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Little Laptop, Big Deal

Apple's MacBook Air looked its absolute best on the stage at Macworld Expo earlier this month, when Steve Jobs plucked it out of a plain manila envelope that had been sitting on the podium since the start of his keynote. In the warm glow of a Jobsian reality distortion field, it was easy to focus on this laptop's exterior attributes: So thin! So streamlined! So light!

After getting a chance to fondle the machine on the Macworld floor, I pondered whether to get one as my new traveling work laptop.

But on closer examination, the Air looks more like a clever engineering exercise than a fully realized product. Apple had to leave out a lot to flatten this computer to a maximum thickness of three-quarters of an inch.

Most of Apple's earlier excisions--ditching floppy disks, abandoning "legacy" SCSI and ADB ports, removing dial-up modems--have paid off. After some initial awkwardness, users haven't minded and other companies have eventually followed Apple's lead. Some of the stuff that Apple took out of the Air could well work out as well, such as its lack of a built-in optical drive.

But assuming that we'll have universal WiFi access, so you no longer need any wired networking capability? That's too far of a stretch. I mean, I had to resort to an Ethernet connection instead of unreliable WiFi as I was writing up a recap of Apple's Macworld announcements--and this was in the press area Apple had set up! Including only one USB port seems equally mistaken.

Apple didn't have to make these sacrifices to ship a thin, ultralight laptop. Would the Air have been hopelessly unlovely if it had emerged a quarter-inch thicker and, in so doing, had been able to accommodate some extra expansion options? I think not. When I take a laptop on a trip, I don't care about its thickness--I'm only interested in its weight.

Such Windows-based ultralights as the Panasonic Toughbook I complimented a few years ago or the Toshiba Portege R500 I evaluated in today's column aren't nearly as easy on the eyes as the Air, but they can be considerably more practical.

My hope is that the Air can evolve a bit like the Mac mini, which grew two additional USB ports and gained extra storage and memory to become a much more capable desktop machine. (Given enough time, Apple could also make flash-memory storage standard instead of a $999 option, which would further lighten the Air and prolong its battery life.)

I could be entirely wrong in all this, though. Would an Air work for you? Let me know in the comments!

By Rob Pegoraro  |  January 31, 2008; 8:56 AM ET
Categories:  Mac  
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Comments

Here's the issue... my wife and I share a Macbook. It's basically used 99% of the time for Firefox, iTunes, iCal, and iPhoto. The only hitch is that it's our DVD/TV. So if you can pop a DVD in another system in your network (I have an extra not-too-too-old mac and extra PC), and watch movies from there, then the Air would be a go.

Posted by: Gman | January 31, 2008 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Would an Air work for me?

Yes.

The MacBook Air is not going to replace one's primary workstation. However, if you need an ultraportable laptop, there's nothing missing here. I read endless blogs about how many more ports the MBA should have, and I don't understand these whiners. The apparently are not heavy travellers and/or they own only a laptop.

Posted by: roule | January 31, 2008 11:06 AM | Report abuse

I agree with you, Rob. There are other lightweight laptops that offer quite a bit more in terms of ports as well as a CD/DVD drive and still weigh in at 3lbs. The screens are smaller (and they're not as slick as the Air), but then again, the screen size is where the sacrifice should be made, not the ports (especially for business users who work on planes). This is one of the rare instances where Apple's insistence on form over function loses, IMHO. There just isn't enough ubiquitous wi-fi at the moment to justify this product. One question: do you know if it's possible to install Windows via Parallels or Fusion using the Remote Disc feature?

Posted by: anon | January 31, 2008 11:26 AM | Report abuse


*sigh*

I have two laptops on the desk next to me -- both are ALWAYS connected to the network via wireless. I've yet to plug either in. The desktop in front of me IS plugged in but usually isn't to avoid a hardware firewall issue.

I'm glad, Rob, you mentioned the items Apple's dropped to great gasps in the past: I still recall the gloating of PC snots when Apple shipped the iMacs w/no floppy -- "Apple has doomed itself!" pshaw.

I've seen a 4-port USB hub that was smaller than my PCMA card and as thick as two floppies stacked together. If you're the executive who pulls this baby out of his sleek leather folder and pops it open on the board room table, you've just won. Whatever it is, you've won it. And you could care less that it has only one USB port: there's an adapter w/4 more in the sleeve.

