Text and photos by Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla
We've loved subportable Mac notebooks since the days of the PowerBook Duo, the rare and elusive PowerBook 2400c and the feisty 12 inch PowerBook G4. When the PB12 was discontinued in 2005, Apple lost its presence in the subportable market, choosing instead to focus on the 13-inch form factor. Now that the smaller MacBook Air has been introduced, we look at what's been added and what's been removed in this remarkable and game changing laptop.
Out of the box, the 11-inch MacBook Air ($1,049 for the base model with 64GB storage, $1,249 for the 128GB version at Canadian stores) looks like a flattened and shrunken MacBook Pro that's been stretched, specially now that it uses a black hinge that's uniform with the rest of the aluminum clad MacBook line.
The new unibody enclosure starts out at a stunning 1.7 cm thick and tapers to a razor's edge 0.3 cm which somehow doesn't feel as dangerously sharp as the original MacBook Air. This bit of kit weighs no more than 2.3 pounds, just a touch heavier than the iPad. This new version feels more solid and more robust overall even if it is thinner and as a result lighter. Apple has perfected the unibody construction process and it now stretches the boundaries of toughness and rigidity in incredibly thin enclosures.
Now that it has successfully integrated SSD memory into the motherboard and seems to have the sealed-shut enclosure and non-removable battery design down pat, we expect this to become the norm.
We feel that Apple is seriously looking at the MacBook Air and seeing the future of how they will be building notebooks and tablets from this point onwards. Much of the MacBook Air's design was dictated by the iPad, a completely non-user serviceable device.
Its a subportable not a netbook
Critics will surely try and dismiss the 11-inch MBA as an overpriced netbook (they did the same with the original one and that had a 13-inch screen). Having tested many netbooks, I can tell you the MacBook Air is not in that category.The MBA's speed and power is more than ample for most modern uses of computers today. The fact it can run iMovie 11 "like butter" as well as iPhoto in full-screen mode is nothing to sneeze at, neither it its ability to power a 27-inch HD monitor.
The MBA is a MacBook with way fewer ports and no optical drive in a much slimmer and lighter body. You simply can't compare the performance of an Atom processor or an AMD Neo processor with a Core 2 Duo, specially with a dedicated NVIDIA GeForce 320M graphics processor with 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM.
Would we trade our 13-inch office MacBook Pro for one of these, we would definitely consider it. Sure, we would miss the ports and the large capacity drive but these are things we can learn to live without.
Much of the challenge with netbooks is that they are small and not ideal for prolonged periods of use. We can get through a day's worth of work with the MBA's keyboard and screen, no problem.
The MacBook Air is closer to the premium thin and light notebooks that Sony and Toshiba like to sell for upwards of $1600. These notebooks aren't in the power class but they allow you to get work done and they travel exceptionally well.
Sizing up the MacBook Air and the 12-inch PowerBook G4 shows how Apple has gone completely minimalist with their ports. The MBA comes with two USB ports and a mini DisplayPort connector plus a headphone jack, micrphone and the MagSafe adaptor port. The PowerBook had 2 USB, FireWire, Audio in/Out, Ethernet and Modem ports. The larger 13-inch MBA also comes with an SD Card slot.
The downside is if you are migrating from an older Mac, you will need to make the transfer via a $30 add-on Ethernet dongle or attempt to transfer everything via Wi-Fi. Seriously...good luck with that. FireWire Disc Mode was such a fast and efficient way to clone or transfer systems across machines, too bad Apple never replaced this transfer protocol when it killed of FireWire.
The MBA's are also the first MacBooks that seem to be non-user upgradable. RAM and SSD memory is soldered and special TORX headed screws are needed to disassemble it. As a former Mac technician, I am pretty gung ho about cracking open enclosures to add RAM or switch hard drives, with both the iPad and the new MacBook air, this is no longer an option.
Your best bet is to configure your computer in the online Apple Store to your desired specifications. You can get up to 4GB of RAM and have the option of adding a (slightly) more sprightly 1.6 GHz Core 2 Duo processor.
Apple's innovation is all over the MBA's. The SSD memory lays on the motherboard just like RAM and every component has been shrunken to a minimal size. The good thing about this is there are fewer moving part, less heat is generated. This also means the MacBook Air is wicked fast.
Booting the MacBook Air takes around 6-10 seconds, which is simply stunning. Of course as more applications and files are added, this is expected to take longer but the use of SSD memory really speeds up the processes. We tried instant-on (wake from sleep) and the system was up and ready in two seconds.
The bad news is that Apple has maintained the use of somewhat older Core 2 Duo processors which are actually sporting slower clock speeds than the previous MacBook Air. We think they did this to keep costs manageable and to lower temperatures in the sliver-thin MacBook Air.
For general purpose computing and even iLife use, this is just fine. Just don't delude yourself into thinking that the MBA's are candidates for pro level video of photo work. Their miserly storage space and the meager processor speeds will be the bottleneck.
Another omission in the new MacBook Air is the absence of the backlit keyboard. A feature many Apple customers have become used to and one that just makes sense. Why it didn't make it to the this version of the MacBook Air is a mystery, specially since the previous one had it.
Gone too is the IR port that used to work with the Apple Remote, there's also no pulsing sleep indicator light, something we've been used to since the earlier PowerBooks.
Battery life while using Wi-Fi is close to the 5-hours that Apple claims, not bad for something to incredibly thin and light. The stereo speakers are also surprisingly loud and way better than the tinny mono one from the previous version. Oh, and if you are looking for the built-in Mic, its near the headphone jack, so tiny it is almost invisible.
We've spent all of 24-hours with the MacBook Air and are really impressed by its size, speed, build quality and level of performance. Yes, it isn't cheap, specially if you want the tricked out version with larger hard drive capacity; but this is cutting edge stuff- super fast SSD's, unibody Aluminum and a gorgeous LED cinema screen in 2.3 pound enclosure and low power consumption.
The MacBook Air is built for portability but also for productivity. On-the-go folks like students, business travellers, journalists and the like now have a lightweight subportable option that's close to the price of the vanilla MacBook at the low end.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5