When will Apple release a new MacBook Air in 2017? What tech specs and new features will the new MacBook Air get? Is the 'Air' brand being killed off? Will the new MacBook Air get a Retina display at last?
Apple did technically update the MacBook Air in 2016, but it was a minor and frankly disappointing update - merely including what had been an optional RAM upgrade in the standard package for the 13in model, and not touching the 11in model at all. Will 2017 see a proper update to the MacBook Air lineup? Or will the MacBook Air be killed off for good?
In this article, we round up all the rumours, hints and clues about the new MacBook Air release for 2017, including the new MacBook Air's UK release date, tech specs, new features, design, along with speculation that Apple may be phasing out the 'Air' lineup completely.
Updated, 21 March 2017, with the news that no MacBooks were updated as part of Apple's "something special" March update - will they get a spring launch event?; 24 February 2017, with the possibly significant news that Best Buy in the US has dropped its price for the MacBook Air - does this indicate a product update is on its way? And previous to include rumours that Apple is manufacturing more of its own chips for use in Mac laptops
When is the MacBook Air 2017 coming out?
Back in March 2016, MacBook Air fans were eagerly awaiting an update to their favourite laptop at Apple's special event; after all, the spring event represented one year since it was last updated. But instead, Apple used the event to show off the iPhone SE and the iPad Pro with 9.7in screen.
We had to wait until 19 April for Apple to release new MacBooks and the updated MacBook Air. But the MacBook Air update was underwhelming, to say the least. While the MacBook got a power boost and a new Rose Gold colour option, the MacBook Air simply got a new 8GB onboard memory standard, and that was for the 13in model only.
So when will we get a proper update to the MacBook Air line-up? If the lineup isn't getting the chop, we assume that Apple will stick to its yearly upgrade cycle and should release the new MacBook Air at some point in early 2017, possibly between March and May as has been the case in previous years.
On 21 March 2017 Apple temporarily shut down its online store and posted a notice saying: "We've got something special in store for you. And we can't wait for you to see it. Please check back soon." Sadly this didn't turn out to include any Macs, laptop or desktop.
Apple quietly unveiled a new 9.7-inch iPad (called simply "iPad"), added a new red colour option for the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, and increased the storage options for the iPad mini 4 and iPhone SE.
There remain reasons to hope for an update this year, but it does seem likely that the MacBook Air line is being quietly wound down.
This may or may not be significant, but in February 2017 the US retailer Best Buy dropped the price for the cheapest MacBook Air to just $800. Price cuts often precede the launch of a new model, as retailers try to clear their store of the older machine, but this could just as easily indicate that Best Buy thinks a new MacBook Air is on the way (or the old one is going to be discontinued) as it could indicate that it's got wind of some inside information. You'll recall that late in 2016 Best Buy accidentally published a spec of a new iMac on its site, which some of us thought might indicate an upcoming launch, but we're still waiting on that one.
Will the MacBook Air be discontinued?
After the March event and its derisory MacBook Air update, and the subsequent Apple event that took place on 27 October 2016, it's unclear if the MacBook Air line will ever be updated again. No new MacBook Air was announced in October and the new MacBook Pro 2016 was compared in size, performance and weight to the MacBook Air. The new MacBook Pro is smaller in dimensions and is also thinner than the existing MacBook Air, which was launched with portability in mind.
It should also be noted that the 11in MacBook Air has now been discontinued, with the 13in variant receiving a £100 price bump - taking the basic model from £849 up to £949 and the 256GB model up from £999 to £1,099. (This price increase is most likely due to Brexit.) Some have taken this as gentle way of bringing the Air product line to a close, as not many people will want a costly Air with more powerful, and thinner, Mac laptops available.
Following the October 2016 Mac event, there are strong suggestions that the MacBook Air line will be completely discontinued. This does mean that the entry-level MacBooks are now a little more appealing, but does mean that an 11in MacBook Air will now be missed by some who were hoping for it to be replaced by a similar variant - we presume Apple didn't see a huge market for 11in laptops and thus decided to axe the product line.
However, the 11in model may not be the only MacBook Air to be discontinued. We suspect that Apple is about to discontinue the MacBook Air line altogether.
