Apple MacBook Air: The original Ultrabook gets even better

Long before Intel coined the term Ultrabook, Apple came up with a laptop that slips in a manila envelope. The latest refresh--including Sandy Bridge chips, Thunderbolt, a backlit keyboard and Mac OS X Lion--preps the MacBook Air for a coming wave of Windows competitors.

Long before Intel coined the term Ultrabook, Apple came up with a laptop that slips into a manila envelope. In the early days the MacBook Air was more form over function, but lately Apple has picked up the pace with updates. As rumored, the company today gave the MacBook Air its second refresh in the past nine months adding Intel's latest Sandy Bridge processors, Thunderbolt ports, a backlit keyboard and Mac OS X Lion.

The basic design remains the same--an aluminum unibody wedge that measures only 0.1 to 0.7 inches thick. The MacBook Air still comes in two sizes. The 11.6-inch model, which has the standard 1366 x 768 display, weighs 2.4 pounds. The 13.3-inch version, with a higher resolution display (1440 x 900), weighs just under 3 pounds.

The 11.6 inch MacBook Air starts at $999 with a 1.6GHz Core i5 dual-core processor 2GB of memory and a 64GB solid-state disk (SSD). The step-up $1,199 model has 4GB of memory and a 128GB SSD. This version is also available with a faster Core i7 dual-core for an additional $150 and a 256GB SSD, which cost $300 extra. The larger MacBook Air starts at $1,299 with a 1.7GHz Core i5 dual-core, 4GB of memory and the 128GB SSD. The $1,599 model has the 256GB SSD, and you can add the faster Core i7 for $100 or an external SuperDrive for $79.

The Nvidia graphics chip is no longer available, but the on-die HD 3000 graphics in the Sandy Bridge is a significant improvement over Intel's previous generation. Apple has addressed most of the connectivity issues with the initial MacBook Airs and the latest version now includes two USB 2.0 ports, an SD card slot (on the 13-inch model), a headphone jack and Thunderbolt, a faster I/O connection designed for Apple's new 27-inch Thunderbolt Display ($999) or an external hard drive. Sony is also using Thunderbolt on its latest VAIO Z Series 13-inch laptop, but it has a different implementation. The MacBook Airs also have 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but you'll still need a $29 USB adapter for wired Ethernet.

Later this year I expect to see several Windows-based Ultrabooks that will compete directly with the MacBook Air including the Asus UX21, Lenovo IdeaPad U300S and LG P220. HP also reportedly has a couple in the works. But for now the closest direct competitor is Samsung's Series 9, which is also available with either an 11.6-inch or 13.3-inch display. The 11.6-inch Series 9 NP900X1A is about 0.6 inches thick and weighs 2.3 pounds. It starts at $1,199.99 with a 1.33GHz Core i3-380UM dual-core, 2GB of memory and a 64GB SSD. Note that this is one of the older (and slower) Arrandale processors. The 13.3-inch Series 9 NP900X3A, which starts at $1,649.99, has a newer Sandy Bridge chip, the 1.40GHz Core i5-2537M, along with 4GB of memory and a 128GB SSD. It weighs in at 2.9 pounds.

Of course none of these has Mac OS X Lion. The new operating system is also available starting today but only as a download from the Mac App Store for $29. Apple claims more than 250 new features, but some of the major ones include multi-touch gestures, a Mission Control utility, the ability to track multiple versions of documents and AirDrop for wireless file sharing. Mac OS X Lion also delivers a user experience more like an iOS device with features such as support for full-screen apps, a Launchpad, and apps that that automatically save your work and resume where you left off. Here's CNET's review of Mac OS X Lion.

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