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MacBook Air: The value equation

Apple's new MacBook Airs are undeniably attractive, but is there room for them in the portable landscape?

MacBook Airs start at $999, and go up from there.
MacBook Airs start at $999, and go up from there. CNET

Now that Apple's ultrathin MacBook Air has fallen into a price range placing it firmly between the iPad and the MacBook Pro, it occupies an unusual position from both price and functionality standpoints. The Air is more versatile than an iPad, but it's also far from a stand-alone laptop. In the end, could that hurt its adoption?

The long-awaited and rumored 11.6-inch MacBook Air announced at today's Apple keynote joins a landscape of 11.6-inch high-end laptops we've seen appearing throughout 2010. The 2010 11.6-inch Air starts at $999, and while it's more expensive than nearly any other 11.6-incher, it's also extremely thin and boasts an impressive purported battery life. Its specs include a 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM, 64GB of flash storage, and Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics, but it only has 2 USB ports and Mini Displayport-out. There is no SD card slot, no Ethernet port, and no HDMI.

Comparatively, the $899 Acer Aspire TimelineX 1830T-68U118, a recent Windows 11.6-inch ultraportable we got some hands-on time with, has a 1.46GHz Intel Core i7-680UM CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive. The 1830T only has integrated Intel graphics, but it also has three USB ports, HDMI and VGA-out, Ethernet, and an SD card slot, forming a full-fledged feature set that matches most larger mainstream machines.

The devil might be in the details: construction-wise, the Acer TimelineX feels like a plastic Netbook, with a notably small trackpad and palm rest. The MacBook Air's generous multitouch trackpad looks like a much better bet ergonomically, and if the Air's battery and fast boot-up times hold up to the claims made at Apple's keynote, they could be more valuable features than a few extra ports.

Unfortunately, while the Acer TimelineX we looked at represents the high end of the 1830T series at $899, $999 is just the beginning of the MacBook Air price curve. Doubling the flash storage to 128GB costs an extra $200; adding 2GB more RAM costs an extra $100. The grand total of $1,299 comes to more than the cost of the 2.4GHz 13-inch MacBook Pro.

The 13-inch Air, on the other hand, starts at $1,299 and climbs all the way to $1,599, putting it the same elite business-toy category it was in to begin with. Some might prefer the slim size, and the 13-inch Air does throw in that elusive SD card slot, but it will be interesting to see if anyone picks the 13-inch Air as a MacBook Pro alternative any more than before.

While there's undeniable value to having a portable with a keyboard, would you find the 11.6-inch Air a more tempting travel portable than an iPad? Right now, I'm not sure I would. And, will its special design qualities make it a system worth the premium over 11.6-inch ultraportables already on the market? Stay tuned for more impressions.