Tech Blogger Jack March claims to have spoken with a source close to the situation who says that Apple is about to ditch the Air brand completely, including the MacBook Air and iPad Air products in its lineup.
Right now, we think Jack could be absolutely right. There are rumours that Apple won't release an iPad Air 3 now that the iPad Pro has a 9.7in option, and the MacBook Air doesn't seem to fit naturally in Apple's line-up now that the new MacBook is here and is thinner and lighter than ever.
With the advent of the 12in MacBook and the 12.9in iPad Pro, it's no surprise that rumourmongers are starting to predict that at least the 11in MacBook Air, with a smaller screen than either of those devices, will be discontinued. The iPad Pro may indeed be viewed by Apple as a replacement for the 11in MacBook Air if Apple CEO Tim Cook's comments to the Telegraph are taken into account (published on 1 December 2015).
Following the launch of the iPad Pro, Cook told the Telegraph: "I think if you're looking at a PC, why would you buy a PC anymore? No really, why would you buy one?
"Yes, the iPad Pro is a replacement for a notebook or a desktop for many, many people. They will start using it and conclude they no longer need to use anything else, other than their phones."
However, should Apple discontinue the 11in MacBook Air, it does remove the lower price of entry from the line-up.
But as mentioned, it may not just be the 11in MacBook Air that is discontinued. When the new MacBook launched on 9 March 2015, analysts began to suggest that the MacBook Air might not be around for much longer.
"This wasn't the MacBook Air, but instead leapt past the Air," said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research. "They kept the MacBook Air around just as they do with older iPhones, but the MacBook is now in the same position as the newest iPhone. That makes me wonder if the Air will go away over time."
Carolina Milanesi, chief of research and head of US business for Kantar WorldPanel Comtech, also predicted a contraction of Apple's line-up. "All [notebooks] need to be more mobile, so something like the Air doesn't need to be branched out anymore," she said of the differentiation Apple made for the line since its introduction more than eight years ago. "And it's to Apple's benefit not to have so many 'families' of Macs."
More recently, KGI Securities analyst and Apple guru Ming-Chi Kuo claimed that Apple is planning on launching a 13in MacBook to sit alongside the 12in MacBook, which would serve as a replacement to the MacBook Air going forward.
In a note obtained by AppleInsider, the analyst foresees an end to the meaningful development of the MacBook Air. Apple won't remove the line from its stores just yet, though - it'll serve as an entry-level device for Apple adopters, much like it did with the original MacBook before it was discontinued in 2011.
Over time, it seems likely that the MacBook Air range could be discontinued and eventually replaced by a Retina MacBook range at a lower price. In January 2017, DigiTimes cited Chinese site Economic Daily News and said Apple is going to drop the price of the non-Touch Bar 13in MacBook Pro and discontinue the MacBook Air, which only exists now in the 13in size.
It added: "Apple is expected to unveil a new 12-inch MacBook in early second quarter with an additional memory option of 16GB" - this would all but render the Air unnecessary to Apple, even if consumers might lament the absence of its lower price point. We don't expect the 12in MacBook to drop in price.
When was the MacBook Air last updated?
We originally expected the MacBook Air to be updated with a Retina display back on 9 March 2015 at Apple's Spring Forward event. And were quite surprised when we got something else: a Retina MacBook, yes, but one with a 12in display and a USB-C port (and very few other ports), a new strand of products for Apple's MacBook laptop line-up.
Less glamorously, Apple's MacBook Air did get an update at the same time, with new, faster processors, faster flash storage and better graphics, and was updated more recently in April 2016 with increased RAM, but the screen and overall design remained the same, with no Retina display for the Air line.
How much will the MacBook Air 2017 cost?
The last time that there was a Mac laptop that had more advanced specs than a more expensive model was the old MacBooks (aluminium, then white and black, and then eventually aluminium again). These older MacBook models were eventually discontinued and the price of the MacBook Air was reduced to make it the new entry level (when the MacBook Air initially launched it was quite overpriced for the specs, just like the current Retina MacBook).
It seems likely that the same will happen with the new MacBook models eventually replacing the MacBook Airs, at a lower price, but for now that seems a long way off.
