The flash future of the MacBook

Apple CEO Steve Jobs made it clear yesterday that the hard-drive-less MacBook Air is the future of his company's notebook lineup.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
4 min read
Steve Jobs said all notebooks will be like the MacBook Air some day. That means no hard drive.
Steve Jobs said all notebooks will be like the MacBook Air some day. That means no hard drive. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

The new MacBook Air offers a window into the future of Apple's laptops. And if you ask Steve Jobs, it's the future of all laptops.

During his 90-minute presentation at Apple headquarters yesterday, Jobs introduced two models of a redesigned MacBook Air, an 11-inch and 13-inch. Both are supremely skinny (less than .11 inches at the tiniest point) and weigh in at just under three pounds. Two very explicit feature choices enabled that: leaving out the optical drive for loading discs, and the decision to drop the hard drive. Instead, there's just a flash-based solid-state drive. And there's going to be more where that came from.

"All notebooks will be like this someday," Jobs said, adding that the Air is "the future of the MacBook."

Why? Well, it's a practical issue: Apple made that design choice in order to squeeze bigger, longer-lasting batteries inside and to slim down the profile as much as possible.

But it's also related to a larger philosophical issue for Apple. Jobs framed it during his presentation yesterday that the new Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion) coming out next summer was heavily informed by the iPad and its instant-on, App Store-accessing iOS mobile operating system.

The way the iPad is used--for some productivity apps, consuming media, checking e-mail--is very similar to where Jobs apparently sees notebooks going someday. Jobs reiterated his hope for this later in the hallway in a comment made to my colleague, saying that to him, "What's most exciting is we got rid of the hard drive."

The original Air introduced in 2008 had a standard hard drive but came with a solid-state drive (SSD) as a much more expensive option. Now if you want an Air, it's the only option. To potential customers this could seem rather limiting, and the idea of that being the only option someday rather undesirable. For Apple, though, this is not that much of an adjustment.

Apple is already the largest flash memory customer in the world, stuffing those chips inside the roughly 9 million iPods, 14 million iPhones, and 4 million iPads it sells every three months. Now it is setting itself up as the biggest cheerleader for solid-state notebooks.

Even though SSD was an option in the original Air, Apple didn't push the flash agenda in notebooks at all. Today it's a different story. Jobs strongly hinted Apple is someday planning to eventually make flash-based notebooks standard. He seems to be thinking, if it's good enough for the iPhone and iPad, why not for a superportable laptop?

Of course, Apple is not the only one making SSD standard in smaller notebooks. Sony's done it with the Vaio Z notebook, too, and some of the very first Netbooks were flash-only but in very small capacities, around 16GB and lower.

So what's great about an flash-based notebook? A few positives:

• Takes up less room. As we noted, that's the biggest reason why Apple is going in that direction. They just pop some flash memory onto the system board and call it a day. No hard drive enclosure, or even an SSD enclosure, to make room for anymore.

• Flash memory is faster. If Apple is trying to re-create the experience of using an iPad with its instant-on capability and its ability to automatically resume right where you left off in an app, a solid-state drive doesn't take as much time to wake up as a hard drive does. Jobs said the Air with flash is "twice as fast" as an Air with a regular hard drive.

• Cooler temps. Jobs likes quiet machines--you won't find a noisy fan in his notebooks. Hard drives spin furiously when reading and writing data, generating heat while they're at it. Flash-based drives don't have moving parts to generate as much heat. (Still, cooling can be a problem in the original MacBook Air, as some have reported. We'll see if Apple was able to solve that with this new design.)

• Safer for klutzes. Flash memory doesn't have the moving parts of a hard drive, so dropping a flash-based notebook or bumping it means you're much less likely to cause a really nasty/expensive data loss problem for yourself.

Of course, not everyone will think this is the best idea. For the following reasons:

• Flash is still relatively expensive. Traditional hard drives are cheaper right now, and price can be the deciding factor when shopping. But that will continue to change over time.

• More expensive means smaller doses. Apple is offering 64GB, 128GB, and 256GB capacities of the new MacBook Air. The 13-inch 256GB version is the most expensive at $1,600. On the flip side, the smallest capacity 13-inch MacBook Pro has basically the same size hard drive as the largest Air, 250GB, for $1,200--so there remains a pretty big price gap. Still, it's shrinking. And as it gets cheaper, it will be a much easier sell to even price-conscious buyers that all Apple's notebooks have solid-state drives.

• Reliability over time. Even Samsung, one of the top producers of flash memory, warns that their performance can degrade over time depending on how a device is used.

So while it's not without its drawbacks even now, it's safe to assume flash memory performance and price will continue to improve over time.

How long though? It's looking very likely that in the next few years flash-based notebooks will be the norm for Apple, and ordering a traditional hard drive might be just an add-on option in the ordering process. That seems especially likely as Mac OS is moving toward becoming more like iOS, which only runs on flash-based devices. And where Apple goes--as we've seen in MP3 players, touch-screen tablets, and smartphones--the rest of the hardware industry follows.