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Will HP, Dell, Sony answer 11-inch MacBook Air?

Major PC makers have close--but no direct--competitors to the 2.3-pound MacBook Air. Will Apple force the top five laptop suppliers to address this market segment? Or will Apple's cachet keep rivals at bay?

Neither Dell nor Hewlett-Packard nor Sony have laptops that compete directly with the 2.3-pound, 11.6-inch MacBook Air. Is this a new market segment that those three laptop leaders and others will have to address?

Sony has the Vaio Y series, but that hardly compares with the 11.6-inch MacBook Air.
Sony has the Vaio Y series, but that hardly compares to the 11.6-inch MacBook Air. Sony

Apple has a knack for creating new markets, the iPad being the most recent example. Though not as groundbreaking or broadly market-defining as the iPad, the smaller Air is clearly unique: wrapped in aluminum, while considerably lighter than a typical 3-pound 11.6-inch laptop. And it packs higher-end silicon--and better performance--than Netbooks. (I spent some time in three different Apple stores in the Los Angeles area right after the new Airs were announced, and from what I saw, the 11.6-inch MBA elicited the most oohs and aahs--hands down.)

I would submit that the Air has wedged itself (pun intended) into an elite sub-2.5-pound laptop segment where little direct competition currently exists. There are hordes of 10-inch class Netbooks out there. But, again, a $350 Windows 7-based Netbook is a very different class of laptop. Then there are products like Dell's 11.6-inch Inspiron M101z. But that is a low-end plastic Netbook-class product.

2010 MacBook Air
2010 MacBook Air Apple

Lenovo--though not listed up top--warrants an honorable mention with its IdeaPad U160 11.6-inch laptop, which has the screen measurements to match the 11.6-inch Air but is about a pound heavier and for all intents and purposes is a fairly conventional Intel Core i series-based laptop that's been squeezed into a tight form factor. And Acer has the 11.6-inch TimeLineX series, but this is 3 pounds and really not in the same class as the Air.

As pointed out in a previous post, Sony has its Vaio X, Y, and Z series, but the former is a Netbook, and the latter two are 13-inch designs, which are not nearly as sleek and small (at 4 pounds and 3 pounds, respectively) as the 11.6-inch Air, albeit the Vaio is competitively priced and offers faster Core i series processors and higher-end Nvidia GeForce GT 330M graphics. But, again, size is the key metric for comparison.

So, who might offer some direct competition? Sony has the technological wherewithal and design sense to come up with a sub-2.5-pound non-Netbook design. If for no other reason than they've done it before. Ditto for Dell in the design sense department. It could downsize the Adamo. But, then, I have to wonder if Dell still has the stomach or incentive to go toe to toe with Apple again, since its Adamo--though stunning--has not generated the excitement of an Apple product.

A design like the Sony Vaio X with more robust silicon would compete well with the 11.6-inch Air.
A design like the Sony Vaio X with more robust silicon would compete well with the 11.6-inch Air. Sony

And HP? I've followed HP-Compaq laptop design since Compaq acquired DEC's Hi-Note Ultra line--one of the first truly ultraslim laptops. The closest thing HP had to the Air in its consumer line was the 13-inch Envy, but that has been discontinued in favor of larger, bulkier 14-inch and 17-inch Envys. (Though refurbished Envy 13s are still available.) Let me add that, like the Dell M101z, I don't think that the 11.6-inch HP Pavilion dm1z series is in the same class as the Air.

On the business side, HP and Compaq (which HP later acquired) have produced a long line of light, 12-inch form factor business laptops, currently branded as the EliteBook 2540p--which is a rugged, military-specced ultraportable. If HP tweaked the 2540p's design so it no longer accommodated a built-in optical drive, dropped the thickness below 0.8 inches, and offered a different choice of processors, it would have a serious competitor to the Air.

But this may be just wishful thinking. Maybe Apple, once again, will find itself happily flying solo where others dare not go.