If the 11in MacBook Air is removed from the line-up perhaps the cost of entry of the 13in model will reduce to the level that the 11in model is currently, with a rumoured 15in model coming in at a higher price at some point in the future.
Screen size: 13in, 15in & 17in?
If Apple does update the MacBook Air range, what dimensions should we expect?
As mentioned above, rumours suggest that the 11in MacBook Air will be discontinued, after all, the 11in MacBook Air is both smaller than the MacBook and the new iPad Pro, and didn’t receive an update when the 13in model did.
However, 9to5Mac points out that the new 13in and 15in MacBook Air models could be additional sizes to the MacBook range. That site predicts that sometime in 2017 we will have just two ranges of Mac laptops: the MacBook at the ultraportable level, and the more advanced MacBook Pro. Maybe the 17in MacBook Pro will make a comeback too, with a 4K display.
MacBook Air 2017: Specs & new features
These new MacBook Air models are said to be thinner and lighter, with internal spec enhancements. Apparently, the new MacBook Air will feature new batteries, cooling modules, and chassis, according to the Economic Daily News.
We also expect to see USB Type-C across the range, especially now that Intel has integrated Thunderbolt 3 into USB-C - more on that below.
The next-generation MacBook Air is likely to feature next-generation Intel processors, as well as graphics and RAM upgrades. Intel has started shipping its Kaby Lake processors - that's the generation of chips after Skylake, and offers support for Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.1 and DisplayPort 1.2.
But here's a leftfield alternative. The Dutch-language site Techtastic has posted a reference in the kernel of macOS Sierra to "ARM HURRICANE", a chip family that is now supported.
This isn't a chip that anyone has heard of, but it would make sense for this to be an Apple custom ARM chip, fitting in as it does with the company's previous naming conventions: the A7 (in the iPhone 5s) was codenamed Cyclone, the A8 Typhoon and the A9 Twister. Those are iPad/iPhone chips, of course, so does this mean Apple is going to let iDevices run macOS Sierra? Certainly not - but it might be about to put ARM chips in the MacBook Air.
Image courtesy of Techtastic
Update 08/02/2017: It's not just the CPU that's getting an upgrade either, as a recent Bloomberg report claims that Apple is working on a processor that's meant to improve the battery life of its laptop range. According to the report, the chip is said to handle basic tasks like checking for email and installing updates while the computer is asleep. Apple's current way of working relies on the MacBook's main processor to handle the tasks, but by implementing a dedicated low-power processor, Apple can further reduce battery consumption and provide a longer battery life.
Those with knowledge of the subject claim that the chip is similar to that used by Apple in the MacBook Pro to manage the Touch Bar, and that the new chip may make an appearance in the 2017 MacBook Pro, along with other laptops. It makes sense, as Apple's 2016 MacBook Pro with Touch Bar has been criticised since launch for its poor battery life.
Rumours are rife concerning Apple's 2016 MacBook Pro and, more specifically, its OLED touch bar. The OLED touch bar is rumoured to provide contextual shortcuts to the user based on the application that they're using at the time - but the most recent report suggests Apple isn't happy enough with the feature. 9to5Mac and TrustedReviews report that Apple has been in talks to use a laptop variant of Sonder Design's dynamic keyboard technology.
Sonder Design is famous for developing an E-ink keyboard, using E-ink to change the key labels on the fly. This means that the entire keyboard is customisable, providing multiple languages as well as contextual shortcuts from a single keyboard. It allows users that are, for example, editing in Final Cut Pro to look down at the keyboard and see exactly which tool they need to use without having to memorise them before hand.
What isn't clear is how Apple is planning on implementing the software, or which laptop it could be featured on, leading us to believe that it could possibly make an appearance on the 2017 MacBook Air. Sonder has confirmed that talks between Apple and the company has taken place, although it won't comment on whether or not it's a deal - it has only confirmed that it's "closing B2B procurement contracts" with three laptop makers.
New MacBook Air 2017 rumours: Retina display
When Apple updated its MacBook Air in March of 2015, we had been convinced that the company was about to give the laptop a Retina display. Instead, it launched a brand-new MacBook line that's super-thin, super-light and does offer that high-resolution display, but does that mean Apple won't enhance the MacBook Air with a Retina display in the future? With the 2016 update only adding more RAM to the basic 13in model, it may be the case.
