Laptop design has always been about compromise. Though they’ve come a long way in the past few years, laptops have never been able to offer the features available in desktop computers, and certainly not at comparable prices. In order to squeeze an entire computer into a portable shell (and have it be power-efficient enough to run on a battery for hours at a time), computer makers have to throw features overboard. And the smaller and lighter the laptop, the more compromise there needs to be.
The MacBook Air, Apple’s latest Intel-based laptop, is the lightest, thinnest laptop Apple has ever constructed, and according to Apple, it’s the thinnest laptop ever made. And in many ways, the story of this laptop is the story of a series of compromises, all made in order to fit an entire Mac in a 1.6kg package that’s less than 2cm thick at its thickest point.
A silver MacBook. The look of the MacBook Air is an interesting hybrid of Apple’s other two laptops. It’s got the shiny aluminium shell of the MacBook Pro, along with a backlit keyboard the likes of which has never been seen before in a small Apple laptop. (However, the MacBook Air is far more attractive than the MacBook Pro, thanks to the curved edges that make it look like the offspring of a MacBook Pro and an iPod nano.)
In all other ways, though, the Air is closest to the MacBook: in two of its three dimensions, it’s almost identical to the MacBook, differing only in thickness. (And it’s a big difference — the MacBook is 2.75cm thick, while the Air is 1.94cm thick at its hinge, tapering to 4mm at its front edge.)
The MacBook Air’s keyboard, backlighting excepted, is the same square-keycapped design featured on the MacBook. And its 13.3-inch, 1280×800-pixel display is identical in size to the one found on the MacBook. However, the Air’s screen is notably different because of what’s lighting it from behind: a light-emitting diode (LED). The LED backlighting is extremely bright, but what’s more impressive is that it immediately turns on at its full brightness. The MacBook, in contrast, starts out somewhat dim and gradually increases in brightness.
Like the MacBook Pro, the MacBook Air takes advantage of a tiny light sensor, located behind a set of microperforations just to the left of its iSight camera, to automatically adjust the brightness of the display and to control the keyboard’s backlighting. (If you turn off the lights, the screen dims rapidly and the keyboard lights up. Those who prefer to control their screen’s brightness manually can turn off this feature in the Displays preference pane.)
Despite its diminutive size, the MacBook Air doesn’t feel fragile. I wouldn’t recommend trying to break it over your knee; the keyboard feels solid, as does the Air’s entire bottom half. I noticed a bit of flexion on the top of the laptop — the portion behind its screen — but even there the MacBook Air felt sturdy. There’s no way to tell how this laptop will fare in high-stress situations, but it certainly feels durable.
Thin and light. It’s clear that Apple’s engineers followed a specific set of design constraints for the MacBook Air. By retaining the dimensions of the regular MacBook, the MacBook Air can offer a full-size keyboard and a generous wide-screen display. (As a former user of the 12-inch PowerBook G4, I can attest to the fact that Apple’s recent user-interface design decisions — lots of big, wide windows with toolbars, palettes, and slide-out drawers — can make using Mac OS X on a small display a painful experience.)
With the keyboard and display set, then, there are only two other ways for the MacBook Air to distinguish itself from its cousins: thickness and weight.
Let’s start with weight, as this is one measurement where the MacBook Air truly excels. Prior to the Air’s release, Apple’s lightest laptop was the MacBook, which weighs 2.27kg — nearly a kilo heavier than the 1.36kg Air. In fact, Apple has never released a laptop lighter than 2kg: the PowerBook 2400, PowerBook Duo series, and even that 12-inch PowerBook G4 all weighed somewhere between 2 and 3kg.
If your laptop lives most of its life on a desk, weight isn’t an issue. If you carry it with you at all times, weight can be its most important characteristic. Most people’s laptop use falls in between, and depending on the vagaries of your commute, the number of miles in your frequent-flyer account, and the strength and health of your arm and back, weight may or may not matter to you.
Me, I’m a relatively healthy male in my mid-to-late thirties, but my laptop is my primary Mac at home and at work, and I carry it on my back for at least 20 minutes every single weekday, to and from work. The lighter my backpack, the better. Shedding a kilo out of my backpack is something that noticeably lightens my load. (If you own a 15-inch MacBook Pro and have never really considered its weight an issue, consider this a serious hint that the MacBook Air might not be your cup of tea.)
