Apple kills white MacBook, updates MacBook Air, Mac Mini

Apple
MacBook Air 2011
Apple

Following months of fervent speculation, Apple has updated its MacBook Air laptop with new Intel Sandy Bridge CPU options, a data port for high-speed Thunderbolt peripherals, and a backlit keyboard (which was present in the original MacBook Air, but absent from the 2010 version). Not included, however, were other rumored changes, such as a black-colored chassis, or mobile broadband antenna.

Also new are updated versions of the Mac Mini, which also gets a Thunderbolt port (while retaining HDMI output) as well as new faster CPUs. However, the built-in DVD drive is now gone from the entire Mac Mini line.

The timing of this new hardware coincides with the release of OSX Lion, the latest update to Apple's OS X operating system for Mac desktops and laptops. Lion was previously confirmed for a July release, via the OS X Mac App Store, and many sources predicted updated hardware for the MacBook Air, Mac Mini small form factor desktop, and Mac Pro tower desktop at the same time.

The MacBook Air, a thin laptop with either an 11 or 13-inch display, was last updated in October 2010, making this an unusual refresh in that it comes less than one year after the previous models. But the MacBook Air, despite its popularity and positive reviews, was saddled with a processor from Intel's older Core 2 Duo series. Since then, Intel has gone through two generations of Core i-series CPUs, which are found in current MacBook Pro laptops. With this update, Apple is effectively leapfrogging a generation of processors, in order to use the most current CPUs. The Mac Mini, last updated in June 2010, has also been updated to use the Intel's latest Core i-series chips.

Notably, the $999 white MacBook now appears to be discontinued, making the 11-inch Air the new baseline MacBook model.

In a recent CNET poll, we asked readers which single hardware update to the MacBook Air they would pick as a must-have, and they overwhelmingly chose new Intel Core i-series processors, at 54 percent, over backlit keyboards, Thunderbolt, mobile broadband, and a black chassis.

The MacBook Air updates are available in both the 13-inch and 11-inch models. The 13-inch version starts at $1,299 and includes a 1.7GHz Intel Core i5 (second-generation) CPU, 128GB flash storage, and 4GB of RAM. The 11-inch version starts at $999 and includes a 1.6GHz Core i5 CPU; despite earlier rumors to the contrary, however, the 11-inch version still includes only 64GB of flash storage and 2GB of RAM (both are doubled in the $1,199 model). Both MacBook Air models can be built to order with more storage and faster Core i7 CPUs.

The new Mac Mini is available in two familiar default configurations, starting with a $599 model that includes a 2.3GHz Core i5 chip, and going to up a $799 model with a 2.5GHz Core i5 chip that also features a dedicated AMD Radeon HD 6630M graphics chip. Perhaps the biggest news, however, is that the new Thunderbolt-enabled Mac Mini drops the optical drive altogether--so those using the Mac Mini as a home theater PC will no longer have a quick and easy way to play DVDs. (The Mini can utilize the same "CD/DVD sharing" option found on the Air, so it can access optical drives on nearby Macs and PCs.)

Also available is a "server" version of the Mini with a 2.0GHz Intel Core i7 CPU, dual 500GB hard drives, and 4GB memory for $999.

The updated versions of both the MacBook Air and the Mac Mini are available to order immediately, and should be in Apple stores and other retailers soon.