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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?