Return of the iBook?

The rumor mill is in full cry with reports of a 12-inch iPad, or a 12-inch MacBook Air. But why both? Technical competitive analysis tells us there's an obvious — once you think about it — middle ground that moves Apple both up and down.
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

The reports — some from respected analysts and others not so much — talk about a 12-or-12.x screen "something" from Apple. One theory is this is the dubbed iPad Pro. The other is a 12-inch MacBook Air with a Retina display.

Conveniently, the 12-inch display would support four-times the pixels of the current 13-inch MacBook Air display as well as the same number of pixels for a current iPad Air. Both are also supposed to be fanless.

But that description raises questions.

Fanless? People do real work on the MacBook Air, so even with a more efficient Intel processor there is still a lot of computing, graphics, and networking overhead. If so, that means a way more efficient processor.

12-inches? The people who want a Retina display, and will pay for it, are the folks who buy the 13-inch MacBook Air today. They want less screen real estate? I know I don't.

Intel or Apple?

At the heart of the question — iPad Air or MacBook Air? — is the processor. Apple's current A7 Cyclone 64-bit dual-core, which Apple tipped as offering desktop-class power, handles demanding games at less than 5W — in a tiny, fanless enclosure.

The upcoming Intel Broadwell chip, expected later this year, was demoed last year running the CPU-intensive Cinebench at less than 5W too. Yet that's with Intel's newest 15nm process, while the A7 does the same today with 28nm technology.

Intel is tight-lipped about their technology, especially when they're having problems, but recent reports have Intel promising volume in time for holiday sales this year. Hardly confidence building.

With a process shrink to 20nm, the A8 would be both faster and have lower power, as well as lower cost. There's technical risk on both sides, but the A8 seems to have the edge on getting to production volumes sooner.

The Storage Bits take

Apple won't introduce two overlapping products as a 12-inch MacBook Air and a 12-inch iPad Pro. They like — and customers appreciate — clear lines between products.

Looking at all the — admittedly speculative — evidence, it looks like Apple is coming out with its first clamshell iOS-based system: A new, revitalized, iBook.

Think about it.

With a 20nm A8 they'll have desktop power with even lower power consumption than Broadwell. The coming multi-window iOS 8 enables a traditional notebook workstyle — which only makes sense on a larger screen.

With less RAM, no Thunderbolt, no Ethernet, smaller SSD — 32GB vs 128 for the MacBook Air — and Apple's own A8 processor, they could come in at a much lower price point too. Not $899, but $699 for a real Apple notebook with a Retina display.

Toss in improved iCloud services and storage and you've got a premium Chromebook competitor that can do more than Google Docs or stream music.

You can work locally, without an Internet connection, on polished iWork and iLife apps. You can create music, edit video, design graphics. Real apps, not a browser window to a real app.

Whether you think of it as an iPad Pro or a MacBook Air Mini, it extends Apple's product lines both up and down: Lower-cost notebook and higher-end iDevice.

While it wouldn't replace my MacBook Air, it would give millions of iOS customers a new reason to buy. For the tech-averse, it would be the hassle-free notebook that Chromebooks strive to be, but with the power to replace most business notebooks.

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