MacBook Air: Real World Review

Anthony Caruana
10 September, 2008
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As someone who writes lots of product reviews it’s great to be able to review a product that I own and have tested in the real world rather than through a series of contrived tests. During a recent podcast, I mentioned that I’d moved from a MacBook Pro to a MacBook Air. This review is my reflections on using the Air as my “on the road” computer.

Before launching into my experiences and observations with the Air, it’s worth spending a moment or two understanding how I use the Air. My main working computer is a 20″ iMac. The Air is a supplemental system that is meant to complement my desktop rather than replace it. My main uses for the Air will be retrieving email, surfing the web, taking notes in classes, using online study resources, delivering presentations using Keynote and writing reviews. I won’t be running Photoshop or any other high-end, demanding software.

For starters, the Macbook Air really is incredibly thin. Every time someone sees it for the first time their jaw drops. However, it also means that I can carry the Air to a meeting in a document satchel along with a few papers. That degree of portability is quite astounding.

Now, many pundits commented that Apple made too many compromises to achieve the Air’s 1.94cm thickness. They say that the lack of an optical drive and a single USB port is too limiting. Well, in over a month of daily use the only times I’ve needed access to an optical drive has been to install applications and Apple’s Remote Disc capability covered that off nicely.

The single USB port has been a hassle exactly twice in a month. One time was when I booted from an external drive (the one that I cloned my MacBook Pro to before disposing of it) and wanted to connect a USB stick at the same time. The other time was when I needed to connect a USB memory stick and I was using my mobile broadband service.

Other limitations such as the lack of Ethernet and a 3.5mm microphone connector really aren’t of consequence to me. I can’t remember the last time I used a wired connection with a laptop computer. The one missing feature I’d really like is an integrated 3G modem. It’s not a showstopper but would certainly be an extremely nice feature to have.

Battery life is excellent. I can use the Macbook Air for more than three hours with a USB HSDPA modem connected and active. However, once the battery is fully discharged it seems to take ages to fully recharge.

The MacBook Air runs warmer than my old MacBook Pro did.  I’m a fan of iSlayer’s iStat Menus and I keep the temperature and fan speed displays on the menu bar. The MacBook Air, when it’s on but idle, runs at about 50 degrees and the fans run at about 2500 rpm. That’s about 10 degrees and 500 revs higher than the MacBook Pro. The Air’s fans also come on more often, making me wonder if the extra heat will effect the hard rive and battery longevity. I guess that time will tell. This also means that the Air is louder than the Pro.

The other thing I noticed is that the Air’s screen hinges seem to have loosened up a bit. It’s not as if the screen’s falling back but there’s significant movement. Again, I’m left wondering if this will be a problem in the months to come. Hopefully it won’t be as the rest of the build quality seems excellent.

One of my principal uses for the Air is for presentations. I’ve used the Air with Keynote, an Apple Remote and external screens using the VGA and DVI connectors that ship with the Air. Being a cautious type, I usually reboot my system before presenting to make sure no errant apps are running. I’ve not had any problems with transitions and complex builds.

Performance running applications like Word, Pages, Keynote and Excel is reasonably snappy. Sure, the Air’s processor might not be exactly market leading if you’re into comparing specifications, but it’s still plenty powerful enough for such tasks. The 2GB of memory is adequate but it’d be nice if there was room for an other couple of gigabytes.

So, who’s the MacBook Air for? Most of the Air’s early critics simply didn’t understand what the Air is about. I’ll be straight here. If you’re looking for a portable system that will replace a desktop then the Air is not for you. The MacBook or MacBook Pro with the extra USB ports, Firewire and optical drive is a better fit.

If you’ve got a desktop system but you want something portable for email when you’re on the go, presentations and everyday office tasks, then the Air is worth considering. The price difference between the MacBook and the MacBook Air is significant, but the Air is so light that I was prepared to part with my own money for the portability.

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