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!Software
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.Wrap-up
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 readingMacBook Air: plenty more detailsApple MacBook Air and MacBook Pro size showdownMacBook Air processor situation gets explainedSwitched On: Apple bets that to Air is human