One reason I loved the 12-inch PowerBook G4 was that it crossed some hard-to-define weight barrier, one I hadn’t even been aware of until I started using a laptop that crossed it. The 12-inch PowerBook was so small and light that carrying my laptop around with me became an afterthought. Instead of lugging a 15-inch PowerBook from place to place, I could idly hold the 12-inch model in one hand.
The MacBook Air takes that easy feeling to an extreme. Though it’s not quite as solid in my hand as the 12-inch PowerBook (owing to the latter’s additional width), it feels as thin and light as a loaded manila folder or a couple of magazines.
That brings us to the MacBook Air’s thinness. This product seems to have been designed specifically to be as thin as possible, with an eye toward making the marketing claim that the MacBook is “the world’s thinnest notebook.” And there’s no disputing this. Even my six-year-old daughter — not exactly the world’s foremost expert on laptops — couldn’t resist telling me how “really flat” she thought it was.
There is no denying that the MacBook Air’s thinness makes it visually striking, but I’m not convinced of the utility of that thinness. Other than allowing Apple to declare the Air the current winner of the race to design the thinnest laptop, it seems that the Air has slimmed down in the least important dimension.
Yes, I’ll grant you, I can almost slide the MacBook Air under my office door. But I don’t believe the extra thinness is going to gain me much working room when I’m wedged in an economy airline seat behind someone whose seat is fully reclined. Or on my daily bus commute, when I’m sitting in a seat so small it makes economy look like business class. In these situations, reduced depth would be more likely to improve the angle of my screen and keep the front of my laptop from pressing against my chest. But in that dimension, the MacBook Air is no different from the MacBook.
Making do with less. In order to make the MacBook Air small and light, Apple had to remove features once considered standard on all Apple laptop models. This model is the first in recent memory to have no built-in CD/DVD drive and no FireWire ports. Its internal storage is limited, and its connection to peripherals has been reduced, too. In order to take advantage of the Air’s light weight and small size, users must be willing to sacrifice some of the features that they previously took for granted.
Let’s start with the optical drive. Yes, you can buy an 8x SuperDrive for $139 as an add-on. (It will add 300g to your bag and doesn’t exactly look elegant when it’s hanging off the side of your tiny MacBook Air.) As someone who uses the optical drive in his laptop so rarely that I sometimes forget whether its slot is on the front or the side, I don’t really consider the lack of an optical drive a major omission. If you’re someone who lives or dies by the ability to burn or play back CDs or DVDs, however, you’ll find this to be a major drawback.
Apple has, to its credit, exerted quite a bit of muscle in an attempt to make the Air’s lack of an optical drive a non-issue. In addition to selling the external SuperDrive, the company has added a feature called Remote Disc that allows the Air to take over the optical drive of another computer (Mac or PC) on your local network. Just install the Remote Disc software (included on the Air’s install disc), and the MacBook Air can use Bonjour to browse your network and read what’s on any data disc. This feature worked well in my testing. The MacBook boot software has even been updated for the Air so that it can boot via Remote Disc in the event that you need to reinstall Mac OS X.
Although Remote Disc is a nice addition, it has limitations. It’s meant for installing programs and copying files, and doesn’t work as a remote DVD player or CD ripper. Apple helpfully suggests that the iTunes Store stands to assist you in all your music, movie, and TV show needs, but of course the latter two categories are not present on the Australian version of the Store and even when they are many users may prefer to consume content that originally began its life on optical discs. Using a tool such as HandBrake is certainly an option in order to make DVDs watchable on your Mac as well as your iPod or iPhone, but converting a movie can be a time-consuming experience.
For all my nonchalance about optical drives, I know that the last time I was really sick in bed at home, I whiled away the hours watching DVDs on my MacBook. With the MacBook Air, that sort of behaviour won’t really be an option, short of having an external SuperDrive hanging around at the ready.
One door, three ports. To see more of the MacBook Air’s feature compromises, look no further than the cute flip-down door on the laptop’s right side. Upon lowering the door, you can see the MacBook Air offers only three ports: a headphone jack, a USB port, and a micro-DVI port. (And yes, this means that all of those IT professionals who have to carry a sack of Mac display adapters will need to add two new ones to their stock. However, Apple has graciously included two adapters — micro-DVI-to-VGA and micro-DVI-to-DVI — in the box with the MacBook Air.)
