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Apple's MacBook Air: Once a darling, now a budget laptop

After seven years, the MacBook Air has settled into a workman-like role within the broader MacBook family.

The MacBook Air was a major innovation in laptop design. But, on Monday, it lost its position as Apple's lightest, thinnest laptop. CNET

When Steve Jobs pulled the MacBook Air out of a manila envelope in early 2008 -- revealing the impossibly thin laptop to the world -- the device was at the forefront of laptop technology, and priced that way.

Now, seven years later, it's become Apple's "budget" laptop, and it's likely to stay there.

Apple's press event on Monday only reinforced that point, with the laptop being overlooked -- again -- for an upgrade to a higher-resolution Retina Display, a technology first introduced in 2010. The Air also lost its position as Apple's thinnest laptop, with the new MacBook , introduced Monday, taking that crown. The new MacBook boasts new bells and whistles like a force-sensitive track pad.

That situation puts the Air in an awkward position. It's no longer the thinnest. It's no longer the lightest. It's not the fastest (the MacBook Pro has more robust processing power). Now, it's just the cheapest.

Using the words "budget" and "Apple" in the same sentence is a little misleading. Apple tends to price its devices at a premium tier, and its laptops are no different. The MacBook Air started at $1,800 in 2008, but it now starts at $900 (£749 or AU$1,249), making it the least expensive Apple laptop available -- though far from the cheapest laptop on the market.

With Apple showering its attention and innovations on the new MacBook, it now seems unlikely the MacBook Air will get a major upgrade any time soon (of course, anything is possible). So, MacBook Air fans shouldn't expect it to gain Retina Display, at least for now, as Apple tries to focus the customer interest on the thinner, Retina Display-powered MacBook, which starts at $400 more than the basic MacBook Air.

An Apple representative didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

What customers will get from the Air, though, is a stronger processor. The new MacBook uses Intel's Core M processor, which focuses on providing better power efficiency and thinner designs for mobile devices. It also enables laptops without fans or vents. Meanwhile, the MacBook Air will continue to house an Intel Core i-series chip, which gives up power efficiency and a slim, fan-less design for faster processing.

The MacBook Air also isn't going away. While it barely got a mention at Monday's Apple event, it still fills an important role serving as a gateway product for anyone looking for a thin and (relatively) affordable laptop.

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