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MacBook Air: Not the thinnest notebook ever

Apple's new notebook is 0.76 inch thick, which is probably the second thinnest ever.

The MacBook Air, unfurled today, might be the thinnest notebook on the market today, but it's not the thinnest of all time.

Daniel Terdiman/CNET

That distinction belongs to the Pedion, an ill-fated notebook developed by Mitsubishi and Hewlett-Packard back in 1997.The Pedion measured 18.4 millimeters thick, which comes out to 0.7244 inch thick. Although the Air gets to 0.16 inch at the thinnest point, the Air is 0.76 inch thick at the beefiest portion, making it minutely thicker. Mitsubishi released the Pedion in early 1998.

The Pedion, however, wasn't exactly the paragon of quality or value. The $6,000 notebook came with 64MB of memory and a 1GB hard drive. The notebook came with a magnesium case to make it sturdy. Even with that, though, consumers quickly reported mechanical and other problems. Mitsubishi subsequently withdrew the notebook from the market. (HP never came out with its version, I don't think. I'll check.) The name probably didn't help either. "Attention Circuit City employees. I have a Pedion on aisle one."

Apple calls the Air the world's thinnest notebook. How you interpret that ("on the market today" or "ever") is up to you.

Others have come close but not limboed under. A special-edition Sony Vaio X505 sold back in 2004 comes close to the Air. The notebook, issued in limited numbers to commemorate the Vaio line, measured 0.8 inch thick at the fattest point and 0.38 inch at the thinnest. Part of the shell was made of carbon fiber for strength.

Sony's thinnest notebook now, meanwhile, measures 1.2 inches thick at the fattest point and 0.8 inch thick at the thinnest point. (If you asked me in college if I'd be arguing notebook thinness as a grown up, I would have laughed.)

Although the Pedion died a quick, ugly death, some of the ideas behind it linger on, and one of those ideas is the thin notebook with a medium-size screen. Back then, most mini-notebooks came with small screens and keyboards. The Pedion had a 12-inch screen, big for the time, and a relatively normal-size keyboard. In other words, it had normal X and Y dimensions, but a small Z. The formula has been popular ever since.

Although notebook makers have for the past few years focused quite a bit of attention on notebooks with 15-inch and larger screens, the new battleground will be in the 11-inch and 13-inch screen arena, predicted Xavier Lauwaert, a Vaio product manager. These notebooks are roughly similar to dimensions of the old Mitsubishi model.

Dell recently put out a light notebook with a 13-inch screen, while Sony showed off 11-inch and 13-inch models at CES. The Air fits in the same category.

"There will be a war around thinness, battery life, and price/performance. You can see this is where everyone is going," Lauwaert said. In these notebooks, optical drives become an option.

Manufacturers will also have to explore chemistry labs as well to find new materials similar to carbon fiber that can be fashioned into thin chassis.