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Monday, September 15, 2008, 01:00 pm PT (04:00 pm ET)

Next-gen MacBook shipments begin ahead of 'sharp ramp'

The first shipments of Apple's next-generation 13-inch MacBooks have left China ahead of a large-scale manufacturing ramp scheduled for later this month, according to investment bank Citigroup.

In a "Company Flash" bulletin issued to clients on Monday, analyst Rich Gardner said he expects the Cupertino-based Mac maker to introduce its fall line of notebooks "within weeks."

"Field checks confirm that shipments of new MacBooks have begun, with a sharp production ramp planned for September and an introduction planned for early October," he wrote. "The most distinctive features of the new MacBook appear to be a very thin aluminum casing, an LED-backlit display and an aggressive entry-level price point."

Gardner also used the bulletin to reiterate his Buy rating on Apple's badly-beaten shares, which tacked onto Friday's losses by falling another $6.44, or 4.32 percent, to $142.50 in afternoon trading.

Following his checks in Asia, the analyst said he remains comfortable with his above-consensus September quarter earnings estimates of $1.20 per share on sales of $8.3 billion.

Surprisingly robust iPod shipments combined with sharp declines in NAND flash memory, flat panel displays and DRAM pricing should allow the company to beat its gross margin guidance despite recent iPod price cuts and the just-ended back-to-school promotion, Gardner said.

"New products, iPhone geographic expansion and sharp declines in key component prices also bode well for upside [next quarter]," he added.

Gardner's MacBook predictions fall in line with earlier reports from AppleInsider, as well as a recent report which pinned an introduction for mid-October.