Product review: MacBook Air is light as, well, air

Apple's new ultraportable may not be for everyone, but if you want thin, sexy, easy mobility, and decent performance -- and can live without a swappable battery and built-in optical drive -- the Air is the answer

After many years and many laptops, I've finally determined that I ride the periphery in terms of size and function – I like them either really big, or really small. The middle-of-the-road 15-inch standard just isn't for me. Thus, the MacBook Air seemed to be the perfect answer to the lighter side of that spectrum. My 17-inch MacBook Pro easily takes care of the heavyweight end.

[ See also: "MacBook Air migration gyrations" on transferring files and applications to the Air from another Mac. ]

Whether I'm in the mood for a light laptop or a heavy one, I'm never willing to compromise much on performance. Many people reacted to the MacBook Air announcement as though it were terribly underpowered, lacking options, and generally useless as a laptop, thin though it may be. This is of great concern to me, because I tend to push my computers to the breaking point and run them like that for hours on end.

Apart from performance, there are other considerations. The MacBook Air isn't designed to be a desktop replacement system, and it doesn't have desktop-like specs, unlike the MacBook Pro (see Tom Yager’s review, “The best notebook you can buy”) and other 2.4GHz-plus Core 2 Duo laptops on the market. Could I live without a bevy of ports and a DVD drive? Could I use the Air to do real work?

In order to find out, I bought one and used it to write this review. In many ways, the Air has caused me to rethink some of my preconceived notions about what I need from a computer (see my “Deep End” blog post on that topic). While it was very tempting to bite the bullet and get the 64GB SSD (solid state-disk), I opted to save $999 and get the 80GB 4,200-rpm PATA (Parallel ATA) drive, though I did spring for the 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo instead of the base model running at 1.6GHz.

"Laptop" as misnomer
It's unfair to classify the MacBook Air as a laptop. It's not, unless you're Mini Me. It's an ultraportable, along the lines of the Sony Vaio TZ, though it has a larger screen than the Vaio. It's also faster and cheaper.

The Air arrives in a box that seems way too small to hold a computer, and yes, it weighs nearly nothing. Several times already, I've thought that my courier bag was empty when in fact it's not. Even with the power cord and a few cables, the bag just looks empty. Though the MacBook Air is small and incredibly light, it's also surprisingly solid. It feels like one piece of metal, and even picking it up by one corner, there's no flexing at all. Now, I'm sure it wouldn't survive a trip down the stairs. But neither would most laptops. Then again, given the Air’s light weight, it might have a better chance than most. Either way, I’m not quite willing to run that test.

Part and parcel to the lithe form factor is the dearth of ports. The Air has only one USB2 port, a power connection utilizing Apple's magnificent MagSafe power connector, a headphone jack, and a mini-DVI (Digital Visual Interface) port for connecting to an external monitor or projector. The Air comes with adapters for both a standard 15-pin SVGA connection and a full-size DVI connection.

The ports themselves are cleverly hidden behind a panel on the right-hand side of the system. It's not easy to access these ports without picking up the side of the Air, but it's not really a problem. The MagSafe adapter on the left-hand side of the system is built into the beveled edge and, thus, faces downward at a roughly 45-degree angle. It's the same connector that other MacBooks use, but at that angle, the other power adapters will not be viable if the Air is on a flat surface. The Air's power connector is turned at a right angle, so it fits nicely between the desk and the beveled edge. (You can see a close-up of the MacBook Air's power adapter, and photos of a dismantled Air’s internals, at iFixit.)

The Air is obviously designed to be a traveling companion, and as such, it’s geared for wireless communications using the built-in 802.1b/g/draft-n Airport, though the optional USB Ethernet adapter can tie it to a wired network. Somewhat odd is the lack of a 3G interface. I suppose that the extreme design left little or no room for a 3G chipset, and there are USB 3G interfaces to be had – hopefully with a USB connection that will fit the drop-door USB jack on the side of the Air. Given the propensity of third-party vendors to produce all manner of accessories for Apple products, I’d bet that there will be a USB hub/headphone passthrough, possibly even with a 3G interface, appearing at some point in the near future.

The display is a glossy 13.3-inch LCD similar to that found on the current MacBook line, though it seems brighter – so bright, in fact, that I found myself turning it down a few notches, which is far better than not being able to make it bright enough. At 1,280 by 800, the resolution isn't as high as I'd like, but I've been spoiled by my 17-inch MacBook Pro with the spacious HD screen. In the bezel right above the display is a 640x480 iSight camera, a staple of Apple laptops. For the stated purpose of the Air, the screen’s 13.3 inches is sufficient, but it almost demands the use of Leopard's Spaces multiple-desktop feature. I generally have lots of apps open, and being able to assign them to specific desktops when they launch, and use Command-Tab to flip through them, makes a huge difference.

