Larger 15-in. MacBook Air 'makes sense' for Apple, say analysts

React to report that 15-in. Air due in early 2012 when Apple refreshes line

Apple will launch a 15-in. MacBook Air in the first quarter of 2012, according to a report from a Taiwanese publication that cited unnamed sources in the component supply channel.

A larger MacBook Air -- Apple currently sells 11.6-in. and 13.3-in. Airs -- makes sense, analysts said today, noting that the company will face competition from new "ultrabooks" next year sold by, among others, Hewlett-Packard (HP).

HP is set to start selling its first ultrabook, the name given by Intel to lightweight, thin laptops that will compete with the MacBook Air, on Dec. 7. The HP Folio, which will sport a 13.3-in. display, will sell at prices starting at $900, or $99 under Apple's cheapest MacBook Air.

"I don't have confirmation on a 15-in. MacBook Air, but logically thinking, it does make sense," said Brian Marshall, an analyst with International Strategy and Investment Group (ISI).

Marshall cited the impending debut of HP's Folio -- and the follow-on systems that others will release in early 2012 -- as one reason why Apple would want to extend the Air lineup.

Taiwan-based DigitTimes claimed that supplier sources hinted Apple will ship a 15-in. MacBook Air in the first three months of 2012.

"The sources noted that related upstream players have already started pilot production of the MacBook Air models and will add a 15-inch model into the product line to expand its reach in the ultra-thin notebook market," said the newspaper.

DigiTimes also said that the same sources maintained that Apple will reduce the price of its existing MacBook Air line to prepare for a refresh next year that would presumably include Intel's newest CPUs from its Ivy Bridge architecture.

Those processors, Intel said in September, will double battery life compared to the current Core chips that power the Air line, combine the CPU with the graphics processor, and provide a performance boost to boot.

Some online retailers aggressively cut prices of the MacBook Air on Black Friday, a possible sign that DigiTimes is on the right track. Amazon.com, for example, sold the 1.6GHz 11-in. Air for $850, 15% under list, last Friday.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, also thinks a 15-in. MacBook Air is a sure bet.

"The Air's popularity is driven in part by the iPad," argued Gottheil, taking a different tack than Marshall. "Interest in the Air is not just in thin and light, but like tablets, in instant on, portability and longer battery life."

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