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Wednesday
May212014

Apple Beat: The Enduring, Elusive, MacBook Air 


By Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla

When the first MacBook Air was released in 2008, it was an expensive and somewhat impractical subportable notebook that pushed the boundaries of thinness and portability above all else. It wasn’t very powerful, battery life was so-so and the lack of I/O limited its appeal.

It did introduce unibody construction to the mainstream, later on SSD (Solid State Drives) and changed the way Apple built its hardware from that point onwards.

Six years on, the MacBook Air has evolved into a versatile, powerful all-day computer and possibly the most popular Apple portable ever made.

During yesterday’s Microsoft Surface Pro 3 reveal in New York, the Redmond Giant’s executives poked barbs at the MacBook Air as a representative of “The Laptop" category that their own product, the third generation Surface tablet, was expected to replace.

The MacBook Air was singled out for a reason. It has remained the most enduring and elusive product that the PC notebook market has struggled to compete with. It is also arguably the best laptop in the market today.

The MacBook Air was the (stolen) blueprint for the Ultrabook segment of the market which seems to have fizzled in favour of convertibles, hybrids and Surface-like devices.

Despite having the touch component down and the ability to shape-shift into notebook (although not necessarily laptop) facsimiles, these MacBook Air killers haven’t enjoyed the success they thought they would achieve.

Microsoft is in a unique position with its devices and hardware segment. They can create the type of device that they feel their OEMs or hardware partners have neglected to create, the whole Surface line is an exploration into this space and while currently holding a measly 1.8 per cent of the entire global tablet marketplace, Surface is good enough to be make Microsoft the no. 5 tablet maker. It’s a start. Now Microsoft wants to kickstart the notebook market with the same product.

The convertible nature of the Surface Pro 3 allows Microsoft to go after laptop competitors as well as tablet competitors. The messages we picked up at yesterday’s event in New York was that the SP3 was thinner than a MacBook Air (sure) and that it offers a similar level of performance using Core i3, i5 and even i7 processors. The new Surface is better for use on a lap than previous versions, has a wider range of articulation on its kickstand and improved type cover. 

Microsoft also chooses to run a comparison between the SP3 and the older and heavier 13-inch MacBook Pro (non-Retina) which is an even older design than the MacBook Air.

Personally, I think the Surface Pro 3 is good enough a concept and product that they don’t need to try so hard to push comparisons with Apple products that are in a completely different category and that already have a loyal user base. 

All of this focus on the MacBook Air from Microsoft only serves to remind us what a triumphant product the Air is, despite being somewhat mature and it’s amazing how six years after the first generation Airs were unveiled, they’re still the yardstick for the ultimate in mobile portability and productivity.

I like the Surface as a tablet-first device and it is a decent hybrid computing option, specially now with a large screen, improved lap-use and a 9-hour battery life. I’m still ambivalent about the stylus, I hardly use the one in my first gen Surface Pro, but maybe there’s more use cases for this one (with Adobe reportedly refining Photoshop for touch use). It will be interesting to see how much of a bite the latest Surface takes out of the notebook market and also the tablet market for which it is really geared.

As for the MacBook Air, I don’t think it has anything to worry about. Just like at yesterday’s Surface event in New York, we should expect to continue to see a phalanx of glowing white Apple logos at many future press events.

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