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A second look at Apple's MacBook Air

February 20th, 2008
MacNN takes a second look at the thin 3-pound laptop

After posting my initial first impressions of Apple’s new MacBook Air, I put this notebook through two weeks of use to getter a better sense of its capabilities and limitations. The review model tested was Apple's entry level MacBook Air equipped with a 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, an 80 GB ATA hard drive and 2GB of RAM. The Air weighs just 3 lbs and is roughly the same width and depth as the MacBook, but measures only 0.76 of an inch high at its thickest point. The overall dimensions allowed Apple to retain a full-size, backlit keyboard and a spacious trackpad.

The Air’s screen, an incredibly bright 13.3” LED-backlit display, was a distinct pleasure to work on. The incredibly thin and lightweight form factor comes with distinct tradeoffs – the Air lacks an internal optical drive and many of the peripheral ports standard on other notebooks.

The Air, which comes with the newest version of OS X Leopard installed, felt snappy and responsive right off the bat. Despite having a processor on the lower end of Apple’s product spectrum, I came across no issues with the Air being unusually slow at booting, loading programs, or performing other standard tasks. The Air was able to multitask amongst a variety of typical functions – web browsing, playing music, editing documents – without stalling or slowdown.

Under no circumstances did the notebook become anything more than what could be best described as ‘mildly warm’. The Air was readily able to connect to both Windows and Mac wireless networks with no hassles and had slightly better WiFi range than my other Dell Latitude notebook. In short, I had no complaints with the Air’s speed or WiFi performance. To address potential limitations caused by the Air’s lack of an internal optical drive, Apple provides two solutions: an optional, external DVD Superdrive for $99 and a new Remote Disc application. The external DVD Superdrive connects through the Air’s USB port and acts much like an internal drive, capable of installing programs as well as playing media files such as music or movies. The DVD Player application required an update to OS X 10.5.2 in order to recognize the external drive for DVD playback. Earlier versions resulted in an error stating that a valid drive could not be found.

The Remote Disc application allows the Air to use a remote PC or Mac’s optical drive to install programs or copy files; however, unlike the external Superdrive, Remote Disc cannot be used to stream video or music from the source computer to the Air. Remote disc works with PCs running XP or Vista, Macs running Tiger or Leopard, and requires installing the software that comes on the Air’s installation disc. To be even more useful, Apple should post the Remote Disc software on its Downloads website to alleviate the need to carry around the installation disc.

Another noticeable limitation of the Air is the lack of additional ports beyond the single USB port, micro-DVI port, and headphone jack. Standard ports missing include Firewire, Ethernet, S-video out, as well as additional USB ports.

Apple offers a variety of dongles to supplement the Air if necessary, with USB-to-Ethernet and -Modem connectors available, as well as micro-DVI-to-DVI, -VGA, and –S-video connectors. Only the DVI and VGA adapters come included with the Air, the other adapters cost between $20 and $50 apiece. As someone who rarely uses the multitude of ports found on the back of most laptops, I found the Air’s few ports entirely adequate for my typical usage.

The strategy that Apple is pursuing is to define what it considers the ‘minimal’ laptop in order to achieve ultimate portability, and then provide small, supplemental add-ons to restore missing functionality on an “as-needed” basis. In considering purchasing the Air, one should carefully weigh their typical usage of ports and potential hassle of keeping track of, carrying around and storing a variety of adapters.

It should also be noted that the ports that the Air does have are housed in a drop down slot that provides little access room for bulky accessories, so an additional low-profile USB extender cord may be necessary depending on the accessory being plugged in.

Despite some of these limitations, the Air does manage to pack a few ‘luxury’ accessories into its design. Ambient light sensors can adjust the backlight behind the keyboard similar to the MacBook Pro. The Air comes with an integrated iSight camera located above the screen, a feature that is standard across Apple’s line of laptops but not on most PC laptops. Coupled with the included iChat software, the Air is ready out-of-the-box for video conferencing with other video-enabled computers.

