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The MacBook Air launched 12 years ago. Here’s why it was way ahead of its time

Today marks the 12th anniversary of the launch of the original MacBook Air. This slimline laptop changed the industry in a massive way, forcing rivals to completely rethink their products and altering our expectations forever. What was it that made it so exceptional in the first place?

Even for Steve Jobs’ formidable standards, the unveiling of the original MacBook Air in 2008 was pretty special. Jobs picked up a small manila envelope from a table on-stage, then prompted gasps from the audience as he pulled out the world’s thinnest laptop.

As the wowed crowd realized, this thing was tiny. Its thickest point — the hinge at the back — was slimmer than the thinnest point on the MacBook Air’s closest rival. In their mission to make an incredibly portable device, Steve Jobs and friends hadn’t just succeeded — they’d knocked it out the park.

The netbook era

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In the late 2000s, if you wanted a portable laptop, you got a netbook. Cheap, small and poorly made, they continued selling largely because there was just nothing better. Dominated by plastic cases, tacky keyboards and low-quality screens, they did the job if you needed a device to take on your travels that could (just about) handle basic tasks. If you ever bought one, you were never under any illusions that they were going to break the bank.

Sure, there were alternatives. The Sony Vaio TZ series of laptops were 11-inch devices and, at the time, were pretty much the best effort to getting a proper laptop that was still thin and light. But to get something portable, Sony had to make sacrifices — the TZ came with a miniature keyboard rather than a full-size one, for example, and its processor was a 1.2 GHz Core 2 Duo because the device was too small to allow for anything with a higher clock speed.

The goal of the MacBook Air was to have no compromises.

Laptop manufacturers seemed to be stuck. They could either make low-quality netbooks that went full-throttle on thinness, or they could go a bit bigger and more powerful but lose that portable edge.

This was the perfect situation for Apple to shake up the industry in the way it had done with the iPod in 2001 and the iPhone in 2007. As Steve Jobs said during the MacBook Air keynote presentation, rivals had done pretty well on the weight of their lightweight laptops, but had made too many compromises everywhere else. The goal of the MacBook Air, on the other hand, was to have no compromises.

It packed in a 13.3-inch display, yet still managed to be slimmer than the 11-inch Sony TZ. Indeed, at 0.8 inches the TZ’s smallest point was thicker than the MacBook Air’s thickest point, which was just 0.76 inches. The Air went all the way down to 0.16 inches — something that felt truly space age.

Redefining expectations

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Apple had the benefit of launching the iPhone before the MacBook Air, so it was able to learn from the advances in its smartphone. The MacBook Air came with a multitouch trackpad, but Apple added gestures that made their debut specifically on the MacBook Air. Now you got to manipulate your files and photos with the same powerful gestures that had been so impressive on the iPhone. This was a major boon for a laptop.

But what a feature like this helped to do was redefine people’s expectations of portable computers. Given the physical constraints of building inside such a small chassis, the public had come to take it for granted that thin and light meant sacrifices. Multitouch gestures, a full-size backlit keyboard, and an all-metal body may not sound like much today, but they were about as far away from the standard fare for this category as it was possible to be.

The Air was the first Apple laptop to offer a solid state drive — something you might have expected on its high-end MacBook Pro. But by debuting the SSD on the MacBook Air, Apple was sending out a signal. Small doesn’t have to mean weak.

Endurance meets power

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A year before the launch of the MacBook Air, Steve Jobs touted the brand-new iPhone as being “at least five years ahead” of any other smartphone. Well, it took even longer for rivals to catch up with the MacBook Air.

Just like the iPhone and the iPod before it, it wouldn’t take long for other laptop manufacturers to jump on the MacBook Air bandwagon. But despite their best efforts, none could emulate Apple’s revolutionary laptop and combine incredible thinness with powerful performance.

Take the Dell Adamo XPS that launched in September 2009, for example. It too was thin and light — it was just 0.39 inches at its thickest point, almost half that of the MacBook Air. Yet it met with lackluster reviews: sure, it was impressively thin, but had terrible battery life and a large footprint. Apple’s rivals were learning the hard way that customers didn’t just want a lightweight laptop — they wanted a portable one, and that meant overall size and battery life were just as important as shaving off the millimeters.

Battery life is an area where the MacBook Air made a lasting impact.

Indeed, if you look behind the headline-grabbing dimensions, battery life is an area where the MacBook Air made a truly lasting impact. At the time of its unveiling in January 2008, ultraportable laptops would last a couple of hours if you were lucky — hardly useful for the ever-travelling road warriors they were marketed for.

In contrast, Apple claimed the MacBook Air could achieve a then-remarkable five hours of battery life. While our tests at the time put it closer to three hours, it’s worth noting that Apple had managed to outstrip its rivals without resorting to gimped performance and lackluster features. That its battery could outlast other ultraportables while powering a much larger screen and a powerful processor was a significant achievement.

Apple’s competitors were forced to up their game. Indeed, by the time reviews of the Dell Adamo XPS were hitting the press, the average ultraportable battery life was up to an impressive five hours. Yet there was still nothing that came close to marrying that level of endurance with top-notch performance, illustrating just what Apple had managed back in 2008.

A competitor — seven years later

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It wasn’t until 2015 that we saw a design that felt like the next rung on the ladder. The Dell XPS 13. Its InfinityEdge display reduced its screen bezels to an unprecedented level, allowing it to fit a 13-inch panel in a chassis more commonly associated with 11-inch screens. Its performance was superb, its battery life solid, its design beautiful and lightweight. Sound familiar?

Indeed, it was so good we named it the Computing Product of the Year for 2015, declaring that it “steals the MacBook’s crown, then stomps on it for good measure.” High praise indeed. Yet the fact that it took seven long years for anyone to knock the MacBook Air from its lofty perch is a testament to Apple’s achievement and the lasting legacy of its revolutionary laptop.

But even here, many of the revolutionary firsts of the MacBook Air are intact. The SSD, the lack of an optical drive, and even the larger touchpad. You don’t get the XPS 13 without the MacBook Air.

When Apple debuted the original iMac in 1998, Steve Jobs summed up the approach of the computer’s impersonators on the market: “The thing that all of our competitors are missing is that they think it’s about fashion, they think it’s about surface appearance… They say, ‘We’ll slap some color on this piece of junk computer, and we’ll have one, too.’ And they miss the point.” For the longest time, that situation was true of the MacBook Air as well.

That it took so long for someone else to produce a laptop that combined true portability with exceptional power shows just what Apple was able to accomplish back in 2008. The MacBook Air was a computer that changed the industry and sent rivals scrambling to keep up. Without the changes it enforced, the laptop world would look very different today.

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