Apple's MacBook Air holds the title of the world's thinnest notebook, but that would be meaningless without two very important features: a full-size keyboard and a brilliant 13.3-inch display. And the multitouch trackpad isn't just surprisingly large, it also brings some of the iPhone's mojo along for the ride by letting you use gestures. Investing in this $1,799 machine does involve significant trade-offs, but it's a remarkable piece of engineering that offers the productivity performance users on the go need without weighing them down.
When viewed from the side, the MacBook Air is barely there. This 3-pound system measures a remarkable 0.16 inches thin, which goes up to only 0.76 inches at its thickest point. When closed, the notebook is almost laughably svelte, and the rounded corners give it an elegant look and feel. A flip-down door on the right houses the headphone jack, a USB 2.0 port, and a Micro-DVI connector (adapters that output to full-size DVI and VGA connections are included). On the left you'll find the MagSafe power jack.
The MacBook Air is so compact because its motherboard, storage, and cooling system fit on a single board the length of a pencil. Helping Apple's cause is Intel's Core 2 Duo processor, which has a 60-percent reduction in footprint compared to other Core 2 Duo processors, and was specially designed for this notebook. A similar small form factor will be used for a version of Intel's upcoming Montevina platform, so in a sense MacBook Air owners are getting a taste of the future now.
Even with all this miniaturization going on, you still get a full-size, raised keyboard that delivered feedback on par with the regular MacBook. And the 13.3-inch display puts other ultraportables to shame; viewing angles were nothing short of spectacular when watching iTunes movie rentals. It's also fine for giving presentations to small groups. And because the keyboard is backlit, you can easily type away on a dark airplane or during a dimly lit conference.
We were impressed by the versatility of the multitouch trackpad. Zooming in on photos and Web pages by spreading two fingers apart was easy. And using three fingers at once and swiping them across the trackpad allowed us to scroll through items in Finder, Web pages in Safari, and images in iPhoto. Want to rotate a picture? Just move two fingers in the direction you want the image to go. We'd like to see this technology evolve by Apple encouraging third-party developers to tap into its APIs. The bottom line is that you forget you're using an ultraportable with the MacBook Air, which is quite an achievement.
Sizing Up the Trade-offs
No optical drive. No ExpressCard or memory card slots. No Ethernet. Just a single USB port. A non-user-replaceable battery. That's a lot of sacrifices to the god of streamlined aesthetics. But let's take these caveats one by one. If you want to watch movies, Apple will gladly remind you of its new iTunes movie rental service (a reasonable $3.99 for new releases, and $2.99 for older library titles). And if you want to load software without an optical drive, you could try the ingenious Remote Disc feature, which leverages the MacBook Air's 802.11n connection to tap into the optical drive of nearby PCs and Macs (though you can't access protected content such as DVD movies).
After installing the included Remote Disc utility on a Dell XPS M1330, we could easily access the Dell's optical drive. As magical as this feature is, however, most users should just opt for the $99 external SuperDrive, which connects to the USB port. And that brings us to our biggest complaint. Not only does the MacBook Air have only one USB port, it doesn't accommodate all peripherals. Our tiny Kingston USB drive and Fujifilm camera cable fit without a problem, but a Sprint mobile broadband modem was too wide and tall because of the surrounding flip-down panel. We had to find a more compact modem from Verizon Wireless, but even that became dislodged with the MacBook Air sitting on a desk. Picking up a mini USB hub is a must.
Our second biggest beef with the Air is that unlike every other notebook on the market, you can't replace the battery yourself. You'll have to bring your MacBook Air in to have it serviced for $129. That also means you can't swap batteries on the fly for extra juice, nor can you purchase an extended battery. Bummer.
As for the MacBook Air's storage capacity, 80GB does indeed pale in comparison to competing ultraportables' hard drives, which range in size from 100 to 250GB--especially since Apple is pushing users to download their movies and store them on the hard drive instead of using optical discs. If you value speed and indestructibility over all else, you can splurge for the 64GB solid state drive, which costs a whopping $999. We like that the Time Machine backup feature works wirelessly with the new Apple Time Capsule network storage drives ($299 for 500GB, $499 for 1TB).
Can the Air Fly?
Performance on the MacBook Air was generally good. The system didn't flinch during our multitasking tests, however. That's because the processor is running at 1.6 GHz, compared to a mere 1.06-GHz for the Sony VAIO TZ150, and a 1.2-GHz CPU for the Toshiba Portege R500. And you get a full 2GB of RAM. You can't upgrade the memory, but we found that it's enough for a solid Mac OS X Leopard experience. The OS booted in a little more than 30 seconds, compared with well over a minute for some Vista-powered ultraportables.
In general, applications loaded quickly, and we had no problems importing clips from our flash-based camcorder to iMovie while music played in the background. The Spaces feature in Leopard, which allows you to assign applications to one of four corners of the display for easy access, worked smoothly. Surfing the Web was also satisfactory, both over a Wi-Fi connection and when we plugged in our USB mobile broadband modem.
As expected, the MacBook Air turned in lower performance scores than a MacBook (black) equipped with a 2-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and the same amount of RAM. In Xbench's CPU test, the Air notched a score of 79.28, versus 114.85 for the MacBook (black). Overall we didn't notice much of a difference in everyday productivity applications, but the read and write times on the Air's 4,200-rpm hard drive were noticeably slower than those on the MacBook's 5,400-rpm drive.
With our Verizon Wireless mobile broadband modem plugged in and connected, the MacBook Air lasted 2 hours and 40 minutes on a charge. During that time we primarily worked in Google Docs, while occasionally surfing to other sites for research. We got a little more than 3.5 hours of endurance with just Wi-Fi on, which is still well short of Apple's claim of 5 hours of wireless productivity.
The lack of Ethernet will bother some, but the 802.11n connection is plenty fast--so long as you're within close range of an access point. Wireless performance from the 802.11n connection was very good from 15 feet, clocking in at 21.7 Mbps, but that dropped off significantly to 5 to 7 Mbps at 50 feet. Apple backs the system with a one-year limited warranty. And, as always, we're disappointed that you get only 90 days of free phone service on the system, compared to the standard one to three years you get with most notebooks.
MacBook Air Verdict
When you weigh the compromises against what the MacBook Air offers, there are some good reasons to think twice and to wait for some of these innovations to grace the next iteration of the MacBook Air. But that's reason talking. Our visceral reaction to the MacBook Air is that it's a notebook we'd want to carry around everywhere. Road warriors who demand long battery life or a better selection of ports should pass, but this work of art is worth considering for corridor warriors who attend lots of meetings, as well as for commuters who do a fair amount of work while traveling to and from the office. You get an easy-to-use, secure, and fun operating system wrapped in the sexiest, thinnest package money can buy.
Hands-on with the MacBook Air
Other ultraportables should be ashamed.
Apple MacBook Black (Santa Rosa)
Same smooth performance. Same sweet design. A few new additions.
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch)
Apple gives its high-end notebook a speed and graphics boost and a stunning LED display.