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Why it's time for the 13-inch MacBook Pro to go away

This could, and should, be the year for the MacBook Air to take the mantle as Apple's only 13-inch laptop. Here's why.

The 13-inch Pro: I'm ready to say goodbye. Sarah Tew/CNET

October 2008. I remember eagerly buying Apple's newly designed and sleekly beautiful unibody MacBook. My son, now 3 1/2, was just born. The last presidential election was just wrapping up. "Avatar" hadn't even come out yet. The iPhone was in its second iteration. The iPad was still a year and a half away.

A long time has passed since, yet the 13-inch MacBook Pro, in terms of just sheer design, has barely changed at all. Sure, under the hood it's a completely different computer: fast Intel processor, Thunderbolt, integrated long-life battery, better screen. Yet, I can line up that 2008 13-incher (then just known as the MacBook) next to the latest 13-inch Pro and most people wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

One of the most popular pieces I wrote last year compared the 13-inch Pro with the 13-inch MacBook Air. At the beginning of 2011, the Pro had a clear advantage in terms of battery life and even performance. However, by midyear, the new Air had caught up. Its battery life and general performance, according to our CNET benchmarks, met what the Pro had to offer.

The Pro had a slight CPU bump at the end of 2011, but remains largely the same computer as the early 2011 model.

I've always been someone who leaned slightly toward the Pro as the laptop of choice, if one had to pick an all-around Apple computer. The reasons are few, though: the optical drive, which could be useful for some; the extra hard-drive storage gained by not adopting an SSD like the Air; and, well, that's about it.

Thin is destined to become the norm.

I think it's time for the 13-inch Pro to go away, and I have a feeling 2012 will be the year it happens.

Apple products tend to lean toward simplification of a product line. There used to be three 13-inch Mac laptops: the white MacBook, the Pro, and the Air. Now there are two. I think that will drop to one. It should happen, for these reasons:

Few people use optical drives. Oh, I've defended the DVD drive for years. I remember when watching DVDs on my Mac was a huge deal. For installing software or importing CD music, it's handy--or, for making disc backups. OK, who am I kidding: I never use my DVD drive anymore. We're in an age where Netflix lives on my iPad. Simple streaming and large-capacity external hard drives and USB flash drives--plus, of course, cloud storage--have changed the equation. Plus, Apple doesn't seem too fond of optical drives--the Air lacks one, and so does the 2011 Mac Mini. If you need a DVD drive, buy an external one...or, get a larger laptop that has one.

The performance is equivalent. The Air, as we learned last year, really has almost the same performance as the entry-level Pro circa February 2011 (we didn't get a fall 2011 13-inch Pro for review, so we can't compare--but, the spec bump wasn't massive). The 13-inch Pro doesn't have dedicated graphics, just integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics, like the Air. Battery life is the same. Yet, the Air is lighter. That matters.

This year's Ivy Bridge bump will make the Air even more powerful. Graphics and performance should see even greater improvements compared with the already-impressive 2011 Air, which could erase many concerns from power users. Odds are, the 2012 MacBook Air will feature the Ivy Bridge processors we're already glimpsing in this year's ultrabooks.

The 15-inch Pro seems due for a redesign, and it should be the new Pro. For higher-end graphics and maybe an optical drive, a 15-inch MacBook Pro should be where an interested Mac user chooses to go. Based on the new wave of high-powered 14- and 15-inch ultrabooks seen at CES 2012, my guess is that Apple will slim down the Pro while still offering high-powered graphics and pro-oriented features, making it a 15-inch "ultrabook plus" of sorts. That would leave the 13-inch Air to claim the sole spot as the heir to the MacBook, while the 11-inch Air remains the superportable laptop.

If hybrid hard drives are offered, then my one gripe about the 13-inch Air goes away. Some ultrabooks have begun offering hybrid hard drives, mixing larger-capacity magnetic storage with a small cache of SSD flash storage. The Acer Aspire S3 had one, and upcoming ultrabooks like the Samsung Series 5 Ultra will feature them, too. While SSD seems to be a more streamlined solution, hybrid drives can bridge the gap and offer 500GB capacities for laptop users until SSD flash storage prices can perhaps drop in the future. I don't want to live with only 128GB of storage on my laptop, and I'd rather not pay more for the privilege of 256GB. I think a lot of laptop customers feel the same way.

How would you feel if the 13-inch Air was Apple's only 13-inch MacBook? Sound off below.