Apple today refreshed its MacBook Air line, equipping the notebooks with faster processors based on Intel's Sandy Bridge architecture and adding support for Thunderbolt that transfers data at speeds up to 10Gbps.
At the same time, the company also quietly discontinued the $999 MacBook, a laptop that first appeared in 2006, leaving the Air as its lowest-priced notebook.
Apple debuted Lion earlier today.
The new MacBook Airs come with the same prices as the previous models -- the line still starts at $999 and tops out at $1,599 -- and the notebooks feature few external design changes from an October 2010 overhaul.
Apple returned to a backlit keyboard for the new Airs, however, a change many users had hoped for. Apple eliminated the backlit keyboard last year when it slimmed down the MacBook Air and reduced its price.
The smallest Airs -- a pair of models with an 11.6-in. display -- now run a 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, a slightly slower version of the CPU that powers the lowest-priced MacBook Pro laptop. The 13.3-in. models sport a 1.7GHz Core i5.
Apple also retained the flash memory-based storage capacities of the earlier models. The $999 11.3-in. notebook offers a 64GB SSD (solid-state drive), while the same-sized $1,199 model includes 128GB of storage space. The larger 13.3-in. Airs provide 128GB for $1,299 and 256GB for $1,599.
RAM in three out of the four Airs was bumped up to 4GB; only the entry-level 11.6-in. still comes with just 2GB.
The MacBook Air memory cannot be upgraded by the user because the RAM is soldered onto the motherboard.
Apple also added a Thunderbolt port to the MacBook Air to match the beefier MacBook Pro line. The Intel-developed technology offers direct bi-directional connections to high-speed peripherals such as data drives, and using optional adapters, to other connectivity ports, including FireWire, USB, Gigabit Ethernet and Apple's DisplayPort.
Apple's MacBook Pro was the first to launch with Thunderbolt last February.
While the exterior dimensions of the Air did not change, the notebook's weight went up slightly with the refresh. The new 11.6-in. Air, for example, tips the scales with an extra seven-tenths of an ounce.
"Apple might not want to hear this, but the [11.6-in.] MacBook Air is their netbook," said Stephen Baker, an analyst with the NPD Group, a research firm that tracks retails sales in the U.S. And although Apple has repeatedly given the Air partial credit for its strong notebook sales, Baker was skeptical of the line's importance.
"It's Apple's entry-level Mac notebook," said Baker. "It's a price-oriented product, but one that still meets Apple's needs as far as being cool and interesting. It's a sizable percentage of sales, but not the majority [of notebook sales for Apple] by any means."
The proof, Baker said, was Apple's ASP, or average sales price. After the October 2010 introduction of the redesigned MacBook Air, Apple's notebook ASP actually went up.
In the second quarter of 2011, the ASP for Apple laptops was $1,262; in the same quarter a year ago, the ASP stood at $1,255.
"Despite Apple harping on the $999 price [for the 11.6-in. MacBook Air], it's just a signpost," argued Baker. "It gives them a chance to be at that price point and drags in customers to the store. But most people trade up to a more expensive Air or a MacBook Pro."
Part of the reason is the small screen of the lowest-priced Airs.
"Eleven inches has been a tough sell," said Baker. "Consumers in the U.S. have not been comfortable with a notebook that size. They tend to trade up to a 13-in. notebook instead."
The new MacBook Airs are available immediately through Apple's online store, and will reach Apple's own retail stores and some resellers Thursday. Apple's online store currently has the notebook shipping within 24 hours of ordering.
Also on Monday, Apple updated its smallest desktop, the Mac Mini, with dual-core Intel Core i5 processors and the option to bump up to a faster Core i7. The new Mac Mini models also include a Thunderbolt port, and the two lower-priced versions --$599 and $799 -- come with a 500GB hard drive.
Apple last refreshed the Mini in June 2010.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.