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Can the MacBook Air replace the White MacBook? Maybe it's not trying to.

The White MacBook is dead, leaving the MacBook Air as the cheapest Apple laptop around. That is, unless you consider the iPad a viable alternative.

MacBook Air, iPad with keyboard: The new Apple portable spectrum.
MacBook Air, iPad with keyboard: The new Apple portable spectrum.
Sarah Tew/CNET

Is the MacBook Air the new mainstream MacBook?

The White MacBook is dead. The cheaper, plastic $999 legacy to iBooks and PowerBooks of old has finally been removed from the spectrum of Apple laptops, and suddenly the decision spectrum has narrowed to two choices: the MacBook Pro, and the thinner MacBook Air, updated this morning with a faster processor and preinstalled with OSX Lion.

The MacBook Air has walked an interesting path since 2008, first as a high-end executive plaything, then a more attainable but still specialty interest ultraportable. Last year's MacBook Airs debuted in October, well after back-to-school shopping.

This year, however, the new Airs have emerged in late July, perfectly timed for students planning their computer purchases. The MacBook Pro, meanwhile, last saw an update back in February.

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• First impressions: Apple's new Mac Mini
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• Apple unveils first Thunderbolt display for $999
• Apple quietly discontinues white MacBook
• Apple updates MacBook Air, Mac Mini

A $999 MacBook still remains; the 11-inch Air's base model costs the same as that older white MacBook. Its 1.6GHz Core i5 processor feels far zippier than last year's Air, but its limited storage (64GB of flash memory) presents a limit to hold-everything-on-your-hard-drive people. On first boot-up, 48GB of drive space was free to use, which limits what you'd permanently keep on your computer. That 64GB of storage can be expanded up to 256GB at the time of purchase, but that drives the price up, too, by several hundred dollars.

Or, does that matter anymore? Cloud storage, which was the dangling promise behind the original concept of the MacBook Air, is more widely adopted now than ever before. Music and photo libraries can be easily stored on remote servers; streaming video services are more widespread. iCloud will offer more options for hosting redownloadable music, saving some headaches on local media storage (Amazon and Google Music offer other solutions). Alternately, the newly added Thunderbolt port offers an intriguing option for students: add an attractive but pricey $999 Thunderbolt Display, and dock your MacBook Air into a desktop-like environment, along with all the added ports that the Air is missing (Ethernet, FireWire, more USB ports).

Now playing: Watch this: Apple MacBook Air (11-inch, Summer 2011)

The MacBook Air isn't a white MacBook, though, and never will be. It's something different--smaller, lighter. And, its $999 starting price will be one that many people will consider upgrading on to add more storage space. That might upend the value equation of the MacBook Air for many people, as we posited last year.

That, of course, brings up the other elephant in the Apple Store: the iPad.

Apple's tablet shipped 9.25 million units last quarter, and to many people it's already replacing a laptop. Add a keyboard and it's a functional computer, if limited compared with what an OS X-equipped MacBook with keyboard and trackpad can do. What Apple has now is a spectrum of choices: iPad, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro. The spectrum starts at $499 and ends at more than $2,000. Where do you land? Do you buy an iPad and a desktop iMac, or go with a more powerful MacBook and possibly a desktop docking display?

Perhaps Apple wants customers to make this choice carefully. Maybe there isn't a MacBook for everyone anymore, and maybe that's the point in a post-iPad world.

Apple's current best-selling laptop has been the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which was also our choice for the best 13-incher in Apple's stable back in March. Lately, however, I've heard many more friends chiming in about either buying MacBook Airs or wanting to. The Air is clearly a more desirable laptop for many people; the only question is, has the time finally come where it's also the most practical?

What do you think? What would you buy: an iPad, a MacBook Air, or a MacBook Pro?

Our colleague at ZDNet Larry Dignan has a more disappointed take on the MacBook Air's new position in the Apple spectrum. Read his take here.