However, Apple hasn’t compromised when it comes to the MacBook Air’s video-out capabilities. They match the MacBook’s, including the ability to drive an external monitor as large as Apple’s 23-inch Cinema Display (1920×1200 pixels). It also shares the MacBook’s Intel GMA X3100 graphics processor circuitry, which means neither laptop will ever be a gaming powerhouse.
More of a compromise is the pathway by which users can attach peripherals to the MacBook Air: a single USB 2.0 port. First let’s address that port on its own merits: if you want to attach more than a single USB device to the MacBook Air, you’ll need to invest in a USB 2.0 hub. In a desk-bound configuration, this can actually work quite well. I tested the MacBook Air attached to the USB port of the aforementioned 23-inch Apple Cinema Display, and then on to a Belkin-powered four-port USB 2.0 hub. I managed to attach an external hard drive, an iPod, an iPhone, an Apple keyboard, a Kensington trackball, and the MacBook Air’s own USB Ethernet adapter all at once, without any trouble.
However, using USB devices on the road could be more problematic. If you usually count on having two open USB ports on your Mac, you’ll need to consider if your working style will still function with only a single port available, or if you’ll need to invest in (and carry around) a portable hub. Keep in mind, too, that the MacBook Air’s USB port is also the place where you must connect its SuperDrive (if you need to read or write from optical discs). And If you don’t have a USB hub, you’ll also need this port for connecting any other peripheral, including the Ethernet USB adapter. In other words, that one USB port is going to be awfully popular.
Beyond its sheer … singularity, the MacBook Air’s USB port has other ramifications. It’s also a sign that the MacBook Air is the first Mac in years to eschew FireWire, the once-ubiquitous Apple-created connection technology that now seems to be slowly fading into irrelevance. The disappearance of FireWire brings up several other issues. If you’ve invested in a digital camcorder that connects to your Mac via FireWire and count on being able to pull video off that camcorder while travelling with a laptop, you’ll be out of luck with the MacBook Air. (I wouldn’t be surprised if some clever soul is even now inventing a USB-to-FireWire video bridge, but that will be an extra piece of hardware you’d need to buy and carry, even if it does someday appear.)
What’s more, without FireWire there’s no Target Disk mode, a feature that lets you mount a laptop’s drive on another Mac as if it were an external hard drive. It’s a feature that’s been around for a long time (dating back to a SCSI version on old PowerBooks), and it’s a convenient way to migrate files on and off laptops, but the MacBook Air just won’t do it. (And no, sadly, there’s no USB equivalent.)
Here, too, Apple has built new software to mitigate the loss of functionality. A new edition of the Migration Assistant utility, which used to focus on FireWire as a transport mechanism, now lets you transfer files across an Ethernet or Wi-Fi network directly from within the program. Using a network isn’t as fast as FireWire, but it does work.
The third port on the MacBook Air’s door, the headphone jack, is the simplest of the three to comprehend: attach it to a pair of headphones or an external speaker, and you’ll get sound. That’s a key feature, since the MacBook Air’s single internal speaker is small, tinny, and unfortunately located in the general vicinity of the arrow keys, in the bottom right corner of the keyboard. If your hand happens to be over that area — and mine was more often than not, since that’s a natural place for my right hand to be — you’ll find that your hand is muffling most of the sounds out of the MacBook Air’s speaker. Even if your hands are off, the asymmetrical placement of the speaker simply doesn’t feel right, since it places all the aural action happening on your Mac to the far right.
As you might expect with a laptop as small as the MacBook Air, it’s a tight fit back there at the port door. And that tight fit leads to some interesting compatibility issues, too. Many devices with integrated USB plugs, such as broadband cards and TV-tuner cards, may not be able to fit in without a short USB extension cable. (My external EVDO modem came with such a cable, but it turns out I don’t need it — it fits snugly and works like a charm.)
