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New MacBook Airs, Pros put ultrabook makers on notice

The latest MacBooks announced at yesterday's Worldwide Developers Conference will create even more challenges for the growing ultrabook market.

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The new MacBook Airs and Pros unveiled at WWDC promise to make life harder for ultrabook vendors.

The MacBook Air received several key improvements, including the new Intel Ivy Bridge processor, higher-end graphics, and options for more memory and a larger solid-state drive. But beyond the specs, the new prices will prove appealing to the average consumer.

Prices remained the same for the lower-end 11-inch and 13-inch units but were trimmed by $100 for the higher-end models -- $1,099 for the 11-incher and $1,499 for the 13-incher. In a consumer market where every dollar counts, even that $100 price cut will put pressure on rival ultrabook makers to keep costs low on their products.

But low prices aren't the key to Apple's success. Intel has been pushing the ultrabook concept, even envisioning starting prices sinking as low as $699 this year. And some vendors, such as Dell, have gained traction with their ultrabook models. Yet Apple remains on top of the market by offering high-quality products with the usual Apple flair.

Offering his take on the flood of ultrabooks hitting the market, Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller said of the MacBook Air at WWDC yesterday that "everyone is trying to copy it, but they find it's not so easy."

Setting aside prices for now, the new MacBook Pros could also eat into the sales of ultrabook makers. The standard 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros now offer the Ivy Bridge processor, better graphics, and more hard drive options. The thickness, weight, and prices remain the same.

Instead, it's the new 15-inch Retina Display model that should find a healthy niche among users who want a high-quality, thin laptop and don't mind paying for it. Yes, it is expensive, starting at a price of $2,199, more than twice that of the average ultrabook. So it's not for the typical price-conscious buyer. But with a Retina display and thinner design, this new notebook will find an eager audience.

The Retina Display brings high-resolution graphics to the 15-inch MacBook Pro, offering a resolution of 2,880 x 1,800 pixels. Translated, that means 220 pixels per inch for a total 5.18 million pixels, granting the new Pro the highest-resolution in the business, certainly among 15-inch laptops.

The new display is far from the only new feature to guarantee the MacBook Pro an edge. The height of the new Pro is less than three-quarters of an inch. That's just slightly thicker than the thickest MacBook Air. Other options include an Ivy Bridge Core i7 processor, high-end graphics, up to 16GB of memory, and a speedy 768GB solid-state drive.

Some Wall Street analysts echo the potential of the new MacBook Pro to strengthen Apple's lead among the ultrabook crowd.

"The next-gen Pro includes the visually stunning Retina Display and a thinner body," J.P. Morgan analyst Mark Moskowitz wrote in an investors note out today. "Alongside the Air improvements, we think the next-gen Pro affirms Apple's technology leadership in the ultra-portable category for productivity users, which is important as the WinTel crowd aims to catch up with Apple."

And that last point is key. Ultrabook makers are counting on low prices and the launch of Windows 8 to drive sales of their PCs. But with each new refresh, Apple continues to retain its grip on the market, forcing its rivals to play second fiddle.