, and are the most common computer hardware I see on a daily basis in coffee shops and press conferences in New York and elsewhere. I've even gone so far as to call the 13-inch Air the single most universally useful laptop you can buy.

Apple MacBook Air
Sarah Tew/CNET
That said, there are some features and design tweaks a 2014 MacBook Air would benefit greatly from. While the internal configurations of the Air have largely kept pace with new technology, resulting in excellent generation-over-generation battery life and graphics performance, the design that felt so forward-looking and modern four years ago, has been eclipsed since then by newer ultrabooks and hybrids.

Change the aspect ratio

The 11-inch Air is the only MacBook with an industry standard 16:9 display (the same as found on HDTVs), while the 13-inch Air and the Pro models are all 16:10. Some people truly prefer 16:10, but the other aspect ratio has been dominant long enough that it's the established standard. These days, any premium 13-inch laptop without at least a 16:9 1,920x1,080 screen resolution simply feels second-class.

Add HDMI

A minor request, but one the MacBook Pro has been able to add, after years in which it seemed doubtful Apple would ever support HDMI on a laptop. It makes sharing video, photos, and even the cool stuff you can make in iLife apps easier. As more people start to use, for example, Keynote instead of PowerPoint for presentations, you may see more demand for this.

Higher-resolution displays

The Retina MacBook Pro kicked off the current trend towards better-than-HD displays, but this is one area where the Windows crowd has caught on quickly. Today, you'll find laptops nearly as thin and light as the MacBook Air, including the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro and Toshiba Kirabook, offering 3,200x1,800 or 2,560x1,440 displays for reasonable prices. It's definitely time for this feature to trickle down to the Air level.

Jump on the touchscreen bandwagon

Another long shot, to be sure, but I can't tell you how many times I've reached for the screen of my MacBook Air to scroll along a Web page to tap a button, or how many times I've heard the same exact story from others. It's because Windows 8, disliked as it may be, has already trained many computer users to expect touch screens on laptops. OS X lacks the tile-based, finger-friendly layout of Windows 8, but I find myself doing nearly all my swiping and tapping in the classic desktop environment anyway.

Some of these ideas may seem far-fetched to regular Apple-watchers, but the MacBook is not as monolithic and unchanging as one might think. The system has added some of our most-wanted features in recent years, including USB 3.0, faster 802.11n Wi-Fi, and a base 128GB SSD in the 11-inch version.

If some of these requests sound familiar, it may be because I've written about this topic before. A quick Google search turns up similar wish lists from 2011 and 2012 (and there may be more...), but I've got a good feeling that 2014 may be the year we finally get a next-generation MacBook Air.

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About the author

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of laptops, desktops, and Windows tablets, while also writing about games, gadgets, and other topics. A former radio DJ and member of Mensa, he's written about music and technology for more than 15 years, appearing in publications including Spin, Blender, and Men's Journal.

 

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