Likewise, many large headphone plugs will not fit completely in the MacBook Air’s headphone jack. The bulky plug of my Ultimate Ears headphones would plug in far enough for me to hear my iTunes music playing clearly and in stereo. However, the plug didn’t seem to be quite well seated enough to fend off numerous high-pitched buzzes and clicks, which were particularly noticeable between tracks. Using an iPhone-style headphone adapter with a small plug seemed to solve those issues.
Limited options. During the MacBook Air’s introduction at Macworld Expo, Steve Jobs showed a photograph of the MacBook Air’s interior and compared the length of its motherboard to the length of a pencil. All that miniaturisation comes at a price, however — in terms of a lack of options and a limited set of features for many of the MacBook Air’s basic technologies.
Take the hard drive. Its storage capacity is 80GB, the same size as the entry-level MacBook’s. But the MacBook and MacBook Pro can be optionally configured with drives as large as 250GB. Those models use standard laptop drives; the MacBook Air uses a smaller 1.8-inch drive more like those found in iPods. And space is at such a premium in the MacBook Air that even the 120GB drive once used by the iPod is too thick to fit. As a result, 80GB is currently the only size of hard drive available for the Air. And the Air’s drive is slow and small, spinning at 4200 rpm (compared to the 5400-rpm and 7200-rpm drives available in Apple’s other laptops) and connected via parallel ATA (rather than the newer Serial ATA method used in the other MacBooks).
There is another storage option for the Air. For $1408, you can have Apple swap in a 64GB SSD (solid-state drive). Though you’ll be paying over a thousand bucks for 16GB less storage, the SSD option should use less power and be faster than the hard-drive option. (We weren’t able to acquire an SSD-bearing MacBook Air; we’ll share the results of our tests of that model as soon as we can.) Perhaps more importantly, the SSD — which uses flash memory like that found on digital camera cards, the iPhone, and the iPod nano and touch — has no moving parts, meaning it should be far more resistant to shocks and far more reliable than a traditional hard drive.
In any event, if you’re someone who needs more than 80GB of onboard storage, you’ll need to slim down your data before switching to an Air. I managed to switch from my nearly full 160GB MacBook drive through a judicious program of throwing out ancient applications and preferences, moving my media to other devices, and copying old files to an external hard drive and a networked file server. If your MacBook Air isn’t your primary system, but more of a sidekick to your desktop system, the drive size should be less of an issue.
There are a similar lack of options when it comes to the MacBook Air’s RAM. The MacBook Air comes with a stock 2GB of RAM, an excellent allotment — but Apple has a very practical reason to be so generous with the stock RAM. That’s because the MacBook Air’s RAM is built in to the computer itself, inaccessible and non-upgradeable. Fortunately, 2GB is a good amount. Any less, and Apple would have risked crippling the MacBook Air into irrelevance.
In terms of the onboard Intel Core 2 Duo processor, Apple gives MacBook Air buyers two speed options: the standard 1.6GHz and 1.8GHz, a $430 option. Both speeds fall short of what’s available on the MacBook (2.0GHz, 2.2GHz) and MacBook Pro (2.2GHz, 2.4GHz, 2.6Ghz) lines.
What it all boils down to is that one of the less obvious compromises built into the MacBook Air, at least for now, is a lack of customisability and serviceability.
Speed facts. Macworld Lab tested the MacBook Air’s $2499 base configuration — a 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo processor with an 80GB hard drive.
As you might expect from the slow clock speeds of its processor and the slow speed of its hard drive, the MacBook Air is quite a bit slower than the other MacBooks. The MacBook Air was also outpaced in our tests by one of its closest desktop cousins, the ultracompact Mac mini 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo. Its Speedmark score of 124 is the lowest score we’ve recorded for any Intel-based Mac laptop, but it does handily beat our PowerPC laptop reference system, the 1.67GHz PowerBook G4. The MacBook Air is also clearly the slowest currently shipping Mac model.
My time with the MacBook Air came on the heels of using a 2.16GHz MacBook, and I found its speeds in day-to-day use to be perfectly sufficient. Using writing tools, checking e-mail, and surfing the web, I generally found the difference in speed between the two systems to be minor. Using Photoshop CS3 to do some minor image tweaking seemed perfectly fine.
However, users who must rely on their portable systems to do processor-intensive tasks as fast as possible should be warned: the MacBook Air is not remotely as fast as the MacBook, let alone the MacBook Pro. But for general uses, I rarely noticed that the system was slower than my MacBook.
