MacBook Air Review


The MacBook Air is driving me insane. I want it like no other hardware. It’s thin, yea, ok, we know this. And many power users have been bitching for more: 3G, bigger storage, more USB ports, and an internal drive. If you feel that way, this computer isn’t for you. I’ll go ahead and call it the most simple, focused, and beautiful laptop ever. And the MacBook Air’s shortcomings matter no more than the discomfort that fashionistas endure while wearing high heels, or car fanatics do when they have to fill up their tanks twice a week in their 5MPG sports cars. It just doesn’t matter to those who are smitten. For the rest of you, here are the facts.

The Basic Guts:
The Air has a Core 2 Duo chip in a specially designed package and small motherboard that help reduce its thickness. The LCD screen is backlit with LEDs, which saves battery, and allows the screen to be dimmed much lower than CCFL screens for additional battery. It has Wireless N/B/G, Bluetooth 2.1 EDR, and is available in two basic configurations: $1799 for a 1.6GHz chip, plus 2GB of RAM and a 80GBs 4200 RPM Drive. For almost double the price at $3098, you can get a 1.8GHz chip with the same 2GB of RAM and a 64GB solid state drive module that, like all SSD, is shock resistant. There is no ethernet port, only a USB to ethernet jack that needs to be bought separately. And there is no optical drive, save the $99 optional external. For all the bitching we do about it not having 3G cellular data, Apple considered it but couldn’t fit it into the case and didn’t want to lock consumers into one carrier.

The Hardware Details:
The Air has a few notable hardware elements all paying homage to the original conceit of a stripped down laptop. It has one USB port, a headphone jack, and an external monitor port, all tucked away in a fold down compartment. The USB port is difficult to get to, and keeps fatter USB devices from mounting. Above the keyboard and screen, there’s an iSight camera for video conferencing and stills, which records to 640 by 480 res (same as other iSights). Next to each are laser cut grills. One is a light sensor which adjusts the keyboard backlight. The other is the microphone. The Air has a single speaker, but its much louder than the speakers on the MacBook (But not those on the MacBook Pro.) The touchpad we’ll address later. BTW, even the insides are beautiful (yes, we already opened it) reminding me of the Fake Steve Jobs rant about the iPhone’s CPU not being perfectly centered. Fake Steve would not be able to complain about these guts. Build quality is excellent. The general twisting you get in the frames of most laptops is practically gone. One minor quirk. The right side of my screen is not flush with the main chassis when the lid is closed. The cooling system is adequate. Using it on your lap is perfectly acceptable, temperature wise. Oh one more thing about thinness: While using the Air, you never feel that edge of the front wrist rest because it is so narrow. Very, very nice.

Our benchmarks show it to be sufficiently fast, and between the performance of a last generation MacBook and MacBook Pro. We tested the 1.6GHz 80GB MacBook Air and several things were clear: The CPU was adequate, the 2GB of standard config RAM helped with multitasking and big file handling, and the 4200 RPM drive was a bit of a bottleneck, especially compared to the aftermarket drives in the older machines. We look forward to testing the SSD version of the laptop.

It’s thin to the tune of 0.16-inches at its thinnest and 0.76-inches at its thickest. OK, you’ve been beat over the head with that, and with many sizemodos. But does thinness make it portable? I’m not sure. The thicker but smaller Sony TZ and Apple’s old 12-inch powerbook seem more portable, simply because they can fit into bags that are smaller than backpacks. And is it useful as a road machine? I think the Sony TZ is a better professional road rig, for all its storage, battery life of almost 10 hours, and 3G data connection. But I think the Air is a much easier machine to work on, thanks to its fuller sized interface and LCD, and is more appropriate for trips to the library or sitting on the couch because of how sturdy it feels being carried in one hand. In this way, it is perfectly spec’d for the majority of the world. (Sorry power users. Few consumers are going to spring 70 a month for 3G, as cool as it is.) The rest of us can lug a USB hub, someone will come out with an external magsafe battery pack, jack in a USB 3G data modem, and turn the Air into a monstrosity. You could also get a MacBook Pro. The Air is a focused machine that does the basics in a form factor that fits in with sheets of paper, magazines, and other stuff you’d toss into a backpack. It works.

New Magsafe:
The 90 degree bend is much nicer than the old version, which always wore quickly near the seam. That bend does make it a little harder to snap into place, since the magsafe is under the Air. Oh, one note: Your old Magsafe adapters fit, but the plug is a bit too big and when you rest the Air on a table, it knocks it off.