The trackpad also incorporates some of the multi-touch gesturing controls found in Apple’s iPhone. For example, the “pinch and pull” gesture can be used to zoom in or out of photos in iPhoto or change the font size of Web pages. A pivoting gesture with the thumb and forefinger can be used to rotate pictures in iPhoto, a feature that I found to be especially quick and useful. Two finger scrolling, found in Apple’s other laptops, is also supported, as well an additional three finger swipe to navigate forward or backward in a web browser’s history.

The Air comes with a built-in lithium-polymer battery which Apple rates at five hours of life. During our testing the Air’s battery life came in noticeably shorter than five hours, although lifetime will depend on usage. While watching a downloaded iTunes movie with WiFi enabled, battery life was as short as two and half hours. Less strenuous usage, consisting mostly of word processing and web browsing, resulted in lifetimes of three to four hours. Screen brightness was always set to maximum or near-maximum, since it seemed a shame to willingly turn down the brightness of such a gorgeous screen.

Better use of energy-saving features would likely extend the life a bit further. The battery life indicator in the menu bar appeared fluctuate and behave erratically at times, sometimes jumping by up to an hour in estimated lifetime. Battery charging appeared to take on the order of five to six hours and uses a relatively small, 45W power adapter with Apple’s MagSafe connector technology. The combination of a lightweight laptop and relatively small power adapter made a noticeable, and very much appreciated, difference in my commute to and from work each day. Compared to my Dell laptop, the Air felt almost non-existent. In fact, the Air is light enough that I managed leave work a few times with an empty bag thinking that I was, in fact, carrying the notebook. It’s also thin enough that it slides easily into an airplane seat pocket, occupying roughly the same space as the in-flight magazine.

If you travel a lot, each pound carried adds up and takes its toll and the benefits of the Air were especially appreciated during these travel times. Conclusions One central question is whether or not the MacBook Air can function as one’s sole, stand-alone computer. Most of the Air’s limitations can be overcome with accessories, albeit it at additional cost. Adapters and USB hubs can expand the Air’s connectivity options, and an external DVD drive or the Remote Disc application can be used to replace most of the functionality of an internal optical drive.

Potentially most limiting is the Air’s 80 GB hard drive, a size that is relatively small by today’s standards. The hard drive will likely be too small for anyone seeking to store substantial media content, such as songs, videos, or photos libraries. Purchasing an external hard drive can help alleviate this problem, and would be recommended for backup purposes regardless of any hard drive size constraints. Here too, Apple provides an elegant accessory option with its newly released Time Capsule, a device that combines Apple’s Airport with additional external storage (either 500 GB or 1 TB).

In fact, Apple has provided hardware accessory solutions to address most the Air’s apparent limitations. What is currently missing, however, is a software solution to manage the Air’s limited storage capacity in the context of a larger, external storage device or secondary computer. In the same way that iTunes manages the media content of iPods from a larger pool of content located on a primary computer, the Air would benefit tremendously from iTunes-like software that can manage its content with respect to a secondary storage device. The Air, coupled with Time Capsule and elegant, easy-to-use syncing software, could provide a near perfect solution for most mobile users with little tradeoffs in functionality.

The Air also makes a great secondary computer for users who already have a desktop system, users that require the performance power of a desktop but also require a less powerful, mobile device. Such a setup would still benefit from an integrated syncing/content management solution, although some 3rd party backup applications exist that would adequately fit the bill.

Ultimately, whether or not the MacBook Air is right choice for you will depend on your relative value of mobility, performance and style. Accessories exist that extend the usefulness of the Air beyond its apparent limitations. So while the Air may be primarily targeted at a niche mobile crowd, it should not be quickly dismissed or passed over by the average user and is deserving of serious consideration for anyone purchasing a laptop computer or lower-end desktop system.
Stylish and lightweight form factor Full sized, backlit keyboard & multi-gesture trackpad Extremely bright, sharp 13" LED display Above average battery life Accessories available to supplement functionality Cons
No internal optical drive Limited port connectivity No internal hard drive or memory expansion options Battery not user replaceable Slower processor