Though Apple’s laptops have long been criticised for running hot, sometimes intensely so, I’ve never been someone who’s been bothered by it, for whatever reason. In using the MacBook Air for extended periods of time, I found it never got particularly hot. It certainly never felt warmer than my MacBook. The heat, when it is apparent, is concentrated in the back left corner. At no time did I judge the temperature back there as being uncomfortable or potentially injurious.
Battery included. One of the more controversial features of the MacBook Air is its battery. Not its rated battery life — although at five hours, even Apple’s estimate of the MacBook Air’s battery capacity is less than the six hours the company estimates for the MacBook and the 15-inch MacBook Pro.
No, the most controversial issue is that the MacBook Air’s battery is not replaceable. There’s no battery door, no way to swap a dead battery out and replace it with a fresh one — as with all other Apple laptops. Like an iPod or iPhone, the MacBook Air has a battery embedded inside, and there’s no official way to get it out other than giving your laptop back to Apple and asking the company to replace it for a fee. (Online reports suggest that the battery is relatively easy to replace—so long as you’ve got a screwdriver and some patience. In other words, replacing the battery is something to do when the original wears out, not something to do while on a long flight. And something to do if you’re not concerned about voiding your warranty.)
For some users, swapping batteries is a necessity. If you take long plane flights or otherwise travel for long periods of time without access to a power outlet, bringing along a second battery has been a time-tested tradition. With the MacBook Air, that safety net is gone.
Apple’s decision to eliminate the battery swap might not be quite as radical as you might first think, however. Many airlines already offer power outlets for laptops (though some plugs require Apple’s $69 MagSafe Airline Adapter and a lot of airlines only offer the power plugs in business and first class), and in a few years they may very well be common, especially on long-haul flights. But that’s little solace if you fly from Sydney to Perth regularly in the back row of a Jetstar flight where power plugs are just a rumour.
In my 12-inch PowerBook G4 days, I used to keep a second battery around, specifically for airplane flights. But honestly, since I upgraded to the MacBook I’ve never even removed my battery, except to install RAM or swap out the hard drive. One reason for that is a change in my in-flight habits: I use my laptop for work when I’m on the flight, but when I take breaks to entertain myself, I switch to an iPhone or iPod. By spreading the load out over multiple devices, each with their own batteries, I can get through the entire flight.
In the end, the lack of a replacement battery may be a deal-breaker for people who truly need more working time than the MacBook Air’s locked-in battery gives them. In my days using the MacBook Air — web browsing, writing, and using e-mail, all with Wi-Fi turned on — I found that it held a charge for roughly three hours total. It was an acceptable, if not inspiring, amount of time.
My attempts to recharge the Air’s battery took a surprisingly long time. Apple says that the behaviour I witnessed doesn’t really fit with any of its testing; we’re working with Apple to get to the bottom of the issue and Macworld Lab will do further battery testing (inluding both discharge and recharge time) soon to help clarify the issue.
The MacBook Air’s power adapter itself is different from the ones sold with the MacBook and MacBook Pro — the Air’s slim design forced Apple to place its power connector on a curved edge on its left side, and the MacBook and MacBook Pro adapters — though they’ll fit the connector itself — stick out straight, causing them to pop right off if you lay the MacBook Air flat on a desk or table. The MacBook Air’s connector, in contrast, turns at a right angle and nestles snug in the case’s curve.
Users of laptop stands may feel encouraged that they probably don’t have to invest in extra power adapters for the MacBook Air: my simple Road Tools Podium CoolPad raised the Air high enough up off my desk so that my existing 85-watt MagSafe adapter connected to the MacBook Air with room to spare.
Gesture of support. As is often the case when Apple introduces new MacBook models, the MacBook Air’s trackpad offers some functionality that we haven’t seen before on a MacBook.
As displayed in a redesigned Keyboard & Mouse preference pane via a series of informative animations, the MacBook Air supports new gestures that go way beyond the two-finger scroll and secondary click. In a move that will be familiar to iPhone users, the MacBook Air’s trackpad understands the same pinch-and-spread finger movement that you use to zoom images and web pages on the iPhone.
