Apple cuts MacBook Air prices, sells its first under-$US900 laptop

Biggest news in quiet refresh are the price cuts of 7 per cent to 10 per cent

Apple has quietly refreshed its MacBook Air line of light laptops, dropping prices by $100 on all four stock models.

The price cut put the cost of the less-expensive 11-inch Air at $US899, the first time that Apple has sold a notebook to the public for less than $US900. (For about eight months in 2011-2012, Apple sold the plastic-cased MacBook for $US899, but only to educational organizations and institutions.)

All four MacBook Air models -- two with an 11-inch screen, two with a 13-inch display -- received the same $US100 price cut, which depending on the notebook represented a discount between 7.7 per cent and 10 per cent.

The most-expensive stock MacBook Air, the model with a 13-inch screen and a 256GB SSD (sold-state drive) for storing files and applications, now lists for $US1199.

Other than the price cuts, Apple made few changes. The most noticeable was a bump in processor speeds across the board. While the top-end 13-in. MacBook Air previously packed a 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, the refreshed model included a 1.4GHz chip.

The cuts were the second for the Air in the last 10 months: Apple dropped prices of the two 13-inch notebooks in October 2013, but raised the price of the upper-end 11-inch at the same time.

Since October, the 13-inch MacBook Air's price has fallen between 14 per cent and 17 per cent.

Apple has been caught in the overall personal computer sales slump, as has virtually every OEM (original equipment manufacturer), although sales of Apple's Macs fell for just four quarters before again climbing. The global PC business has shrunk eight quarters, and there's no sign that things will turn around anytime soon.

But while Apple doesn't face the strongest headwinds to sales, it still sails in them: It was concerned enough about those headwinds to cut prices, a move that five years ago would have been inconceivable to outside observers.

The cuts narrow the gap between the 11-inch MacBook Air and an iPad Air with 128GB of storage - the amount standard for the least-expensive Air - to just $US100, which will likely spark renewed talk of the iPad cannibalizing Apple's notebook sales.

The low-end 11-inch. MacBook Air, which boasts an SSD of 128GB, also is now priced the same as a Microsoft Surface 2 Pro with half that storage space and without a keyboard. With a keyboard, say the Type Cover 2, and a bump to 128GB, a Surface 2 Pro costs $US1128.99, more than enough to purchase an 11-inch MacBook Pro with 256GB of storage, or almost enough to buy Apple's top model, the 13-inch. 256GB MacBook Air.

The re-priced MacBook Air went on sale today on Apple's online store, throughout its retail chain, and at some resellers. As of mid-day, Apple's online store claimed orders shipped within 24 hours.

With today's minor component changes, rumors of a Retina-equipped Air will undoubtedly continue to circulate. Those reports, all based on anonymous tipsters or sell-side Wall Street analysts' forecasts, have claimed that later this year Apple will consolidate the Air line by offering a 12-inch display with the kind of high-resolution screen now equipping the MacBook Pro models.

Apple cut the price of the low-end 11-in. MacBook Air by 10 per cent, marking the first time it's sold an under-$900 notebook to the public.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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