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Andy Ihnatko's window into the MacBook Air price drop

The MacBook Air gets my vote as Apple’s best computer. Which, by extension, makes it one of the best computers you can buy today.

It’s a quadruple-absurdity: absurdly light and thin, absurdly powerful, lasts an absurdly long time between charges, and absurdly well-made and stylish, given its moderate price. It’s deeply, uncannily relevant too. The Air is a bridge between the mobile-style devices that society seems to be moving toward and those desktop-style apps and workflows that we aren’t quite ready to abandon yet. And though Apple made some sacrifices in designing the MacBook Air, each one makes perfect sense given the role these notebooks were meant to play.

If Apple has a perfect Mac, the 13-inch MacBook Air is it. It’s so good, in fact, that I even urge people shopping for a Windows ultrabook to shortlist the Air. It can dual-boot Windows 7 or 8 without any special tricks, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Windows ultrabook that is designed this well or has such great customer support.

Apple refreshed the entire MacBook Air line this week. It wasn’t the sort of update that required its own flashy media event or even a few new slides thrown into a presentation for something else. A simple press release was more than adequate. I don’t need to even bother to get hold of one of these new Airs before I write about them.

It seems to be a simple tune-up: Last year’s Haswell i5 and i7 CPUs are out and this year’s Haswells are in. They deliver a modest speed bump but it’s nothing that that would be noticeable by any mortal observer. Apple’s press release mentions improved battery life when playing iTunes content. Otherwise, overall battery life appears to be the same, and though nobody’s done a teardown of the new gear yet, it looks like the rest of the hardware is unchanged.

This includes the screen. Are we ever going to see a MacBook Air with a magazine-quality Retina-grade display? I’m sure it’s coming but Apple seems to feel little pressure to deliver such a beast. It’s going to suck down a lot more battery power than what’s in there now and Apple appreciates that next to the Air’s insubstantially slim design; the centerpiece of the experience is its amazing battery life. The 13-inch Air can outrun even an iPad. Apple isn’t going to dent that superlative feature unless it’s under duress from an alien invasion.

But this announcement is worth a column anyway because Apple’s delivered a feature that’s far more important than a magazine-quality display: They’ve dropped the price of every MacBook Air in every configuration by a cool $100.

The price is (now) right

The drop adds some color to those Retina Air rumors; it makes room for a new “premium” MacBook Air. It also fits the trend for many Apple products. They’ll offer the first generation hardware at a premium price and then steadily lower it over succeeding generations, as the company figures out how to build these things more efficiently and as the device becomes less aspirational and more mainstream in the public eye.

The Air is itself the best example of this process. The original 13-inch model was kind of terrible and the $1,800 price was just one click short of “shocking,” given its weak specs and performance. But before long, the 11-inch Air became Apple’s official “budget” MacBook, replacing a model that was a conventional thick slab of white plastic that had been selling for the same $999 price.

I imagine that the price drop is also a partial response to the gaining credibility of Windows ultrabooks. Apple was able to give the Air a long battery life through careful engineering and integration between the hardware and the OS. Windows-makers could sell thin, light notebooks, but they were lucky to squeeze just a few hours of uptime. Eventually, though, they got great battery life “for free” via new Intel CPUs designed with ultrabook power management in mind.

But that’s just fantasy football-style speculation. The reality is that Apple makes some of the best hardware you can buy and many people simply can’t buy it. That’s always been a big shame, considering that a big hunk of Apple’s role in the industry (as they themselves perceive it) is to improve lives. It makes me very, very happy to see the company tangibly making the Air more accessible to a wider range of budgets. If $100 is enough to put an Air within reach for someone who thought they’d have to settle for something not quite as good, it’s all the money in the world.

Shuffling the lineups

The price drop also restores some needed clarity to the MacBook line.

I was in the market for a new 13-inch MacBook late last year. I seriously considered the Air, but the price difference between the configuration I needed and a similarly specced Retina MacBook Pro was so slight that I opted for the one with the better screen, the HDMI port, and the potentially greater options for unauthorized third-party upgrades. So what if the Pro is heavier and thicker? It’s still super-thin — perhaps too thin — and over the past few months there hasn’t been a single situation in which the Pro felt any more cumbersome than the 13-inch Air. They each require a full-sized laptop bag, there’s only perhaps one magazine’s worth of difference in the amount of space they take up, and the Pro is only a pound heavier. I’m no mere milquetoast; I’m a poindexter. I can handle the extra ounces easily.

So that’s the other reason why the price drop is a great thing: There’s now enough air between the pricing of these two MacBook lines that a consumer who finds themselves bouncing around the roulette wheel of options can now settle into one slot or the other much more quickly.

I find myself pondering an unexpected question, however: What does an $899 11-inch Air say about the future of the 9.7-inch iPad Air? The top-of-the-rage iPads — the ones that people buy if they intend to use them like “real” computers — are now either the same price as the cheapest MacBook Air or just below it, particularly if you factor in the cost of an add-on keyboard.

And if you’re not buying the larger iPad in hopes that you’ll get that money back by using it more like a notebook, why not consider the iPad Mini instead?

The 9.7-inch iPad was a thrilling discovery because at the time, it filled a role that even the Air couldn’t handle: super-super portable, lasts crazy-long on battery, and about as affordable anything with an Apple logo can get. With so little room between the price of a “configured like a real computer” iPad and a “doesn’t need to pretend to be a real computer” 11-inch MacBook Air, plus the news from last week’s Apple earnings call that iPad sales were flat last quarter I’m left wondering if Apple intends to move consumer focus to the iPad Mini. Or, if they intend to introduce a price cut on the larger iPads.

I think the MacBook Air price drops have fixed the lack of clarity that once affected the “MacBook Air or MacBook Pro?” buying decision and moved it over to the choice between the low-end MacBook Air and the high-end iPad Air.

And then there’s the rumor of a so-called “iPad Pro,” an iOS tablet with an even larger display. As with all Apple rumors, it’s all just doped-up speculation until a few weeks before an announced Apple media event (at which time we would expect to see some credible leaks). But I’ve just moved the credibility of that one down a few notches.

When I sit back and try to form an understanding of a product, I find it’s helpful to imagine a reader who’s asking me for some buying advice. What I tell them, and the questions I ask them about their lives and what they expect from their hardware, gives me some valuable insights. I find it a little harder now to imagine myself advising someone to get an iPad Air instead of an iPad Mini or a MacBook Air. Not enough to describe the iPad Air as “less relevant,” mind you; it’s just that some variables in the math have shifted away from the 9.7-inch iPad’s favor.

But now, I find it impossible to conceive of a likely scenario in which I’d be steering someone toward an even bigger iPad. Unless, of course, Apple were to think about the potential of large-surface multitouch and set their sights higher than “like the one we make now, only bigger.”

Which very well might be what Apple has up its sleeve. I mean, jeez, they aren’t Samsung. Nobody at Apple is staying up nights worrying about the sales they’re losing by not having a tablet that’s bigger than an iPad Mini but smaller than an iPad Air.