MacBook Air – Pros n Cons

For those of us who’ve been waiting—far too long, it seems—for a smaller, lighter laptop from Apple, Tuesday’s announcement of the MacBook Air was a welcome one. I, for one, have been wanting a smaller version of the MacBook Pro since…well, since the MacBook Pro replaced the PowerBook G4 line, sans the 12-inch model.

But subnotebooks—laptops designed to be smaller and lighter than traditional models—generally involve many tradeoffs. For the reduction in size and weight, many smaller notebooks compromise on such attributes as the size of the display and keyboard, processor speed, battery life, and included features. Most also cost more than a comparably-featured larger model. The MacBook Air is no exception, Steve Jobs’ claims to the contrary notwithstanding. What makes the MacBook Air unique is that Apple has chosen to make different compromises than those found in most other subnotebooks. The company has essentially said, “It has tradeoffs and limitations, but we think our tradeoffs and limitations are better than the competition’s.”

Where it shines

Before getting to those tradeoffs, consider the areas in which the MacBook Air stands out. Unlike many subnotebooks, it includes a generously-sized 13.3-inch, 1280- by 800-pixel, glossy LED screen, using the same LED technology found in the MacBook Pro. You also get a full-size keyboard nearly identical to the one found on the MacBook.
In this respect, the MacBook Air is just as usable as a MacBook for general computing, which is to say much more usable than a typical subnotebook. Of course, because of these full-size components, the MacBook Air’s footprint is considerably larger than that of many subnotebooks on the market; in fact, the Air’s 12.8-inch width and 8.94-inch depth are each 0.02 inches longer than the corresponding dimensions of the MacBook.

It’s in weight and thickness—or, if you will, thinness—that the MacBook Air shines. Whereas the MacBook and MacBook Pro are each around 1 inch thick, the MacBook Air is essentially three-quarters of an inch thick at the thickest point, and less than a fifth of an inch thick at the thinnest. And at only 3 pounds, the Air is 2 pounds lighter than the next-lightest Apple notebook.

Other impressive features include the Air’s battery life (according to Apple, five hours with WiFi and Bluetooth active); a built-in iSight camera and microphone; video output that supports extended desktop with an external display; an ambient light sensor and backlit keyboard; and a large, multi-touch trackpad.
Where it compromises

But to squeeze into such a svelte package, the MacBook Air is missing a number of features, and other features are scaled back. The most obvious omission—one common to subnotebooks—is an optical drive. If you want to install new software, rip CDs to iTunes, watch DVDs, or burn data to disc, you need to either purchase the $99 Apple MacBook Air SuperDrive, which connects via USB, or use the new Remote Disk feature to “borrow” the optical drive of another computer on your network.

You also lose ports and expansion options. Unlike the MacBook Pro, the MacBook Air has no ExpressCard slot, and unlike both other Apple laptop lines, the Air doesn’t include FireWire, Ethernet, multiple USB ports, audio input, and optical audio output. The only ports on the MacBook Air are a single USB slot, an analog headphone/speaker output, and a new Micro-DVI video output. It appears even the Kensington cable lock slot, included in every portable Mac I can remember, is missing. (You can add Ethernet via Apple’s $29 USB Ethernet adapter.)

Thanks to heat and space concerns, the Air also isn’t as speedy as its larger siblings. Instead of the 2.0GHz to 2.4GHz processors available in the current MacBook and MacBook Pro models, the MacBook Air comes standard with a 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo or, for $300 more, a 1.8GHz chip. (During his keynote on Tuesday, Jobs said that Intel had to create a new, smaller version of the Core 2 Duo to fit inside the MacBook Air.) To be fair, the Air’s processors are near the middle of the pack for subnotebooks, which range in speed from roughly 1.2GHz to 2.2GHz.

Space and heat issues also limit the MacBook Air’s storage options. Because the laptop is so thin, it appears that only single-platter, 1.8-inch hard drives—the same type found in the 80GB iPod classic—fit; even a dual-platter, 1.8-inch drive, like the one used in the 160GB iPod classic, is too thick. These drives are also slower than a typical laptop drive, at 4200rpm compared to 5400rpm, and are ATA rather than the now-common SATA. The only alternative here, performance-wise, is the optional 64GB solid-state drive, although the high prices for such drives adds $999 to your tab; it’s likely to be another year or two before such drives are inexpensive enough to be standard features.

