MacBook Air review

It fits in a manila folder, you can slide it under a door, and if you threw it hard enough you could probably chop someone in half with the thing. It's the thinnest, and if we may say so, sexiest laptop around today: the MacBook Air. But looks aren't everything to everyone, and despite all the rhetoric about being a no-compromises ultraportable, Apple did leave plenty on the cutting-room floor in its quest to make an absurdly thin ultraportable that doesn't skimp on a full size keyboard or roomier 13-inch display. But, as many potential buyers have been asking themselves since last week, is the Air right to be your next machine? Read on, we'll tell you what we think.

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.


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.

The 13-inch LED backlit screen not only sips power where larger CCFL backlit displays guzzle, it also looks amazing: crisp, bright, and vibrant. Where other small laptops use 8-11-inch screens that are nigh-unreadable by many a squinty Engadget editor, for a laptop of this size the Air gives plenty of screen real estate to get things done. Unfortunately, Apple only offers this display with a glossy finish, so if you're fond of the matte or work outside or near a window, be forewarned. The bezel around the display is a little thick for our tastes, and the lid might not tilt back as far as we'd like due to the physical constraints of the joint design, but these are relatively minor complaints.

Also rare for an ultraportable is the Air's full-size keyboard, which adds some (worthy) width to the body. Those fond of the ridgeless, separated key design as found in MacBook and iMac / Mac pro keyboards will feel right at home. We're not too into this design, but unlike almost every ultraportable we've owned, the Air's keyboard feels thoroughly solid and sturdy. The keys are tactile, not at all mushy, and backlit to boot. Typing on the Air is a pleasure, not a chore. The keyboard also happens to be where the MacBook Air emits audio -- beneath right home row keys (k, l, ;, ') is the Air's tinny mono speaker, which seems and sounds more like an afterthought.

The Air's integrated 802.11n worked well with our stock D-Link 802.11n router, and transferred data at about 3-4MBps -- we were certainly satisfied with its wireless performance. The Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR as a standard option is also nice, but it's immediately clear the Air needed some integrated 3G, especially considering its lack of an ExpressCard slot.

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.


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).

Thankfully, the Air's power adapter is as impressively proportioned as the laptop, so taking it with you won't be much of an issue. But users of current generation adapters be warned: the Air's MagSafe implementation won't always work with your current MagSafe adapters simply because the angle and location make it physically impossible to accommodate when used on a table. Hardly a huge issue, we know. But things get worse on the connectivity side. The USB port is recessed enough that, while we're sure it meets USB Implementers Forum's design spec, it realistically won't accommodate most 3G modems without a USB extension cable, and some flash drives, as we learned yesterday. Even the headphone port had a difficult time accommodating our Shure E4C phones. We got stereo audio, but a high pitched hissing from not being fully plugged in and grounded. (This went away when we used a better-fitting audio extension cable.)


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!


Just like every other Apple machine, the Air runs Leopard -- albeit a slightly different build (9B2324). The only changes made have to do with taking advantage of the machine's oversized touchpad, which now supports multi-finger gestures in system prefs. Apple thoughtfully actually includes in-line instructional videos for learning how the gestures work (and how to make them), like the three-finger sweep for backward and forward in Safari, or using two fingers to rotate an image in iPhoto. This is just the beginning of touchpad-based multi-touch, and while it's not always the most practical way to do things (cmd+R or L seems to us an easier way to rotate a photo), it's intuitive and well-integrated.

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.

Still, we think the Air's external USB SuperDrive (which only works with the Air, mind you) is a necessity. There simply isn't any way to transparently replace all the functionality of an optical drive yet, so we're kind of bummed Apple didn't just include the thing in box. [Also, disclosure: we had a pool running and I bet against a non-bundled optical drive and lost ten bucks. Thanks, Apple!] There's no question that a laptop really doesn't need an optical drive at all times, and we've always been happy to omit them. But having to shell out $99 to buy the drive separately just doesn't sit well with us.

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.

Further reading
MacBook Air: plenty more details
Apple MacBook Air and MacBook Pro size showdown
MacBook Air processor situation gets explained
Switched On: Apple bets that to Air is human