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Alan Zisman on the Mac

MacBook Air Makes a Convert

- 2008.09.24 - Tip Jar

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Last spring, Apple's newly announced MacBook Air (MBA) laptop gathered a lot of attention. Weighing in three pounds, it was slim and sleek. TV ads showed it sliding out of a manila envelope. But I wondered about its practicality. The Air lacks a built-in optical drive and wired network adapter, and it has only a single USB port. Though its 2 GB memory is adequate, neither the memory nor the battery are removable or upgradable.

Like ultralight notebooks from Toshiba and Lenovo, the Air isn't designed to be a buyer's only computer; it's designed to be a second system for users who are frequently on the road and willing to trade features for reduced size and weight.

Since I was going to be traveling in August, Apple loaned me an MBA for road testing. It accompanied me on six flights through five countries. The review machine came with Apple's optional external SuperDrive ($99) and wired ethernet adapter ($30). Users wanting to connect an Air to an external monitor or digital projector would also need to add a micro-DVI adapter ($20).

Apple includes Remote Disc software in Mac and Windows versions. This software allows an MBA user to use a CD or DVD drive built into a nearby computer. Less cleverly, the company seems to have left out instructions on how to make this work. (Hint: the software is on the Air's software installation disc.) While you can't watch a DVD movie on the Air using a remote drive, this feature would be handy if you want to install software.

I needed the network adapter for wired Internet access in several hotels. I don't like these sorts of dangly adapters. They're too easily lost or left-behind.

Competitive ultra-lights have ethernet (and external video) adapters built-in, but the price is a package that's thicker than the Air. On the other hand, the Air's 1.6 GHz or 1.8 GHz processor is faster than the 1.2 GHz CPU used by the competition. It also provided more than adequate speed and power for all the basic computing tasks I carried out on the road.

The system boots up quickly. It goes into sleep mode simply by closing the lid and comes back to life almost instantly.

Wireless performance (WiFi and Bluetooth are both built-in) and battery life (a bit under four hours) were both good. My review Air came with an optional 64 GB solid state drive (a C$625 option on top of the Air's C$1,900 base price, which is in line with the pricing of competitors' ultralight models). Solid state drives are more robust and promise better performance and battery life than traditional hard drives. Published tests suggest that the technology is not yet fulfilling these promises. I can't consider it a must-have feature now - especially at current high prices.

Apple gets bonus marks for attention to multiple little details. Examples include the MagSafe magnetic connector on the power cable: if someone trips over the cord, it pops off rather than pulling the laptop to the floor. Or the keyboard with letters that glow gently in the dark - very handy on overnight flights. And all in a case that's minus the protrusions and stickers of PC laptops, though that same streamlining eliminates useful network and video ports.

And yes, you could install Windows (XP or Vista) onto it (I didn't), though the relatively small (64 GB or 80 GB) drives are not ideal for holding both Windows and Mac OS X.

As I write this, the rumour mill is buzzing with talk that the Air might be updated, perhaps before this column goes to print. But I'm converted: The model I was loaned was a pleasure to use - a stylish, easy-to-transport second computer for the frequent flyer.

As long as you don't lose that network adapter. LEM

First published in Business in Vancouver, September 23-29, 2008; issue 987

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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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