If there was ever a product that needs no introduction, it’s the MacBook Air. It represents Apple’s concept of a truly next-gen notebook both in terms of what it has, and what it does not have. Of course, it’s also super-thin, and brings new meaning to the phrase “ultra-portable notebook.” Our overall impression of the Air is that it delivers on its promises and is a very good notebook despite being light on features when compared to its PC competitors.
Features and Design
Apple’s stated design goal for the MacBook Air was to make it as thin as possible while still being able to accommodate Apple’s must-have features. Achieving that goal required Apple to ditch many of the features most people have come to expect on a notebook computer, including the optical drive, USB ports, removable battery, expansion ports and so forth. The result is an amazingly thin notebook that simply ditches any and all legacy connectors, expansion ports and features.
CPU, RAM, Storage
The specs on the MacBook certainly aren’t going to blow anyone’s hair back as they are decidedly middle-of-the-road. The CPU is a 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, though it’s the good kind with 4MB of L2 cache. The MacBook also has 2GB of DDR 667 RAM, an 80GB 4,200rpm hard drive, and uses onboard Intel graphics. That’s the meat of it, which is typical for an ultra-portable notebook since they skimp on performance in favor of portability and battery life. We should also note that we’re evaluating the base model, but Apple does offer a souped up version that includes a 64GB solid-state hard drive and a 1.8GHz processor for an extra $1,300 USD.
LED Display and Wireless
Though the above specs are somewhat lack-luster, there are certain features of the MacBook Air that are quite interesting. The first is the 13.3” LED backlit display, which uses LEDs to light the display rather than a cold cathode. The benefits of this approach are more even lighting and better contrast. It also avoids “leakage” that some LCDs suffer, where the backlight “leaks” out from the edges of the display. It also supports wireless Draft-N wireless, which is something no future-proof notebook can be without in our opinion. Draft-N wireless is the successor to 80211.G and provides faster transfer speeds and increased broadcast range.
The Air has a backlit keyboard, which is a new development in the notebook world and one we suspect will be quite popular in the near future. The keys are illuminated by a soft white light that is adjustable if you want to control the brightness, but there’s an onboard ambient light sensor that detects available light and automatically adjusts the brightness of both the display and the keyboard backlight.
Hahah, that’s a good one. The MacBook Air has no expansion ports, though it does have a tiny little flap on the right-side that flips open to expose a headphone jack, USB port and a mini-DVI (or VGA) connector. The opposite side of the notebook has a magnetic power jack. That’s it as far as ports go. There is no optical drive, nor is there a removable battery.
No Optical Drive?
Let’s be honest – most ultra-portable notebooks don’t have optical drives. This has been the standard for some time now, and the MacBook Air is no different than the majority of ultra-portable notebooks. However, Apple has created a clever workaround for this conundrum called Remote Disc, and it lets you access the optical drive of another Mac or PC wirelessly across a home network. You do have to install some files on the host PC to enable this feature though, so it’s not like you can just pop a disc into any PC and use it on the Air.
The MacBook Air comes with the newest version of OS X, dubbed Leopard. This revision of the OS adds several enhancements including Cover Flow navigation in Finder, Time Machine (which requires an external hard drive, not included), “stacks” that pop out of the dock and other features.
Image Courtesy of Apple
Use and Testing
Unlike most notebooks that arrive in a decent-sized box, the Air comes in a tiny box that is about the size of a ream of printer paper. We opened the box and pulled the Air out and were simply amazed by how thin it is. That “manila envelope” marketing bit is no joke – it’s incredible how thin and light it feels when you are holding it.
We pulled out our stopwatch and booted to the desktop. Even though the unit ships with a 4,200rpm hard drive, which is the slowest rotational velocity available for hard drives, it booted to the Leopard desktop in 58 seconds, which is a bit faster than what we typically see on a Vista machine.