Perhaps the most controversial compromise Apple has made will turn out to be that, unlike nearly every other subnotebook, the MacBook Air uses an integrated battery that can’t be easily removed. The apparent reason for such a design is that, as with the iPhone and iPod, the battery had to be shaped to fit within the Air’s unusually-thin profile; making the battery removable would have added considerable thickness, as the enclosure would have had to be redesigned to accommodate a more-traditional battery compartment.

Finally, the MacBook Air adheres to the general rule that you pay more for smaller size. Even though it isn’t as full-featured as the MacBook, it costs $300 to $700 more than Apple’s consumer-level notebook, and for only $200 more you can get a much more capable—but larger and heavier—Mac Book Pro.
So who wants one?

Which raises the obvious question: Who, exactly, is this product for? Over the past couple days, I’ve heard quite a bit of criticism of the MacBook Air for its limitations. But I think many of these criticisms miss the larger goal of Apple’s latest laptop: Unlike the MacBook and MacBook Pro, the Air isn’t designed to be a general-purpose computer; it has, by design, limitations that will be unacceptable for many people.

But for a particular market—people who value light weight and are willing to give up other features to get it—it’s an interesting machine. And if you’ve already got another Mac at home, the MacBook Air may be an appealing on-the-go complement, with many of its limitations able to be overcome through the use of clever software features such as Remote Disk and Back To My Mac.

As for me, although it’s not exactly what I was hoping for, it’s close enough that I’m considering buying one to replace my aging—and heavy—original MacBook Pro. I’m also impressed by the MacBook Air for what it stands for: After years of Apple keeping its product line lean and tightly focused, the Air shows that the company feels its market is big enough to expand into niche products. In that respect, even if the MacBook Air isn’t for you—and I suspect that will be the case for most people—it’s something all Mac users should welcome



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15 Responses to MacBook Air – Pros n Cons

  1. Pingback: MacBook Air - The Video « SPEAK INDIA

  2. Steph says:

    Wow! Great post about the pros and cons of the Macbook Air. I love the really thin size, but haven’t gone “Mac” in any technology yet due to the battery issues you mentioned. And since I need a fast computer, the Air just isn’t right for me. But it sure is thinner than my HP!

  3. Michael says:

    excellent post indeed…i’ve come across many of these blog posts about it, and this one was the best by far.

    if i had a nice desktop already, I would seriously consider getting this thing. Essentially, it’s like what any one of the ipod lines do for your music library, except this macbook air ipod does it for your whole computer, while retaining many of the functions.

    That’s how I look at it, and I think it’s the best way to look at this product. Portability and battery-life (and damn good looks) take top priority.

    But my macbook is the only computer I have. Because of that fact, it still totally blows away the macbook air.

  4. Dev says:

    When is apple launcing it in India? And what would be the pricing?

  5. mentaloriental says:

    im going to get one when it can house a real hard drive of atleast 120GB, like my MBP.

    but really, kudos to apple for the continuing to innovate!

  6. Carlos says:

    After 14 years of using Apple products professionally, I’m beginning to get sick of the direction in which Apple is going and there attitude to the paying professional user. They are becoming a toy company. Watching Steve Jobs smugly holding the latest Apple toy whilst their existing machines are still riddled with problems makes me want to vomit.

    Apple DID have a reputation of building solid, reliable working machines – yes they looked great but that was secondary – the main thing was they worked well in the first place.

    Apple now seems much more occupied with producing gimmicks every 3 months with wow-factor that grab press attention (and earn them $$) until the next gimmick comes along. Now maybe this new MacBook air is not targeted at people like me, but I have never looked at my Macbook and thought “hmmm… I wish it was half as thin and I’ll sacrifice my optical drive and most of my other connectable ports (firewire, ethernet etc)” Instead, I look at it and think “even though I’ve looked after it, after 14 months my laptop looks a mess, the optical drive does not work, the casing is cracked and the thing runs hotter than an oven.” Whatever next – a laptop* with no keyboard? No trackpad? No screen? (*sorry MacBook, as it’s likely to melt your legs if you use it on a your lap)

    To satisfy their lust for profit, Apple now release far too many products in my opinion, spreading their engineers and designers too thinly. A new OS every 12 months, new iPods every year, new revisions of every computer they make – yes technology constantly moves on but these factors are beginning to betray the reputation that Apple used to have among users who earn a living using their machines. Their classic design style once oozed “less is more” – now I’m afraid it is the opposite.

