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Macworld: The MacBook Air Hands-On

Hands on with the MacBook Air

apple macbook air

The keys aren’t crowded together or scaled down the way they would be on a sub-notebook; in fact the 13” screen width means there’s room for them to spread slightly further apart than keys on even a desktop keyboard with a clear space around every key. This does take some getting used to - if you have big fingers you’ll love it. And yes, it’s thin, thin, thin - sloping from a quarter of an inch to three quarters of an inch.

For Apple to get the MacBook Air that thin the company had to make some compromises. There are very few ports - just USB 2, a headphone jack and microDVI. So you’ll need to tote the adapter along to drive up to a 23” external display. No optical drive, no Ethernet, no PC or Express Card, no SD card slot, no modem, no FireWire or eSATA, no VGA, no Kensington lock (and no built-in 3G option). The USB Ethernet and modem adapters give you more options, but Ethernet over USB is only 10/100Mbps rather than Gigabit. You may not need many or any of those on your notebook, but you need to remember that they’re not there for expansion.

You can’t crack the case open in a year’s time to add more than the 2GB of DDR2 memory either (it doesn’t support more than 2GB anyway). Nor can you switch the 80GB hard drive for a larger capacity or replace it with an SSD (solid state drive) once they no longer carry a $1,000+ premium. (For an additional $1,300, Apple offers a 64GB SSD instead of the standard 80GB HDD.) The Air is a completely sealed unit. The five hour battery life is good - but it won’t last a transatlantic flight or a full working day, and you can’t carry a second battery or clip on an extended battery.

If you like the super-sleek, super-thin Air and the spec is right for you, these are mere quibbles. This is ultraportable as consumer electronics - something you buy and use rather than tweak and upgrade. And with 802.11 n and Bluetooth, you can connect to drives on other machines or add a mouse or stereo headphones without needing to plug in a cable.

Performance questions may matter more than battery life and expandability. The 1.6 and 1.8GHz processors in the Air are faster than some ultraportable PCs, which can be as comparatively slow as a 1.2GHz cpu - but slower than the 2 and 2.2GHz of other MacBook configurations, which you’ll also find in the meatier sub-notebooks on the market. The 64GB SSD will be fast as well as robust, but most buyers will choose the 80GB 1.8” hard drive. Not only is this a single-platter 4200rpm speed drive rather than the 5400rpm in the MacBook Pro, but it has a legacy parallel ATA interface rather than the faster SATA interface used in many notebooks (including other MacBook models).

Without an optical drive the MacBook Air doesn’t need SATA’s dedicated connection because there’s nothing to share the bus with and in a tiny machine like this you certainly don’t need the longer cable length, but the 150Mbps peak speed of SATA is well above the 100Mbps you can achieve with PATA drives. Along with the missing ports and optical drive, the hard drive goes a long way towards explaining the competitive price of the MacBook Air ($1799, or $2099 with the faster CPU).

Apple has compared the MacBook Air to Sony ultraportable notebooks, but these have their own compromises, like very limited memory capacity. Other ultraportables beat the Air on weight and features. Panasonic’s semi-rugged Toughbook W4 weighs 2.8 pounds compared to the Air’s 3, with a high capacity battery and an optical drive too. The strongest competition is the Toshiba Portege R500. If you choose the configuration closest to the Air with a three cell battery and SSD, it weighs only 1.7lbs. Even the model with the built-in DVD-Supermulti drive is lighter than the Air at 2.4lbs. I’ve seen an R500 - with the optical drive in - hanging from a helium balloon, working away quite happily (the Airs at MacWorld are suspended by sturdy wires bolted to the floor and ceiling).

The R500 as thin as the thickest section of the Air, give or take a hair - 0.77”. It has an LED screen, and while the 12.1” screen is smaller than the Air that also means it has a smaller footprint too. And while the CPU is slower, at 1.2GHz, you get a full range of ports and slots, plus a 2.5” 120GB 5400rpm hard drive and 2GB of memory for $2052.

The R500 is cute for a PC and you could certainly fit it in an internal mail envelope if you wanted to. But the Air is undeniably sleeker, sexier and more desirable as an object. Beyond looks, the questions are: What do you want an ultraportable PC to do for you ? And, is the Air enough for your needs?

Mary Branscombe is an experienced freelance journalist, editor and author, who has been writing for more than three decades. Her work has appeared in The Financial Times, The Guardian, Tom's Guide, and many more. She has also written several novels — including the Cassidy At Large technomysteries — and two IT guides alongside her writing partner, Simon Bisson.

  • mbmcavoy
    "For an additional $1,300, Apple offers a 64GB SSD instead of the standard 80GB HDD."

    $1,300 will get you both the SSD and the faster processor. The SSD alone is "only" $1000. Yes, even Steve Jobs calls it "pricey"!

    My question is, can you use the "remote disk" if you need to re-install the OS?
  • PATA has a burstrate of 100MB/s not 100MBps, big difference.
  • ^^^ What? Dude, you just wrote the exact same thing just in two different ways. The p in MBps means "per." Lo and behold, the slash also means per--same thing...
  • Now, maybe you meant to point out the difference between B and b...but it seems to me like you don't really know what you're talking about.
  • Guess he doesn't know the difference between a bit and a byte.
  • jklimes
    Hah, this article made me laugh! Please Mary, are you some kind of agriculture expert? Cos IT is not your friend as we can see here. First off, you mention that MBA lacks lot of ports (seems you wrote down all you know of). I agree, but I am not sure any of the other ultraportables has eSata or Fire Wire - and whats that with the VGA? You already have mDVI and if it was the case to connect an older display - adapter is your way. And ethernet over USB is only 100Mbps - well every other joe has a gigabit switch down in his basement. "You can?t crack the case open in a year?s time", maybe not in a years time, can do it tommorow. You can even replace the battery if you will, changing HDD is a minute job. Now you cant add or replace the RAM, that is true. Mind you OS X has pretty neat memory management and 2 Gigs is far enough for anything you throw at it. Except 3D creation and A/V editing - but you wont do that on an ultraportable would you? In case you use MBA during long flights I would suggest flight power adapter. And I cant really remember the last time I ve seen someone with ultraportable carrying two spare extended battery packs around. The part about CPU and HDD is best to be skipped altogether, since you had hard time with numbers and units. Let me tell you just one thing - no 4200 nor 5600 hard drives can utilize SATA theoretical bandwidth, you wont notice any difference between PATA and SATA in this case (like with Raptors using still SATA 1). What is interesting for us - PATA uses less power over the same SATA drive. Finally, the R500 is a fine piece of technology, but 1,2 Ghz ULV and Vista do not like each other very much (tried it myself). Plus 12 inch disp and limited baterry pack give you the impression at whom are R500 and MBA aimed at. To make myself clear, I am not mac addict, nor am I going to buy MBA or any other apple stuff. But the next time you are going to write an article, please make yourself sure you understand the topic quite well.
  • cc3d
    There is no reason to buy this laptop. He list more things it does NOT have than it does. It's thin and it's light. I guess that's important when you're sitting in Starbucks pretending to update your resume becasue nobody will hire your tree-huggin a$$!
  • LOL. 100MB/s = 100MBps

    Perhaps you meant to say 100Mbps ( notice the lower case b )
    Yes, it changes it by a lot - a factor of 8 really
    fyi - 8bits=1Byte
  • rta
    why do i just have this urge to bend on in half until it snaps?
  • I have long missed MS Access on mac OSX. This looks promising and I want to know more!