The trackpad is odd. First off, it's enormous. It's nearly 50 percent larger than the trackpad on the 17-inch MacBook Pro, though the single button at the bottom is shorter. This has led to more than a few misclicks, as my thumbs hit the trackpad and not the button. But the capabilities of the trackpad are substantial.

It's designed to be used much like the touchscreen on the iPhone and iPod Touch: You can use two fingers to zoom in and out on images, for instance, and use left-to-right swiping to page through iTunes' album view. In fact, when you view the Trackpad preferences panel, a handy looping video shows these actions clearly. In the right hands, so to speak, this is a killer feature. For some, however, the benefit will be lost. No matter, because it still functions well as a normal trackpad. As with other Apple trackpads, you can scroll using two fingers, and right-click with a two-finger tap. I've always been a fan of the single-finger scroll on the right-hand side of the trackpad, a function that the third-party SideTrack applet can provide, but the current version of SideTrack doesn't support this touchpad yet, so two fingers it is.

The keyboard is more in line with the new external keyboards Apple is shipping with iMacs and Mac Pros, with each key a separate entity against the brushed-metal underlayer. At first glance, I wasn't so thrilled with this layout, but I've found it to be perfectly usable, with solid positive key travel. All considered, it's possibly even better than the current MacBook Pro keyboards, which seem to collect detritus at an alarming rate, a trait they share with almost every other laptop on Earth. Apple has reorganized the Exposé keys at the top, moving certain functions around and adding Play/Pause, Forward, and Back buttons. It's a minor quibble, but the changes can be a bit annoying. The F12 key no longer shows the Dashboard, for instance.

The lack of an optical disk could be a major problem for some users. Apple offers an external DVD drive ($99) that plugs into the USB port. I didn't bother ordering one because the MacBook Air also ships with software that allows the Air to use the optical drive on either a Mac or Windows system as a native device. I've found that I rarely use the optical drive on my laptops anyway, so this wasn't an issue for me.

Although I opted for the 80GB PATA drive and the 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, application launching and overall speed of the MacBook Air is perfectly reasonable. It's not a powerhouse, to be sure, but that's the trade-off for the size and portability. I wouldn't use it as a primary video or audio editing platform, but for normal use with my stable of apps, including Microsoft Word, iChat, Apple Mail, CoRD for Windows Remote Desktop sessions, X11, and Firefox, it's more than adequate.

Interestingly, there’s only one onboard speaker, and it’s located right under the right-hand Shift and Return keys. It’s perfectly adequate for system sounds, but it gets tinny with tunes. The stereo headphone jack is the best bet there. On the subject of noise, the Air is very quiet, even with the single exhaust fan running at over 6,000rpm. My MacBook Pro can get loud occasionally when it’s running hard and hot, but the Air doesn’t get above a whisper.

Into the wild
I figured the best place to work with the Air would be a coffee shop, which is essentially its native environment. Within five minutes of sitting down and joining the free Wi-Fi network, one of the three people that had been eyeing me came over and said, simply, "Wow." The other two then came over and after five minutes of the Air being passed around, hefted, and turned over and over, the general consensus was still "Wow." One woman brandished a Dell Latitude like a dirty diaper and announced that it was time for a change.

So I sat, writing this review while enjoying a moment of celebrity among the coffee beans and blueberry muffins, watching the battery meter telling me that five hours of battery life might be possible if I kept the screen brightness low. (Four to four-and-a-half hours is a more reasonable estimate.)

The Air's battery is not user-replaceable. This is a definite negative, considering long-distance travel is made easier with the ability to carry multiple batteries to swap out. However, the battery can be replaced relatively easily by certified Apple techs at a computer store (it’s plugged, not soldered to the mainboard). I predict that several third-party batteries for the Air will be on the market in a few months.

The MacBook Air is not perfect, but it sure is attractive and functional. If you're looking for a desktop replacement system, get a MacBook Pro. If you're looking for a basic laptop, get a MacBook. If you're looking for supreme portability and more than reasonable performance, definitely get a MacBook Air.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Battery Life (15.0%)
Performance (15.0%)
Ease of use (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Configuration (20.0%)
Portability (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Apple MacBook Air 8.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 7.0 10.0 8.5
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