New MacBook Air still stymies repairs, upgrades

Price cuts of 14% since early June 2012 narrow the difference between notebooks and tablets, may be Apple's attempt to slow cannibalization

Apple's newest MacBook Air, nearly identical to its predecessor, is not any easier to repair, iFixit said this week after tearing apart one of the just-released ultra-light notebooks.

iFixit, a popular electronics do-it-yourself website, gave the new MacBook Air a repair score of 4 out of a possible 10, the same as the model released last summer. Although many parts are easily replaceable after the back cover comes off, iFixit said, the low score resulted, in part, because Apple uses proprietary components.

The SSD (solid-state drive) in the new Air is smaller, and thus not compatible with third-party alternatives created for previous generations, including last year's.

"The most striking thing about the updated 13-in. Air is the lack of major internal revisions. In fact, the newest Air generation is almost identical to the previous one, save for a handful of minor changes: a smaller SSD module, an updated AirPort card, a Samsung flash controller, and a new heat sink clamp," said Miroslav Djuric of iFixit in an email.

On Monday Apple refreshed the MacBook Air line by equipping all four configurations -- two in the 11-in. screen size, two 13-in. -- with Intel's latest Core processor, code-named Haswell, which features a more powerful integrated graphics chipset.

Apple also cut prices $100, or between 7% and 8%, of the two 13-in. MacBook Airs so that the stock models now sell for $1,099 and $1,299. At the same time, it bumped up the price of the upper-end 11-in. Air by $100, or 9%, to account for a doubling of the laptop's flash-based storage from 128GB to 256GB.

Historically, the Cupertino, Calif., company rarely lowers Mac prices, preferring instead to keep those stable but swap newer, faster processors for older CPUs, add more memory or increase storage. But this week's price cuts were the second in just over a year: At last year's Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple lowered prices of three of the four Air models by $100.

Since early June 2012, Apple has cut prices of the 13-in. MacBook Air by 13% to 14%, depending on the model.

Although CEO Tim Cook on Monday boasted that the company has recorded much larger Mac sales increases than the personal computer industry average, the stats he quoted disguised the fact that, like all computer makers, Apple's sales have stalled of late. In the first quarter, Mac unit sales were down 2% year-over-year; the downturn was much larger in the fourth quarter of 2012, when sales were off 22%.

The price cuts narrow the gap between the 11-in. MacBook Air and an iPad with 128GB of storage -- the amount now standard for the least-expensive Air -- to just $200. Investors and analysts have concluded that, again like rivals that sell Windows-powered PCs, Apple's laptop sales have been hurt by a shift towards tablets. Apple has agreed, but publicly reveled in the practice.

"I see cannibalization as a huge opportunity for us," said Cook during a January conference call with Wall Street. "One, our base philosophy is to never fear cannibalization. If we do, somebody else will just cannibalize it, and so we never fear it. We know that iPad will cannibalize some Macs [so] that doesn't worry us."

But by again pushing down MacBook Air prices and reducing the difference between laptop and tablet, Apple may be trying to stymie some of the cannibalization.

iFixit's tear-down confirmed reports that the new Airs rely on a PCIe flash drive, which Apple boasted boosted performance 45% over previous SATA III flash-based models. Apple sourced the faster SSD components, including the controller and the flash memory, from longtime supplier Samsung, said iFixit.

The tear-down specialists also revealed that some of the longer batter life Apple's claimed for the MacBook Air -- a jump from 5 hours to 9 for the 11-in., and from 7 hours to 12 for the 13-in. -- came from a more powerful battery.

iFixit found that the new 13-in. MacBook Air uses a 7.6-volt, 7150 mAh (milliamps hour) battery, compared to 2012's 7.3-volt, 6700 mAh battery, for a 6% increase in milliamp hour, an indicator of how long a battery will run between recharges.

The refreshed MacBook Air went on sale Monday on Apple's online store, throughout its retail chain, and at some resellers, including Amazon.com. As of Thursday, Apple's online store claimed orders shipped within 24 hours.

MacBook Air teardown
The 2013 MacBook Air's solid-state drive (top) is smaller than the one in last year's nearly identical notebook. (Image: iFixit.)

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at  @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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