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Enterprise Mac | Tom Yager » MacBook Air, a detailed preview

January 17, 2008 | Comments: (0)

MacBook Air, a detailed preview

The room service menu in my hotel, the San Francisco Marriott Courtyard, is the size and weight of Apple's new commercial notebook, MacBook Air. MacBook Air, Apple's newest, thinnest, lightest, simplest notebook in Apple history weighs three pounds. It's 3/4s of an inch at the display hinge (closed), sloping down aerodynamically to a much narrower snout. You have to hold it and tumble MacBook Air to experience what a three pound, aerodynamically inspired notebook feels like, because it'll be a first for you. You have to imagine carrying MacBook Air everywhere in a slipcase, being able to whip it out, open it and have it ready for note taking, research, order entry, voice recording, podcasting, writing or what-have-you faster than you can jot your first word with that legal pad and pen in your bag.

Apple got MacBook Air so skinny and light by removing everything that the majority of mainstream commercial users don't use when they're not in the office or at home. There is no wired Ethernet and no FireWire. MacBook Air has just physical I/O ports: USB 2, audio output and micro-DVI (the latter for connecting to a digital, VGA or video monitor). These are all mounted on a tiny panel that flips down from the bottom of the notebook. When the I/O panel is closed, MacBook Air is nothing but smooth, sloped aluminum skin all the way around. There are no lumps or access covers to tip you off to component placement.

Many questions remain that require a full review to answer. My encounter was with a prototype, so I didn't get a chance to experience heat or fan noise. The charger is 45 watts, and the clocked-down chips in smaller packaging is encouraging. I also didn't get to see how far back the display tilts. I did find that the microphone is no to the right of the iSight window, though I don't know if the sound quality is improved. Likewise, I did not audition the speakers. A test left to run is to use this machine with Bluetooth stereo headphones. This works on MacBook Pro, but it's buggy. Does MacBook Air fix it?

MacBook Air's battery is sealed inside. It offers no external indication of its charge state. Apple's battery replacement program for MacBook Air is to drop it at any authorized facility, get it replaced, and get your machine back having been charged for the cost of the battery alone. I wouldn't expect this swap to happen while you wait, and I don't know whether Apple will commit to returning your data intact.

The thin lid encasing the 13.3-inch glossy display is astonishingly rigid. With so little distance between the top of the lid and the surface of the display, I felt sure that it would fail my warp test. I pressed hard on the back of the prototype MacBook Air's lid. It did not flex, and the display's image did not distort. It's my feeling that the shape of MacBook Air's case will make it a tougher travel partner than the typical squarish notebook.There isn't anything to cave in.

MacBook Air is gives you only what you need: A keyboard, a 13.3-inch display, 80 GB hard drive, wireless networking and 2 GB of RAM. The 1.6 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU (1.8 is an option) is clocked slow by modern standards, but it is cooler and more power efficient than the latest Penryn CPUs. Apple claims that MacBook Air's battery will last five hours, with Wi-Fi. If that's true, then it'll run 90 minutes longer than the much heavier MacBook Pro that I carry. The 45-watt charger makes in-flight and in-car charging cheap and easy.

MacBook Air's keyboard is MacBookish in style with widely space keys, but it is full size and backlit. The prototypes weren't lighting properly, so I can't speak to brightness of the lights or the opacity of the keycaps. The trackpad is massive relative to the size of the notebook. If it worked with a stylus, it'd make a fair tablet. The new trackpad supports a subset of iPhone's multi-touch gestures in bundled Leopard applications. In Safari, for example, you can navigate backward and forward among cached pages by sweeping across the trackpad. To enlarge text in the browser, you make a spreading motion with two fingers. In iPhoto, you can scroll, zoom and even rotate images in the thumbnail view with a single trackpad gesture. The gestural vocabulary will undoubtedly expand, and multi-touch will reach into other Apple software. Apple wasn't ready to address giving third-party developers access to multi-touch.

It goes without saying that this notebook isn't for everyone. MacBook Air's chief drawback is the display. Apple chose a sharp, glossy and bright LED-backlit 13.3-inch LCD panel. It looks marvelous, but it has a vertical resolution of 800 pixels. Pages and applications that are (poorly, lazily) designed to just fill a 1024x768 Windows screen have to be scrolled vertically on a Mac's 800 pixel tall display, while the 900 pixel tall screen of a 15-inch MacBook Pro is a perfect fit. The reason for this is a rant for another time.

Apple's usual thin, slot-loading optical drive would have made the case and the battery too thick, so Apple sells a thin, slot-loading, USB-powered external DVD burner for $99 (beautiful, portable and a bargain for any notebook). MacBook Air also comes with Remote Disc software that allows it to use the DVD drive in any PC or Mac on your LAN. Remote Disc completely bypasses the hassles of fire sharing. The shared disc shows up in Finder as a read-only CD/DVD drive. You cannot use Remote Disc to play DVD movies.

Before pointing to performance as a reason to take MacBook Air off your list, keep in mind that its Core 2 Duo CPU enables OS X Leopard's 64-bitness. With 2 GB of RAM, running Windows, Solaris or Linux as a guest OS under Parallels Desktop or VMWare Fusion is well within its reach. Given MacBook Air's small hard drive, using Boot Camp to dual-boot between OS X and Windows is impractical. With Intel's integrated graphics, the primary impetus for running Boot Camp--to run games and other graphics intensive Windows apps--isn't a factor for MacBook, MacBook Air or Mac mini.

Making MacBook Air at home everywhere I go would require some additional purchases: A USB to Ethernet adapter to connect to hotels' in-room networks, a DVI to HDMI adapter so that I can use hotels' LCD TVs as eye-friendly monitors, and the external DVD drive, because I get CDs and DVDs, and burn them, everywhere I go. But all of these fit in a sandwich-sized baggie that stays behind in the office or hotel while I fly, attend meetings and sit in conference sessions. I can't strip these things out of a big notebook to lighten it up, and they are among the peripherals that fatten the case and make a large, heavy battery necessary.

You do have to weigh MacBook Air's $1,799 sticker price against the benefits of traveling very, very light. If you run to meetings now with a wheeled bag in your wake because your notebook and charger are too fat and heavy to sling over your shoulder, you need to make a change. If it's such a pain to extricate and pry open your big notebook just to make a note, check an appointment or send an e-mail that you sometimes just don't bother, you definitely need a smaller notebook. If you start shopping with MacBook Air, I'm afraid that touring PC alternatives will prove unfulfilling.

Posted by Tom Yager on January 17, 2008 09:59 PM


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