MacBook Air Review: sleek, sexy, expensive and a little disappointing

The worlds
The world's thinnest notebook. Outstanding design but limited functionality.

When Steve Jobs strode onto the podium to deliver his keynote address at this years MacWorld Expo in San Francisco the aging Apple founder showed that he and the company have lost none of the showmanship and pizzazz that has driven the company’s sales since it was founded.

The MacBook Air Jobs dramatically unveiled at the gathering showed that magicians have nothing on the computer industry when it comes to dramatics and smoke and mirrors, while Apple’s spin-doctors could undoubtedly put a positive spin on Osama bin Laden.

Don’t get me wrong. The MacBook Air joins a long list of industry firsts pioneered by Apple.

From both an engineering and technology aspect the MacBook Air sets the standards and qualities that others will need to conform to if they are to remain competitive.

The MacBook Air is a great concept machine that clearly defines the future of the laptop computer. Its sleek, sexy lines will undoubtedly win Apple a wall of accolades, just as other Apple products have in the past.

However, that said, the MacBook Air is a bit like buying a Ferrari and popping the hood and finding the motor is made by Honda and the seats upholstered with vinyl. High quality vinyl maybe, but vinyl none-the-less.

The primary shortcomings of the MacBook Air in its present format are due entirely to third-party component suppliers rather than Apple. As with other products Apple has released in the past, the MacBook Air is blurring the boundaries of today with tomorrow.

Anyone in the audience at the Moscone Center would have been excused for thinking they were viewing the return of the Messiah given the manner those attending applauded, cat-called, whistled and enthusiastically responded to Jobs’ every sentence – before they even new anything revolutionary was being announced.

Whether this is due to the average Americans penchant for cheering anything, including themself, or whether it was because the auditorium was full of die-hard Mac fans is difficult to determine.

But one really has to wonder what would cause such effusiveness by people to the simple sentence, “there is something in the air.”

The fact that Apple has been able to produce a laptop that measures only .0406cm at its thinnest point and 1.76cm at it’s thickest is largely due to the efforts of computer chip manufacturer Intel Corp.

Intel Corp. totally re-engineered the 400 million transistor core 2 duo processors used in the MacBook Air, slimming the original chip down by a staggering 60 per cent to end up with a processor a little under 18mm in width and 2mm thick.

Recognising Intel Corp’s. efforts Job’s paid tribute to the company during his keynote address to the point of sharing the podium for a short time with Intel Corporation president and ceo Paul Otellini.

There is no contesting the fact that the MacBook Air contains some impressive innovations. Among these is being the first ultra-portable laptop to ship with a 13.3-inch display and a full-size, backlit keyboard.

The oversize trackpad with multi-touch gesture support will prove extremely beneficial to those moving around large spreadsheets or graphics files, and for whom the low-power backlit LED display is too small.

The entry model MacBook Air ships with a 1.6 GHz Intel core 2 duo processor and the same 80 Gbyte, 1.8-inch (4.572cm) hard disk drive used in Apple’s iPod range, while the considerably more expensive and only marginally faster 1.8 GHz version ships with a 64 Gbyte solid state disk (SSD).

Prior to the release of the MacBook Air, the Sony Vaio TZ series were often described as the world’s most desirable laptops.

The silky smooth, sleek and sexy design of the MacBook Air will without a doubt be the laptop moulding that causes even hardened Windows users to drool over now.

However, putting the “wow” and “gee-whiz” factor aside, the practicalities of the MacBook Air will primarily appeal to those who have too much money, or are dyed in wool techno geeks who rush out and snap up the latest of any product that hits the shelves.

The most obvious shortcoming of the new MacBook Air is the absence of an optical drive.

This is partly due to the fact the current generation just will not fit, and partly due to Apple striving for more revenue from its online iTunes Store business.

To install software, MacBook Air users needs to either purchase an external USB powered Superdrive from Apple for US$ 99, have a second machine with an optical drive, or bludge off friends or co-workers with PCs or Macs containing an optical drive.

While Jobs painted this as being a technological breakthrough, his claim that “we don’t think Mac users are going to miss the optical drive” can only be described as pure hyperbole and the area where the spin-doctors took over.

According to Jobs, the four reasons people need an optical drive are to watch movies; install software; make backups; and “to burn music CDs – sometimes – for our cars usually.”

While Apple might like to believe “that most of us have iPod’s” and therefore don’t need to burn music CDs for use in our cars, this is far from the situation.

Downloading movies from the iTunes Store is a great revenue earner for Apple, but it ignores those people who want to go out and rent a movie and watch it now rather than wait for a movie to download, pay Apple for the rental and/or pay their ISP for the bandwidth.

