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Apple has updated the MacBook Air family of ultraportable laptops. The third upgrade brings three big updates: updated processors, backlit keyboards, OS X Lion and next-generation I/O technology Thunderbolt.

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The first MacBook Air was introduced in 2008 at Macworld when Steve Jobs famously pulled out the ultra-portable from a vanilla envelope. We’ve seen three revisions so far, with the latest being today.

MacBook Air 2011

Today’s upgrade isn’t as serious an upgrade as the second since the previous generation’s industrial design is carried into the third generation. This isn’t a bad thing, of course, since the design is outstanding. The upgrade comes just nine months after the 2nd upgrade.

11-inch MacBook Air

As expected, there are two models. An 11.6” model and a 13” model:

The 11.6” model starts at $999 with a 64GB SSD, 2GB of RAM and a 1.6Ghz Core-i5 Sandy Bridge processor. Apple is also offering a higher-end version of the 11.6” model, priced at $1199 that comes with a 128GB SSD and 4GB of RAM.

The 13” model also has two variants. The low end variant costs $1299 and comes with a 128GB SSD, 4GB of RAM and a 1.7Ghz Core-i5 processor. Stepping up, you have the $1599 variant that comes with a 256GB SSD and 4GB of RAM while keeping the same processor.

All MacBook Airs have an Intel HD 3000 integrated graphic processors, FaceTime webcams, two USB ports, a backlit keyboard (new feature), OS X Lion, 1366×768 screen resolution for the 11.6” model and 1440×900 for the 13” model. Battery life is rated at up to five hours and seven hours for the 11.6” and 13.6” models respectively.

Death Of $999 White MacBook

With the updated MacBook Air priced at an attractive $999, we see the original white MacBook dying down in popularity very, very soon. In fact, if you look up apple.com/mac, you won’t even see the original MacBook in the dropdown menu.

Who would buy a fat MacBook when you can get a mighty fine-looking MacBook Air that offers, arguably, the same performance thanks to updated processors and the SSD technology.

Update on white MacBook: Apple has confirmed, white MacBooks have been discontinued.

What are Thunderbolt and Sandy Bridge?

All new MacBook Airs come with one Thunderbolt I/O port. Thunderbolt is an all-new I/O technology that allows data to be transferred at blazing fast speeds. Speeds up to 20 times faster than the currently ubiquitous USB 2.0.  Thunderbolt allows users to pull off previously impossible things like connecting multiple hard disks, a video camera and a high-resolution display without things slowing down.

As for the updated processors: Sandy Bridge is the 2nd generation of the Core-i series of processors manufactured by Intel which work more efficiently than the previous generation.

You can find more info on the new MacBook Air at: http://www.apple.com/macbookair/.

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