On the MacBook Air, what that gesture does depends on what program you’re currently using. It’ll zoom in or out on an image in Preview or iPhoto, but when your cursor is over a Finder window set to Icon view, it has the odd effect of changing the size of all of the icons. In Safari it increases the font size.
A similar two-finger gesture, taking two fingers and circling them around one another, cues iPhoto and Preview to rotate the selected image. (Other programs should be able to take advantage of these gestures as well, and presumably other future MacBook models will include this capability.)
A three-finger swipe across the trackpad kicks off another action that will be familiar to iPhone users: it advances (or backs up) within a list of items. In iPhoto, swiping to the right will advance to the next image; in Safari, swiping to the left is akin to clicking the Back button.
But the iPhone’s swipe gesture takes a single finger, while for obvious reasons the MacBook Air’s trackpad reserves single-finger movement for the act of moving your cursor around the screen. I found swiping with the required three fingers to be ungainly at best. While I can see myself adopting these new two-finger gestures just as I have the two-finger scroll and the two-finger right-click, I have my doubts about the three-finger swipe.
Sidekick or mainstay? With its reduced hard-drive size and lack of speed, the MacBook Air may be looked upon by users with high standards as a product that’s not worthy of being any user’s primary Mac. I’ve received numerous e-mails on that point, from Mac users who assume that Apple has intended the MacBook Air to be a sidekick to another, more powerful Mac at the true centre of one’s life.
But in making the MacBook Air a full-fledged MacBook and marketing it as such, Apple has given no hint that it views this system as anything more than a tiny version of the other MacBooks in its product line. Beyond the necessary release of Remote Disc, there’s a disappointing lack of innovation from Apple in the area of easily syncing any MacBook back to a desktop Mac.
Yes, there are plenty of clever strategies you can use to make this process better, including .Mac synchronisation or sync utilities such as Econ Technologies’ Chronosync. But Apple could have chosen to create software that made the MacBook Air as much of an easy-to-use companion piece to a desktop system as an iPod or an iPhone. Instead, MacBook Air users will face the same synchronisation issues as every other person who uses a MacBook as a secondary system.
Then there will be those who, small drive and slow processor be damned, will adopt the MacBook Air as their primary Mac — simply because they’re laptop-only users who want that laptop to be as small as possible.
For those users, the biggest issue with the MacBook Air will be the size of its hard drive. Data pack rats will need to change their file-archiving strategy, migrating certain documents to an external hard drive. Media fans might consider packing an iPod rather than storing a copy of their music and video library on the MacBook Air’s drive.
Australian Macworld’s buying advice. If the story of the MacBook Air is a story about compromise, the decision about whether the MacBook Air is a product worth having can be answered by one question: How much are you willing to compromise?
The MacBook Air is the slowest Mac in Apple’s current product line, though its Intel Core 2 Duo processor is fast enough for general use. Its hard drive capacity is limited to 80GB, and on a slow drive at that. It’s got no internal optical drive. It’s got no FireWire port and only a single USB port, limiting its external connectivity. It’s more expensive than the MacBook, which bests it on almost every tech-spec measurement.
That’s one side of the equation. On the other side are two features that many computer users would never think of as reasonable ways to judge a computer, features measured in kilograms and millimetres instead of gigahertz and gigabytes.
Judged merely on the cold technological specifications, the MacBook Air can’t measure up to Apple’s other laptops. For those to whom the tech specs matter above all else, the MacBook Air can’t be seen as much more than an overpriced, underpowered toy.
But for those who factor size, weight, and — yes, I’ll admit it — style into the equation, the MacBook Air begins to make more sense. Up until now, Mac users who craved the smallest Mac laptop possible have made their own compromise, using the lower-powered MacBook (or clinging desperately to the even lower-powered 12-inch PowerBook G4).
Is losing several hundred megahertz, dozens of gigabytes of hard-drive space, an internal optical drive, and FireWire connectivity worth losing nearly a kilo? (Those are the differences between the MacBook Air and the MacBook — if you’re considering a switch from the MacBook Pro, the differences are even starker in both directions.) Each laptop user will have to answer that question for themselves.
As a longtime fan of small laptops, I embraced the MacBook Air with some trepidation. But once I slipped it into my backpack and threw the bag over my shoulders, I realised that sacrificing some storage space and some processor power was ultimately worth it for me.