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Alan Zisman on the Mac

Is the MacBook Air Too Lightweight for Serious Users?

- 2008.02.06 - Tip Jar

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January is peak season for techno-lust with three trade shows that set the pace for what's going to happen for the rest of the year. In quick succession, the Las Vegas-based Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is followed by the San Francisco Macworld Expo, which is followed by Detroit's International Auto Show.

Macworld always gets coverage outweighing the Mac's relatively modest market share. At the 2007 show, Apple CEO Steve Jobs got headlines introducing the iPhone. This year, the company's news was relatively modest: online movie rentals, a software development kit for the iPhone, five new applications for its iPod touch, and much needed updates to Apple TV.

One More Thing...

Oh, and one more thing: Jobs introduced a new notebook model. Added to the company's two lines of notebooks - the entry-level MacBook, with a plastic case and 13" screen, and the more expensive, metal-clad MacBook Pro series, with 15" and 17" models - was what Jobs referred to as the thinnest notebook ever: the MacBook Air.

MacBook Air

Tapering from 0.76" (19mm) to 0.16" (4mm) at the front, and weighing in at about three pounds (1.36 kg), the aluminum-clad Air offers a 13" display and full-sized keyboard; it's a stunning design that fits into a mailing envelope.

I think I'm in love.

But wait: In order to be ultra-thin, Apple had to treat the Air like a supermodel forever on a strict diet.

Before rushing off to slap down US$1,799 (or US$3,098 for one with a no-moving-parts solid state drive) for one of these, pay attention to what's been left out. To slim down, the Air is missing a number of things common in heftier, but more capable models - even ones priced much lower.

For instance:

  • No built in CD or DVD drive. You can get an external CD/DVD burner from Apple for US$99, but that's one more thing to tote around - and awkward for watching a DVD on a long plane flight. Alternatively, clever software let's you share the drive on a nearby better-equipped desktop or laptop (Mac or PC), although not for watching DVDs.
  • No ethernet. It's WiFi networking or nothing. Bluetooth is also built in.
  • Only one USB port, so plan on toting around a USB hub if you commonly connect more than one gadget.
  • No FireWire ports, unlike every other Mac model since about 1999.
  • No removable battery. When (not if) the battery starts to lose charge or ups and dies, Apple will replace it for US$129. If you're in the habit of carrying around a second battery to double battery life on the road, don't bother. (Though the Air's promised five-hour battery life is better than many laptops with two batteries.) Update: Later info shows that the battery is removable; just unscrew 10 screws on the bottom of the case, then another 9 on the battery itself. Oh, did I mention that the screws are of a variety of lengths? Pay attention to which goes where!
  • RAM is soldered in; the built-in 2 GB is fairly generous, but if you need more, too bad.
  • At 80 GB, the iPod-sized hard drive is relatively modest in capacity and relatively slow. The US$1,000 more solid state (flash memory) drive is even smaller: 64 GB.

With all those limitations, the MacBook Air isn't going to work for most users as their main work computer. I know a number of disappointed owners of Apple's very portable (but long in the tooth) 12" PowerBook G4 who had hoped for a more modern replacement. This isn't it.

Instead, the target market seems to be users who already have a capable and powerful computer who can afford to compromise on functionality to get something that is stylish and easy to carry around. There are suggestions that it will be mostly bought by those looking for the technology equivalent of a pair of Gucci shoes. (To be fair, ultralight notebooks from PC manufacturers like Panasonic, Fujitsu, and others also include many compromises, and they often cost $1,000 more than the Air.)

I've asked Apple for the loan of one; maybe when I have it in my hands, my mind will be changed, but for now, love isn't enough. I think I need something with a few more pounds. LEM

First published in Business in Vancouver January 29-February 4, 2008; issue 953. It is republished here with permission.

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, www.zisman.ca. If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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