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Monday, Jul 01, 2013 6:23pm
NPD: MacBook Air owns 56 percent of the US ultrabook market
Market analyst NPD says that a single model of thin-and-light ultrabook -- Apple's MacBook Air -- owns over half of the market for such devices, leaving all the other manufacturers of endlessly MacBook-esque portables with 44 percent share, at least in the US. NPD analyst Stephen Baker says that the MacBook Air by itself is responsible for 56 percent of all US ultrabook sales, and that is based on figures prior to the recent release of the much-improved 2013 model, which the company thinks will only increase Apple's share.

The new MacBook Air improves on the unit all around, though the exterior chassis -- which is widely copied -- is left largely unchanged. As noted in our review of the 11-inch version, the only exterior change is the addition of two microphones, which promotes noise cancellation and is said to significantly improve the quality of VOIP and FaceTime calls or anything else that relies on the mic.

In addition, the power efficiencies of the new Intel "Haswell" chip have effectively doubled battery life, making the MBA useful in normal-level tasks for around eight hours (though some reviewers have noted significantly more, depending on what they were doing), and around 12 hours in the 13-inch edition, reports CNet. Of course, competitors are also moving to the Haswell chip and should enjoy some equivalent jumps in battery, but Apple may have a secret weapon in store: OS X Mavericks.

Though touched on relatively briefly during the public portion of the Worldwide Developer's Conference (WWDC) preview, Apple expects that power-saving and processor-saving features in Mavericks might also contribute significantly to battery life in the MacBook line -- features that rivals simply don't have in their own operating systems. The OS efficiencies could prove (depending on what the user is doing) to significantly improve on even Haswell's dramatic battery life, which would give Apple a major advantage over ultrabook competitors.

Other advantages often cited by reviewers and buyers of the MacBook Air over its competitors include the overall OS X experience, full keyboard, superior trackpad, Thunderbolt connector and the higher-quality, all-aluminum unibody construction: some newer rival ultrabooks have recently moved to putting a "carbon fiber" coating on cheaper materials (such as lower-grade aluminum or even plastic) in an attempt to make their units look more like the Air. While this technique offers a weight advantage over the Air in some cases, it also introduces more "flex" in the chassis, which will usually shorten the useful life of the device.

One of the most interesting factors behind the dominance of the MacBook Air is that it is also one of the higher-priced entries in the category. While it is generally thought to be unusual in the PC market for a higher-priced unit to also be one of the best-sellers, the MacBook Air's success is not unique in this regard: the iMac is the single best-selling brand of AIO desktop, though it doesn't command the share figure that the MacBook Air does.

In our review of the MacBook Air, Electronista noted that the main chink in the MBA's unibody armor was the continued use of a lower-quality TN display compared to the IPS and higher-res displays found in some rival ultrabooks (though generally at the higher end of the price spectrum). While the decision may have been to further prolong battery life or wasn't considered crucial to an "entry level" Mac notebook, it seemed surprising coming from the company that introduced IPS screens to consumer portables and gave the world the "Retina" display, which MacBook Air models still lack.

While the TN screen in the current MBA is the best quality for its class, the omission of IPS (which may also be responsible for the $100 price drop) may give competitors a foothold. NPD does not believe this to be a serious issue for most buyers, however, and predicts that the refreshed MBA will continue to add marketshare in this category for Apple. Primary rival Microsoft has indicated that it is taking a different approach, encouraging its manufacturing partners to create more "hybrid" designs that use a tablet form factor as an interchangeable display for a "notebook" base or use the same device as a tablet, albeit at a significant cost of battery life.