Once we had arrived at the desktop, we were pleased by the lack of icons on the desktop that we’re so used to seeing on PCs. While this is probably nothing new to long-time Mac users, it is something that is rarely experienced in the world of pre-built PCs, as many of you are probably aware. Only on super high-end gaming PCs can you get a clean install of the OS, which is a pity.
For standard desktop work the Air seemed plenty fast; in fact it felt a lot faster than what we typically see on a PC. Our personal notebook has 1.5GB of RAM, Windows XP and a 7,200rpm notebook drive, yet the Air “felt” faster opening programs, switching from one program to another, and never hung or had us waiting more than a few seconds. Just opening iTunes takes just a few seconds, which is twice as fast as on our burly gaming desktop PC. Suffice to say the Air is certainly fast enough for daily tasks. Though we didn’t run any official benchmarks on it, we never felt that it was slow or unresponsive. Gamers need-not-apply here though. Don’t even think the thought of gaming and the MacBook Air in the same sentence.
The MacBook Air’s battery has sparked controversy because it’s not removable, which is a first for notebooks. Though it has few short-term consequences, most consumers would certainly not be happy having to ship the notebook to Apple to swap out the battery should it malfunction or die. You’ll note this same controversy has followed the iPod and iPhone for some time now. Though we’d prefer a removable battery, it’s difficult to say how annoying this would be in the long run as it’s difficult to predict the battery’s life span.
Apple has claimed the battery life of the Air is five hours. Indeed, when you fully charge the battery and set the countdown timer to show remaining time, it says exactly five hours. As you begin using the Air though, that number begins to fluctuate wildly according to the demands being placed on the system. We tested battery life by simply using the Air for standard desktop tasks and web surfing and were able to go for three hours and five minutes. Obviously, this is far short of five hours, but our experience has taught us that manufacturer’s claims are always wildly off the mark, and are probably obtained by letting the notebook idle at the desktop with WiFi disabled, screen dark, etc.
Image Courtesy of Apple
Apple’s Remote Disc technology is intriguing, as it allows the Air to use the optical drive of another PC or Mac wirelessly. This is important since there’s no optical drive in the Air. You can purchase a USB-powered optical drive for $99 USD, however. We tested the Remote Disc and found it to be quite limited in usefulness. We installed the required files on our desktop PC and then tried to read several discs on the Air. We first tried playing an audio CD but the Air couldn’t see the disc. Next we tried playing a DVD movie but this also didn’t work. We did some research and found that the Air is unable to handle the CSS encryption on DVDs, and that in order to watch a movie on the Air you’d have to decrypt the DVD, rip the files to the hard drive and then watch it. Finally we inserted the Mac OS X disc that came with the Air, and it worked just fine. It seems that the true purpose of Remote Disc isn’t so much full usage of an optical drive, but rather to use it primarily for installing software on your Mac.
As with most Apple products, elegant touches abound with the Air. We loved the backlit keyboard and found the ambient light sensor to work very well. It’s also great how the Mac instantly goes to sleep when you close the lid, and comes back to life immediately when you re-open it. We were also smitten with the huge touchpad, which incorporates multi-touch gestures like those found on the iPhone. If you pinch the touchpad you shrink the interface, and so forth. It works amazingly well and is an awesome feature indeed. The Air also feels completely solid and well-built despite being so thin.
There are always numerous factors to take into consideration when evaluating a laptop, but the problem with the Air is that it introduces several intangible factors that we have never encountered when reviewing PCs. Like other Apple products such as the iPhone, the Air is so beautiful and easy to use that we found ourselves becoming one of those Mac people who fall in “love” with the Apple product. It has undeniable appeal, and even us lifelong PC users were not only impressed with its performance and usability but felt drawn to it like we are to our iPhone. In fact, despite its drawbacks, our final conclusion is that we’d buy one in a heartbeat. We acknowledge its shortcomings, but in our mind they don’t outweigh its many positive attributes.
• Amazingly light
• Snappy performance
• Lots of neat features
• Non-removable battery
• Few expansion options,
• Remote Disc is flaky