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The MacBook Air turns four years old today

Four years ago today, Apple introduced the MacBook Air, then the world's thinnest notebook. It was Steve Jobs's last Macworld appearance and the next to last Macworld keynote for Apple.

The presentation is a classic Steve Jobs performance. The keynote has his usual smooth delivery, a genuine enthusiasm for the product, and a healthy dose of showmanship. Watch the clip below and tell me you don't get goose bumps when you watch Jobs pull the first generation Air out of a manila envelope. He does a fantastic job of presenting the deficiencies in competitor's products (small keyboard, small display, underpowered) and how the MacBook Air is a step up.

The first MacBook Air was a piece of engineering excellence. It was smaller but more powerful than its competitors. It started off with an 80 GB 1.8-inch HDD drive (optional SSD), a compact motherboard with a custom 1.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and GMA X3100 graphics processor. It also had a 13.3-inch LED-backlit glossy display, 2 GB of DDR2 SDRAM, full backlit keyboard, 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, USB port, and Micro-DVI port. It was thin, measuring only 12.8 in (325 mm) wide × 8.94 in (227 mm) deep × 0.16 in (4 mm) to 0.76 in (19 mm) high. You can see how much smaller it is than the MacBook Pro in our first hands-on video straight from the floor of Macworld 2008.

The first model had an optional external optical drive, but Jobs insisted customers would not miss their DVD because the world was moving to wireless. It seemed radical back then, but, with Mac OS X Lion, the Mac App Store and iCloud, we now see Jobs's vision of the future. The MacBook Air received positive reviews when it launched, but the early hardware was plagued with overheating and, for some, wireless connectivity problems. At US$1,799, it was also pricey compared to its Windows counterparts.

An updated version of the hardware was released at the end of 2008 and included a larger hard drive (and SSD option), a faster, non-custom Intel Core 2 Duo processor, new NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics, and a Mini Display port. It was a small refresh that slightly improved performance.

In 2009, Apple overhauled the MacBook Pro line and refreshed the MacBook Air again. This 2009 MacBook Air was the recipient of a higher capacity battery and a slightly faster CPU. The entry price was also dropped to $1499 for the HDD version and a very reasonable $1799 for the 128 GB SSD model.

In late 2010, Apple completely redesigned the 13-.3-inch MacBook Air with SSD storage across the line and improved battery performance. Apple also introduced the 11.6-inch MacBook Air, a version with most of the power of the 13.3-inch in a smaller form factor. The 11-inch competed directly with netbooks (remember those?) and was an instant hit for those who wanted a small notebook that'll work on the go. Pricing was very competitive with the 11.6-inch starting at $999 and the 13.3-inch at $1299.

Similar to previous models, the 2010 MacBook Air was not as powerful as its MacBook Pro cousins. Customers liked the small size of the Air, but not the slower processing power and frequent beach balls. Apple also removed the backlit keyboard from the Air, which caused a stir among customers who sorely missed that feature.

This changed in mid-2011 when Apple introduced the current MacBook Air models. The current generation Air models have Core i5 or Core i7 processors, SSD storage, and an Intel HD 3000 graphics processor. Though the Air got a significant boost, pricing remained the same, with the 11.6-inch starting at $999 and the 13.3-inch starting at $1299.

The latest model also includes Thunderbolt, Bluetooth 4.0 and a backlit keyboard. It ships with Lion, the Mac App Store and iCloud support, making the MacBook Air the ultimate wireless notebook that Steve Jobs promoted in that 2008 Macworld keynote. Benchmarks also show the lastest MacBook Air is no longer a slow performer. It's an excellent choice for customers who want both speed and portability.

This ideal combination of size and power propelled the MacBook Air to the top of Apple's Mac line. Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer said during the Q4 2011 earning call that "the increase in Mac sales was fueled by the very strong growth in MacBook Air, as well as the continued strong performance of MacBook Pro." He also noted that "the portables represented 74 percent of the total Mac mix." Sales estimates from analysts suggest the 2011 MacBook Air now grabs 28% of Apple's notebook sales, up from 8% in early 2011.

If you own one (or more) of these MacBook Air models, share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. We'd love to hear how you are using the MacBook Air in your daily life.

MacBook Air Introduction, Part 1

MacBook Air Introduction, Part 2

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