    Being a Macbook user, I have become accustomed to not having an optical drive anyway as I am one of the hundreds of people who’s Macbook (and MBP) optical drive was fried and rendered useless by firmware update which Apple issued and then quickly withdrew and hushed up (do a search for Superdrive update 2.1). No replies to the many, many reports in their discussion forums – just brush it under the carpet and act like it didn’t happen. Apple official “no comment” policy working wonders. Maybe all their engineers are busy developing other things now. If your in warranty they will fix it, if not – tough – you should have bought Applecare. Nice, Apple, really nice that.

    Remember all the “oohhhhing” and “ahhhing” when the Macbook and Macbook pros were released? Clean, smooth lines and cool Apple design? Well, before we shuffle along to the MacBook Air, why don’t we take a look at what has become of some of these machines and how they have stood the test of “time”. After all, good design has to be functional, not just skin deep. Have Apple fixed the optical drive problems? No, and buying a replacement part is expensive and near enough impossible. Have they fixed the fact that the casing cracks and comes apart and (on the white ones) discolors? No. Ludicrous problems with the computers running too hot and shutting down randomly took Apple months to address. Nobody pays attention to these important issues once the initial advertising campaign has whetted the appetite of its customers – it’s on the to the next product.

    My other Mac, a dual G5 tower also suffered “common” problems and has cost me a lot of money to repair. Overheating and a dodgy power pack I had to sort myself otherwise that powerful machine which I have spent many other $$$$$ on (RAM, graphics card to run Aperture) be consigned to the waste basket.

    As a semi-pro photographer, I also bought into the hype about Aperture, and yet all seems to be quiet on that front – 3 months after Nikon release two very popular pro cameras aimed at the very people who would probably use Aperture (D3 and D300), there is still no support for the RAW files of these cameras. Despite people like Adobe and much smaller companies like Phase One having developed their software to deal with these cameras shortly after they were launched. Again, once the advertising is over and the promo videos have been watched, Apple is leaving people high and dry. Latest I hear is that RAW support is built into the system itself – so I’m being told that I am now forced to buy OSX Leopard just so I can support my cameras on an application that I have already paid for. ?WTF? Pro? I don’t think so. Show me the latest promo video of *insert famous potographer’s name* coming back from a shoot only to find that his very expensive computer setup will not recognise his files.

    These are many of the areas which Apple should be concentrating on before sending me emails promoting the latest bug-ridden / handicapped iPhone / iMac / iPod v8. Their products just aren’t designed to last anymore I’m afraid – that’s the way they get people to buy their 3rd or 4th iPod in 2 years and cream in lots of profit. I for one am getting sick of it. I can’t use Windows (never have done and don’t want to) but every time I buy something by Apple now I feel I am paying through the nose and I’m being left high and dry time and again as the product ages.

    At the end of the day I am a professional and I buy tools to do a job. If that means going to PC and leaving the toys to Apple geeks who do nothing more than surf the internet, play itunes on their expensive toys and hang around with other geeks at the Apple shop then so be it.

    Sort it out Apple. I’ve got work to do.

  7. EL-Osta says:

    does this thing had a goog graphics card? if so what is it… it looks realy good but im worried about it over heating,,, im sure it wont but at that level of thinliness *not sure thats even a word) then im expecting problemz. non the less its sumthing i mioght invest in.

  8. Rajesh says:

    MacBook Air is impressive design. It fits nicely for travel savvy users with passion. If you are a power user of geek kind, think about Macbook Pro instead. I saw quite good specification comparison at in India. In my view it is a good mac machine and a not so good windows machine too.

    I think there are quite a few individuals who wanted to show off are looking for this machine. There is always some bad in good things too. This machine is no exception.

  9. indroo says:

    MBA is another MacMini to me… the forms great but they shrink all the power to be the lightest.

  10. Rimma says:

    Just do it: ,

  11. I imagine that is an interesting way to constrew it. I never supposed supposed I’d hear you say this, however, after all your other posts about iPhones!

  12. takayo says:

    I returned it shortly thereafter. The biggest annoyance: an imperfect bluetooth connection and oddly responsive keyboard

  13. Hi, thanks for this comment 🙂

  14. Hi, thanks for this comment 🙂

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