Apple MacBook Air Proves Good Portables Come in Small Packages

 
 
By Don Reisinger  |  Posted 2010-11-05
 
 
 

Apple MacBook Air Proves Good Portables Come in Small Packages


When Apple CEO Steve Jobs first unveiled the latest version of the MacBook Air on Oct. 20 during a press event, some wondered how the product would fit between Apple's 13.3-inch MacBook and the company's iPad tablet. After all, those other products provide mobility and a certain level of productivity. Both the previous version of the MacBook Air and the company's latest model seemed ripe for cannibalization. 

But after spending the past week using the 13.3-inch MacBook Air, boasting a 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of memory and a 128GB solid-state drive, it's clear that Apple's laptop fits quite well at the crossroads between portability and usability. 

Design 

The first thing that will strike customers when viewing the MacBook Air is its outstanding design. The main enclosure is made from a single piece of aluminum that oozes sophistication. Plus, it's extremely thin, measuring just 0.11 inches at its thinnest. 

The computer boasts Apple's glass trackpad, which allows users to control on-screen functionality with several gestures. In fact, owners can "pinch" to zoom in on a page, swipe their fingers across the trackpad to move forward and back, and use three fingers to drag windows around. The experience takes some getting used to, but once customers get the hang of it, the MacBook Air's trackpad becomes extremely handy. 

Since I only reviewed the 13.3-inch MacBook Air model, I can't say how well-designed the 11.6-inch model is. But when choosing between the two models, it's important to consider the display size differences. On paper it might not seem like much, but when in use the difference is quite noticeable. If you will be doing some serious work on the device, the bigger screen is your best bet. 

For a look at the new Apple MacBook Air, please click here.

Although the MacBook Air comes with a full-sized keyboard, it doesn't have backlighting. So unless you are a fantastic touch typist, typing documents at night is practically impossible. Hopefully, Apple will rectify this major omission in the next iteration of the computer.

However, perhaps the biggest omission from the MacBook Air-and one that was also missing from its predecessor-is a disc drive. If users want to install a program from a disc, they have two choices: opt for the ridiculously expensive MacBook Air SuperDrive add-on, which costs $79, or use another computer's drive. 

MacBook Air Lacks Power for Heavy-Duty Applications


 

I didn't test the SuperDrive, but I did use another computer's disc drive and that worked flawlessly. I simply arranged to share my Mac Pro's DVD drive, and it worked in seconds with my MacBook Air. Using another computer's DVD drive might seem like a major hassle, but it really wasn't a bad experience. 

As another workaround to the lack of a disc drive, the MacBook Air has two USB ports on either side. In addition, the 13.3-inch model comes with an SD card slot, which is quite handy when needing to transfer content quickly to the computer. So users can use a USB flash drive to download files to the MacBook Air.

Yet another issue with the MacBook Air is that while it comes with WiFi, it lacks 3G connectivity. It's a rather unfortunate omission, since the MacBook Air is designed for mobility and so there is a definite need to have access to the Web while away from a WiFi connection. 

Performance 

The MacBook Air has somewhat outdated components. As mentioned, my 13.3-inch model comes with a 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, which most enthusiasts of the latest CPUs would probably laugh at. 

But I found no issues with the MacBook Air when surfing the Web, checking e-mail and performing some basic photo editing. In fact, it held up quite well. 

Video editing was a different story. The MacBook Air comes with iLife '11, which includes iMovie '11. After loading it up and adding video to the computer, it quickly became clear to me that the MacBook Air wasn't up to snuff. Admittedly, that was to be expected. The device is designed for mobile customers, not for heavy video editing. Nonetheless, unless users want to engage in the simplest video editing, the MacBook Air isn't the best solution. 

The MacBook Air I tested includes a 128GB solid-state drive-which becomes immediately apparent when opening the computer from sleep. Rather than wait a few seconds-as with a typical notebook-for a hard drive to start spinning, the solid-state drive in the MacBook Air gets users up and running almost immediately. I tested the wake-up time next to my iPad and was shocked to find that it's just about as fast. 

The MacBook Air boasts similarly fast boot-up times and easily bests hard drive notebooks, although there is still some wait time. But the bottom line is: It won't take long for users to be able to get to work.

Apple claims the 13.3-inch version of the MacBook Air will offer 7 hours of battery life, which in my testing I found to be true. That kind of battery life is extremely important to road warriors and enterprise customers. However, those folks would also like to see a removable battery, and the MacBook Air doesn't have one. 

MacBook Air Offers Highly Mobile Alternative to Tablets


 

All in all, using the MacBook Air was a treat. Snow Leopard was responsive in most cases, and I didn't witness any slowdown when viewing HD video online. Its performance each step of the way was actually quite surprising, since computing power isn't supposed to be one of its strong suits. 

The Mobile Factor 

As nice as it was to use the MacBook Air on the couch, the real value of the device is its mobility. That is where it reigns supreme. 

Not only is the device is thin, but it's also extremely lightweight at 2.9 pounds. The result is an ideal computer for those who must lug one to work.  

That makes the MacBook Air a more viable mobile option for some than the iPad. Apple's tablet might have the App Store, but the MacBook Air is a full-fledged computer, complete with a beautiful display and full physical keyboard. Chances are one will be much more productive on the MacBook Air than the iPad. That alone might make it the better option for those who need to be productive while on the go. 

The Final Verdict 

At first glance, the MacBook Air might seem like another throwaway product that Apple is trying to sell based on pomp and circumstance rather than functionality. But after putting it through its paces, I quickly realized that it's a stellar device. It combines the mobility of the iPad with the functionality of the MacBook. And in the process, it will deliver an experience that few other products in the market can muster. 

However, the MacBook Air is expensive. The 11.6-inch entry-level model starts at $999, and the top-of-the-line 13-inch model, which boasts 256GB of storage, retails for $1,599. The model I reviewed retails for $1,299.  

For those on a budget, those prices are steep. But after using the MacBook Air for a while one may forget about the high price tag, as the device's value will make itself known to the user. 

The MacBook Air isn't for everyone; power users and video editors should stay far away. But for most others, it's a fine option. 


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