The version of Leopard that ships with the Air supports iPhone like multitouch on that big ol trackpad. It’s almost 5 inches diagonal vs about 4-inches on other Apple notebooks, but the touchpad bar is thinner than usual and takes a minute to get used. It supports basic two finger scrolling like in the current Mac laptops, but adds interesting features:

•Rotating two fingers in iPhoto or Preview rotates the image.
•Three finger swipes up and down or side to side work much like a next or previous arrow keys, switching between images in photo programs, web pages in safari, days in iCal.
•The iPhone’s Zoom in and out using pinch and spread gestures works too. In Safari, it increases/decreases the font size.
•Multitouch support is not generic. In Firefox, all the tweaks in Safari do not work.
•We tried to install the Air’s version of Leopard onto a MacBook to see if we could get multitouch activated on an older machine. Predictably, no dice; the disc wouldn’t install on a non Air machine.

Remote Disc vs the External Superdrive:
Apple’s Remote Disc allows the optical-less Air to borrow a networked computer’s optical drive. comes on the install disc, and is a hefty install, and it includes PC and Mac versions. Remote drive doesn’t support a lot of multimedia playback over the network: It can’t rip CDs or DVDs by iTunes or Handbrake, doesn’t support even basic playback. It’s functional for installing programs, but not versions of windows that need to be installed from bootcamp. Plus, every time you use the remote drive, you have to get permission via a prompt on the non-Air machine’s screen. Very Vista like. For these reasons, I recommend anyone who gets an Air to get the accompanying superdrive, not only for the road, but for the tons of critical things you can’t do without it at home. It reads CDs at 24x, burns CDs at 24x, burns DVDs at 8x, and Double Layer DVDs at 4x. (It does not, however, work with other Macs.)

Keyboard and Screen:
Apple’s full Keyboard and LCD Screen give the Air a footprint larger than that of the competition. Counterintuitive, but it works. That nagging feeling you get when you have to tuck into a few hours of work into a subnote’s tiny interfaces are gone, so I’d have no hesitation using the Air for 8 hours a day. The keyboard is backlit, and black, perhaps as a homage to the titanium notebooks from Apple a few generations back. (And will be useful in keeping the keys from looking disgusting after a few months.) The spacing is the same as that on the standard MacBook, which I like, it has arrows and the updated dashboard, expose, and spaces buttons on top. The keyboard is also backlit, and uses the ambient light sensor to change its brightness.

The battery ain’t that bad:
The 34 watt internal battery of the Air has been a point of contention for pros who do lots of field work. That’s fair, considering this is a highly portable machine. You shouldn’t worry. We took that mother apart and found it was far easier to deconstruct than any notebook Apple’s ever made. With a small philips head screwdriver, the thing takes 5 minutes to disassemble. And the battery was simple to swap, no glue, just a few screws. I even think the aftermarket can make a new aluminum base that allows for battery swaps. I’ll update this post with battery life info very soon, but a preliminary test shows that it’s slightly lower in capacity than what Apple’s 5 hour rating. (No surprise.) We’ll see if using 3G on this smallish battery (fine for the low power system itself) go to mush with serious use. UPDATE: The first rundown test included putting the Macbook Air on normal power settings, prohibiting the screen, computer and drives from going into power save mode. Then we ran mp3s through the speakers using itunes. We’re at 3:15 and its just about done. More rundowns tomorrow.

It’s hard to put a price on such a thin, simple and interesting machine. The $1799 MacBook Air with a 1.6GHz, 2GB of RAM, and 80GB of space is not a deal, but this is the lightest OS X machine out there. $3098 for the 64GB of SSD and a relatively meaningless bump to 1.8GHz is ridiculous. If this is a secondary machine, you shouldn’t pay more for this than a more powerful and capable MacBook Pro. For comparison, some SSD laptops include 128GB of storage for $3k.

How it fits into your life:
As a pro writer, I’d never be able to depend on this machine for every day use. (In the field, I carry half a dozen batteries and backup 3G modems.) This machine’s mainstream appeal shouldn’t be underestimated. Some might call it the iPod of computing. It’ll never be my primary, that’s obvious. And while I usually use my old machines as secondaries, I find myself every day more and more unable to resist buying one of these first, and figuring out where it fits into my life second. I’ve just never been that rational of a person, and I’m fine with that.

  1. January 25th, 2008
    Trackback from : Mac Air
  2. February 2nd, 2008
    Trackback from : Sony Tz
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