Five biggest mysteries about Apple's next MacBook

If there is indeed a new slim, reasonably priced mainstream Apple laptop coming this week, almost everything about it is going to be a surprise.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
3 min read

Editors' note, Oct. 31: Apple has announced a new version of the MacBook Air, which starts at $1,199 and features a Retina display, Touch ID and USB-C ports. The previous version, mentioned below, remains on sale, for now, and still starts at $999. The original article, published on Oct. 29, follows.

Apple is hosting a product launch event in Brooklyn on Oct. 30, and while new iPad Pro models are almost certain (thanks to plenty of leaks and reports), less is known about the long-rumored MacBook Air replacement that may also be announced.

The much-loved 13-inch MacBook Air is well behind the curve compared to newer laptop designs. The aluminum body is bigger is heavier than other premium 13-inch laptops , the screen is marred by a low resolution and thick bezels, and the processor is at least three generations behind current models.

If there is indeed a new slim, reasonably priced mainstream Apple laptop coming this week, almost everything about it is going to be a surprise. Going into the Oct. 30 event, here are some of the key questions on my mind.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Will it keep the Air name?

The MacBook Air name has been around since 2008, and still describes pretty much the same laptop. The new model may keep this name, which has some historical cachet, or may follow the 12-inch MacBook model with a simpler name, or it may end up being something completely different (MacBook XR? MacBook SE?).

Will it have a Touch Bar or fingerprint reader?

So far, Apple is sticking with the Touch Bar in its higher-end MacBook Pro . It's unlikely the slim OLED secondary display will filter down to a less-expensive laptop, but the most useful part of it, the fingerprint reader, might. However, that likely means adding the T2 chip, which controls disk encryption and other system-level functions -- which might jack up the starting price beyond that $999 sweet spot.

What will the screen size and resolution be?

The MacBook Air's screen is its weakest link compared to other 2018 laptops. The 13-inch display has a paltry 1,440x900 resolution, far below other laptops in the $999 range. It's also surrounded by a thick silver bezel that look especially dated compared to newer bezel-free models like the Dell XPS 13.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro has a full-on Retina screen with 2,560x1,600-pixel resolution. That would be ideal, but maybe Apple will take a page out of the iPhone XR's book and give us a "good enough" resolution instead -- perhaps full 1080p (1,920x1,080).

Sarah Tew/CNET

Will it only have USB-C ports?

It's its a MacBook from anytime in the past two years, it's all-in on USB-C ports. Current Pro and 12-inch MacBooks use USB-C for everything, from power to data to networking, usually with the help of a dongle or docking station. One of the great things about an older design like the Air is that it still has USB-A and Thunderbolt ports (two and one, respectively), in addition to a separate power input (the late, great MagSafe 2). Recent history suggests a new Air would switch to USB-C, but it's not a iron-clad case. And even if it does, I wouldn't expect full Thunderbolt 3 support. That's the sort of step-up feature that you're paying for in the pricier Pro models.

What will it cost?

For many years, we've been willing to overlook the MacBook Air's lack of new features and updated design because it hit the all-important price of $999 (sometimes even $100 or so less, from retailers). That put it within reach of college students, semi-starving artists and just about everyone else. And even if a grand still is definitely a big investment, the tough-as-nails aluminum MacBook Air could handle years of abuse and still do its job. This new system could stick with $999, could drop down a bit, or even add a bit, but it'll probably stay out of the way of the $1,299 MacBook and entry level MacBook Pro. (It'll be interesting to see if which of these models is still around once the Apple Store comes back online after the event.)

Follow along with our liveblog of the Apple event on Oct. 30, and we'll all find out these answers together.

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