It's hard to take lightly (har) the purposeful design that went into the Air, it's simply and without a doubt the most beautiful laptop we've seen in a while. Sure, there have been thinner, lighter laptops that take up fewer cubic centimeters -- but that's not really on trial. The goal of the Air was clear: create a Mac that frequent fliers wouldn't be ashamed of, or in physical pain to lug around. But therein lies the rub. The Air simply doesn't have the power to be many users' primary machine, while also lacking many of the features considered necessity by business travelers. More on that in a minute, though.
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The MacBook Air has landed
There are a lot of things that the Air gets right, and a decent amount of horsepower is one of 'em. Apple didn't take the easy route and go with an etiolated Ultra Low Voltage (read: ultra low performance) chip, they actually pushed Intel to repackage a slower version of its full-on Core 2 Duo processor. We were a little disappointed when Steve announced this wasn't the new power-efficient, lower-heat 45nm Penryn chip design, but in the time we've played with the Air, it's still rarely managed to output enough heat to raise an eyebrow. This is actually a laptop that belongs on your lap -- without any fear of sterility. Of course, as our Mac-on-Mac benchmarks showed, the 1.6GHz chip is still a little on the slow side, but the Air is by no means unusable. It's not really one of Steve's "screamers" -- but ultraportables aren't really intended to be.
Where a lot of other machines might have ports and protrusions along their edges, the Air has none -- it swoops inward from the edge to the base with only two spots for plugs, a new, 90-degree angled MagSafe power connector on the left underside, and a clicky, extremely sturdy-feeling foldable door that is impossible to open while resting on the table, and basically requires picking the entire machine up. This exposes the Air's only three ports: one USB 2.0, one micro-DVI, and one headphone. But here we begin with the design sacrifices, and at the top of the list is the lack of a user replaceable battery.
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Apple MacBook Air first hands-on
For some this might be an issue, but for others -- especially those on the road for long periods of time without access to a power outlet -- a deal-breaker. The Air uses a 37 Watt/hour lithium polymer (compared to the MacBook Pro's 60WH lithium-ion), and using our normal tests -- full screen brightness, WiFi and Bluetooth on, no attached peripherals -- under medium usage (light browsing and watching a 1:20 h.264 movie) we got a mere 2 hours and 25 minutes. Under lighter usage (browsing, some audio playback, no movies) we got closer to 3 hours and 35 minutes. Not bad, but still nowhere near the 5 hours Apple promises (under ideal conditions, surely).
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MacBook Air review (misc)
The micro-DVI port is also not physically compatible with the mini-DVI port on your MacBook and previous Apple laptops, so it requires some new connection accessories for VGA and DVI out, which are thankfully included in the box. Since the Air doesn't have a powerful (but space and power-consuming) discrete graphics adapter, you'll only be able to drive a 24-inch display, although for many that should probably be sufficient. (Games and movie watching also suffer because of the integrated graphics, since some of that visual load is taken on by the CPU.) Also integrated is the Air's 2GB of RAM, built directly into its insanely small motherboard; processors rarely need to be swapped in laptops, but are you willing to bank on a couple of years' use without having to upgrade your RAM? Perhaps a lot of people are, but we're not.
The Air also uses a slower 80GB 1.8-inch drive, the same kind that powers many portable media players. While probably sturdy enough to withstand normal use, it's nowhere near as fast as your average 2.5-inch laptop drive, and will always be behind in storage should you chose to upgrade later. If you can afford to spring for the 64GB SSD option, we highly suggest it -- your machine's reliability, performance, and battery life will all get a boost (at the expense of 16GB of space and a ton of cash, naturally). Oddly overlooked for inclusion is the Apple Remote; the Air certainly has the necessary sliver of an IR sensor for making use of one, but the remote isn't included, despite being found in the box of just about every other Apple machine. Oh, and for those wondering, the Air's built-in iSight is the VGA variety.
Despite its shortcomings on the hardware and specs side, though, it's hard to say enough about how well made the Air feels -- a particularly important point when you're taking your machine everywhere. Whereas most smaller laptops try to cut weight with inner metal frames and flimsy plastic bodies, the Air bulks up a bit with an all-metal enclosure that looks and feels like it was carved out of a single piece of aluminum. Only time will tell if metal in the Air's wrist rest area will pit out and blacken like MacBook Pros and PowerBooks of years past, but the machine definitely gets extremely high marks for its the physical engineering. And no, we're not at liberty to drop test Apple's review unit, sorry!
Apple also hasn't released any information for third party developers on how to integrated touch gestures into their apps, so until they do, only Apple apps will be able to take advantage of the new input methods. It's obvious that, with time, Apple will be rolling out multi-touch on their other machines, but for now they claim that current hardware cannot support this input, so don't expect to see any (official) software updates to enable multi-touch.
Another feature rolled out is Remote Disc, Apple's new system for sharing the optical drives of networked Macs and PCs with the drive-less Air. As we quickly learned, you should be prepared to have as much bandwidth as possible between the Air and your host machine, -- and don't be disappointed when you can't do everything with Remote Disc that you can do with a regular drive. There's no commercial media playback, no HD support, no ripping, no burning -- it's really only meant for installing apps, downloading data, or reinstalling the OS (more on that in a second). On the upshot, it did work seamlessly when we tried it.
The Air is a tough call. On the one hand it proposes to be a no-compromises ultraportable, but on the other hand it compromises many (but not all) the things road warriors want. We're all about removing unnecessary frills and drives (we rejoiced the day the original iMac bucked the floppy), but laptops are increasingly becoming many users' primary -- often only -- machines, which is why the Air's price doesn't do it any favors, either. It's hard to justify almost two grand for a second laptop (or a third machine) just for travel needs -- and even then, that's only easily done if all your data lives in the cloud. Given those sacrifices and that higher-end sticker, it's more than likely not going to replace most peoples' current workhorse laptop.
This all might look a bit different if the Air was a little closer to MacBook price range, though. We're thinking $1500 could be a sweet spot, especially if bundled with the wired Ethernet dongle and SuperDrive. But we're not going to kid ourselves, either; the Air isn't supposed to be everything for everyone. For those in need of a machine that masters basics in a super thin, light form-factor, and who have the coin to pay for that ultraportability, the Air absolutely nails it like few others.
Given its stripped down, one-piece design, some are calling the Air the iPod of laptops. The point is debatable as to whether this machine could have the same appeal to computer users, but if there is one clear upshot to the Air, it's that Apple's learned to take the next step in miniaturizing their portable computers. While not all Mac users are going to stand in line to get this latest machine, Apple is doubtless welcomed back into the ultraportable laptop market by the technology world. Perhaps the largest side-effect of the Air won't be ditching optical drives, though; for the rest of Apple's consumer base it's now just a matter of time before other Mac laptop lines benefit from the technical and engineering advances that made this thing so thin and light. Give us the lovechild of the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro, and it's all over.
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