Hands-on with Air

Matthew JC. Powell
18 January, 2008
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It’s been a long week at the Expo. It always is, because we manage every year to time the print deadline for our February issue to be the same day as Steve Jobs’s keynote. That’s either very smart or very dumb — I’m too tired to decide.

Now that the dust has settled a little, it’s easier to get a clear view of the MacBook Air (to say nothing of the fact that the crowd around the table in the booth isn’t six people deep anymore).

The first thing you notice is that it really is startlingly thin. Thinner than it looked on stage, thinner than it looks in the posters with the slogan "Thinnovation" that seem to have cropped up on every flat surface in San Francisco the past few days. One suspects the photographer tilted the machine a little, otherwise it wouldn’t be in the picture at all. The leading edge of it is less than 2mm thick, yet still manages to feature a pulsating sleep light and an infrared receiver for Front Row. The machine is a bit thicker at the back, where the screen hinges with the keyboard, but not much. The bottom of it is intriguingly curved, and includes two features: a recessed MagSafe power port (smaller than the equivalent port on a MacBook or MacBook Pro) and a drop-down door with the ports — MicroDVI, USB 2.0 and audio-out. Just to be clear, the door doesn’t expose the ports, the door contains the ports. The MicroDVI port can drive an Apple 23-inch Cinema Display, so you can have a big screen back at your desk.

Speaking of desks, it’s very important to understand that the MacBook Air is not a desktop replacement, and it’s not meant to be. Much of the criticism that has been levelled at this machine over the past few days is about the various compromises Apple has made to achieve the size of this machine. If you need FireWire and Ethernet and an in-built optical drive wherever you go, this isn’t the machine for you. You want a machine you can carry anywhere and barely notice it, whip it out wherever you are, log onto the nearest WiFi network and get some work done, this is the machine for you.

The Remote Disc substitute for an optical drive really works. Install a bit of code on the machine (Mac or Windows) whose drive you want to use, and the machine appears in a list on your MacBook Air. Put a disc in the drive and click on it in the list, and it mounts as if it were in your machine. It works for burning discs too. And here’s the really neat bit: put an OS X system DVD in that remote drive, and you can boot the MacBook Air off of it. If you must have your own disc drive for whatever reason you can buy one from Apple. Not as stylish as the Air itself, but still pretty slim.

The other thing you immediately notice about the Air is that it is incredibly light. It’s very easy to use one-handed, or balanced on a knee. The keyboard is, I think, exactly the same as the one on the MacBook, so if you like that one you’ll like this one — and if you don’t, you won’t. The display is very clear (though I’m not personally a fan of the glossy finish). Above the display is an iSight camera (which occupies that same impossibly thin leading edge I was referring to earlier — surely there are laws of physics about how small a camera can be?) and two perforated openings. One is the ambient light sensor for the LED backlit keyboard, the other is the microphone. I didn’t log into my .Mac account to check out the video and audio quality over iChat, but Photo Booth looked pretty good (though the guy in the pics was a bit haggard).

The star of the show is the trackpad, which obviates the need for a mouse. It’s more than double the size of the trackpad on the MacBook, and it’s easy to cover the entire screen without lifting your finger. The extra gestures like zooming in and out and enlarging the text in web sites using Safari with a "pinch" gesture borrowed from the iPhone cover much of what you do with a mouse. If, like me, you’ve configured extra buttons on your mouse for forward and backward navigation in your web browser, don’t worry — a three-finger swipe turns web browsing into an activity very much like turning the pages of a book.

The MacBook Air is not the machine for me. As a commuter between cities, I need a desktop replacement. That’s me, and Apple has a product for me (or it almost does) in the MacBook Pro (which I’ll buy when it has the same trackpad as the MacBook Air — please, Steve). If you don’t need a desktop replacement — if your portable computing needs really do depend more on having a machine with you wherever you are at a moment’s notice — this may well be the machine for you.

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