For backing up data Time Machine is without a doubt a nice piece of software. But the new Time Capsule external hard drive that connects wirelessly to the MacBook Air is just another item to add to the purchase cost – and the weight of a complete system.

While these are inconvenient at the least, Jobs’ claim that the need to wirelessly install software on aMacBook Air from another machine is a feature akin to having your five-day holiday flight to Bali land at Christmas Island and having to wait three days for spare parts and calling it an Indian Ocean Island adventure.

Remote Disc is a handy feature, but it means having a second machine. I for one would run out of patience very quickly with a co-worker who continually wanted to “borrow” my optical drive so they could install new software on their yuppie toy. I suspect most other people will take a similar view.

The single USB port and no Firewire port will also be frustrating to many users of the MacBook Air.

The power supplied by USB ports on many MacBook Pro’s and older PowerBooks is insufficient to run many 5-volt external USB hard drives let alone a number of devices connected through a non-powered USB hub, so it will be interesting to see what the smaller MacBook Air is capable of.

For those not comfortable with the costs, security or slow speeds offered by WiFi, or those who need to connect to office LANs, Apple has developed an Ethernet adapter.

However, as this connects via the MacBook Air’s only USB port, it means compromising between what tasks you are going to perform at the time.

Apple’s claim that the battery in the MacBook Air will provide five hours of email and web browsing with wireless networking turned on is something that can only be supported once machines start to be delivered.

If the claim is factual one has to admire the technology being employed in both the battery and the MacBook Air circuitry.

The fact that the battery is hard-wired-in to the MacBook Air though means that users will need to carry their charger with them and stop to recharge, as opposed to carrying a spare battery, dropping it in and continue moving.

With an entry level price of US$ 1,799 for the 1.6 GHz/80 Gbyte model and US$ 3,098 for the faster and SSD equipped version, I suspect the short-comings in features will make the MacBook Air too expensive for students, while many corporate users will have to also need to carefully consider the compromises that are made to achieve the size and weight reduction.

More importantly, if the weight of the external optical drive and Ethernet adapter are included, the overall weight saving of a MacBook Air over a basic MacBook with a 2.2 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, two USB ports, a Firewire port, an Ethernet port, a built in optical drive and a 120 Gbyte hard disk is less than 500 grams (less than 1.2 lbs).

From a cost perspective, an entry level MacBook Air with Ethernet adapter and external optical drive will cost US$628 more than the 2.2 GHz MacBook, while the faster and snazzier SSD equipped MacBook Air is a whopping US$1,927 more expensive.

The MacBook Air is clearly an insight into the direction portable computing is heading and as in the past, Apple is leading the way with design, sex appeal and “wow” factor.

From an environmental standpoint, the MacBook Air is one of the most environmentally friendly computers Apple has made and sets standards others need to follow.

The MacBook Air’s aluminium casing is fully recyclable, while the display contains no mercury and uses arsenic free glass.

In addition all of the Apple designed circuit boards in the MacBook Air are bromide flame retardant (BFR) and PVC free while the packing is 50 per cent less in volume than the previous smallest package shipped by Apple.

From a practical standpoint though the MacBook Air will, I believe, appeal to only a small number of users requiring certain features only. It sits below the MacBook on features and above even the 17-inch MacBook Pro on price.

Despite what Steve Jobs said, I think Apple will find that users are not as ready to give up their optical drives as he claims, or as keen on asking to borrow somebody else’s optical drive every time they want to install software.

In spite of all of the travelling I do I won’t be rushing out to buy a MacBook Air. The saving of 500 grams when I’m travelling is not worth that much money to me and I don’t need the status of owning “the world’s thinnest notebook.”

What the MacBook Air does do though is give an insight into Apple’s future marketing and growth strategies and how it sees the revenue stream generated from it’s iTunes Store playing an increasingly role in corporate revenue.

The MacBook Air will start shipping in another two weeks. It will be after that we see if the machine lives up to the hype and claims – particularly in regard to battery life.

However the fact that production models of the MacBook Air will not be available for so long indicates that Apple might have rushed to announce this product at the strategic MacWorld Expo in San Francisco.

ENDS:
© John Le Fevre, 2008

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MacBook Air Review: sleek, sexy, expensive and a little disappointing, 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating

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John Le Fevre

Deputy editor, Thailand & GMS editor at The Establishment Post

John Le Fevre is an Australian national with more than 35 years experience as a journalist, photographer, videographer and copy editor.

He is currently deputy editor and Thailand / GMS region editor for The Establishment Post

Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me

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