The suggestion that the MacBook Air will feature a Retina display has been long running but those rumours were prior to the launch of the 12in Retina MacBook and the iPad Pro - suggesting the sightings of the Retina display some thought was destined for the MacBook Air was instead for these models.
Does this mean that there will be no Retina display on the new MacBook Air when (or if) it launches? If Apple wants to keep the price down maybe not. Or perhaps the newly rumoured 15in Macbook Air will feature a Retina display, while the 13in model will lack the high-res display, but come in at a lower price, one similar to the older 11in MacBook Air.
Read more: What is a Retina display?
While we assumed the next MacBook Air would feature USB-C ports, a recent report from Taiwanese website DigiTimes seems to confirm our theory - if believed, anyway. The publication claims that Apple is planning to release a MacBook Air with USB-C ports in future, but doesn't provide a launch timeframe for the upgraded laptop.
"Currently, Apple has decided to adopt the USB Type-C interface for its MacBook Air, while Asustek Computer and Hewlett-Packard (HP) are upgrading one of their notebooks' regular USB port to the Type-C. Lenovo, Acer and Dell are still evaluating the option."
The issue with DigiTimes is that it isn't always accurate - the site has previously claimed that Apple would start shipping ultra-thin 13in and 15in MacBooks by the end of Q2 2016, which ended in June with no appearance, although the site's sources have proven reliable at times in the past. So, how accurate is this report? We're not 100 percent sure, but we imagine that if Apple wants to keep the MacBook Air alive, this is the road it'll be headed down.
However, Bloomberg reported in August 2016, one week before the reported iPhone 7 launch, that Apple is preparing a MacBook Air update "as soon as October". This might mean that the MacBooks are announced at the 7 September event, but won't ship until the following month.
This seems a logical step; the MacBook has just one USB-C port and the rumoured new MacBook Pro will also feature this connection type. It would still represent a bold move overall for Apple however - it'd mean all of its laptops would no longer support standard USB-A connections, a move sure to annoy a few people, but ultimately shape the future of mobile computing.
While this isn't a new patent (it was originally filed back in 2014), a patent application has recently been granted that allows the Apple Pencil to work with Mac trackpads. What is most interesting about the patent is that it depicts a more sophisticated Apple Pencil than the one currently available, suggesting that the accessory is due to get an overhaul at some point in the future. It even goes as far to describe the Pencil being used as a general input device like a joystick or an 'air mouse'.
"Inertial sensor input may be gathered when operating the stylus in one or more inertial sensor input modes such as an air mouse mode, a rotational controller mode, a joystick mode, and/or other inertial sensor input modes."
What isn't clear is if the upgraded Apple Pencil will only work with certain trackpads - if this is the case, we imagine that the technology would make its way to the next-gen MacBook Air. However, Apple has a habit of applying for a patent and then doing nothing with it, so it isn't set in stone that we'll be seeing this featured on the next MacBook Air - but we can sure hope.
New MacBook Air 2017 rumours: Touch ID and Force Touch
We expect this feature to come on the Air model - if it isn't already discontinued!
There are also reports to suggest that it'll boast Touch ID within its Trackpad, which may also get the Force Touch upgrade that was given to the 13in MacBook Pro back in March 2015, and comes with the new MacBook.
Touch ID is the fingerprint sensor that's built into the Home button of the iPhone 5S, iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. It's also used to make Apple Pay more secure and with the recent announcement of Apple Pay coming to Mac as part of macOS Sierra, this rumour makes a lot of sense.
According to an Independent report, Touch ID for the Mac line would require a dedicated chip to be built into the device.
The rumour started with Taiwanese blog AppleCorner, which cited sources in the supply chain. Apparently, the Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad may get a biometric update too, enabling users to make Apple Pay payments on the web, but both those accessories were updated alongside the launch of a new 4K iMac so that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.
We'll be updating this article as more information about the rumoured Retina MacBook Air emerges so check back from time to time for the latest news.
Wondering which MacBook is best for you? Read: MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro comparison review: 13in Apple laptops compared