I believe this machine is more proof-of-concept than full-bore entry into the pantheon; I fully expect, as you suggest, to see features from this trickle down to the other products in the MB/MBP line(s).

To hate on it for such paltry concessions seems... petty.

Posted by: Bush -- not related | January 31, 2008 12:22 PM | Report abuse

The biggest thing the Air has against it right now is price. If this was a sub-$1000 few if any would focus on what it doesn't have rather than what it does have. They would buy it on a whim and probably fall in love with it.

It does 95% of what I need to do on the go and would substaintially lighten my load. If the price was right I would get one in a heartbeat.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 31, 2008 12:51 PM | Report abuse

I've got a Toshiba R500. I was seriously disappointed by its performance when I first got it. Slow and prone to spending two minutes churning its HDD, and you're right about the scary flimsy feel of the DVD burner. And that was with a 2 Gb SD card to work as the readyboost cache.

However, I recently upgraded the RAM to the maximum of 1.5 Gb (actually 1.25 Gb as .25 is used as Graphics memory). The unit is transformed, you wouldn't know it was the same machine. It now responds instantly, boots in 1/4 of the time, and everything works smoothly. Much better.

Would I recommend it? Without the memory upgrade, absolutely not. With it? Absolutely. And at $40 from Fry's when I was in San Jose the other week, it didn't break the bank.

Posted by: Gordon McKenzie | January 31, 2008 1:37 PM | Report abuse

I wish Apple had done something like Amazon's Kindle deal with Sprint, where the Air would have internet all over. Sprint must have bandwidth avaiable with all their lost customers. And think about how many Air buyers (who, like most Apple customers, are afluent) would pay, say $100 a year, for unlimited internet? And most would still usually use WIFI because it is faster. And Sprint would be cool again for teaming up with Apple. And they could do the same thing for the Touch. Are you listening Apple and Sprint? Verizon?

Posted by: dwyersteve | January 31, 2008 1:48 PM | Report abuse

of course there are more "sensible" configurations. and yet, they're not big-sellers or at least not media darlings. it seems jobs has forced the question, "will you work/live without these items?" rather than queried, "would you?"

hit or miss, what i admire about apple is that they make the total package so compelling that many overlook the "functional" shortcomings. and then we adapt, sometimes as a concession or trade-off, but also many times with a shrug of, "oh, guess that wasn't so mission-critical after all."

Posted by: jeff | January 31, 2008 1:53 PM | Report abuse

As seduced as I am by the sleek, skinny body -- nope, wouldn't work for me. I require a firewire port to do what I do (two, actually). And of course, the wired ethernet for when traveling. I'm also semi-partial to my DVD burner, but it isn't mission-critical.

Posted by: misschatter | January 31, 2008 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Rob,

This is like the Tesla Roadster (www.teslamotors.com). Neither is for everyone, but it's showing what's possible and changing (possibly) the direction of the industry, based on (wealthy) early adopters. Your complaints about lack of USB ports and Ethernet port can be overcome by USB-to-Ethernet adapter and a USB hub, the latter of which is apparently included. But if each person adds one thing to this machine, it will stop becoming the tiny thing they wanted to show as possible.

Posted by: josef | January 31, 2008 4:55 PM | Report abuse

I enjoyed reading these comments.

* Bush (not related): I'm not hatin' on the thing, I just think it could have been better. It didn't leave me with a "must... buy...now" urge.

* [no name]: I thought about adding a line to the story saying that while the Air works well as a Web-and-writing machine, you could say much the same of an Asus Eee PC that costs a fourth as much. But I couldn't honestly say that the Eee's keyboard, software and screen are anywhere near as good as the Air's.

* dwyersteve: Yes, if the Air had a wireless-broadband modem in it, my worries about no Ethernet onboard would largely fade away.

* misschatter: Good point about the missing FireWire port. Apparently, Apple had to write some extra software to let its Migration Assistant run over a local network instead of the usual FireWire connection.

* josef: I'd hate to see the Air redesigned by a committee too. But I don't think it needs a huge amount of revision. An Ethernet port and either a second USB connector or one FireWire port would do the trick for me.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | January 31, 2008 5:58 PM | Report abuse

It is cute. But no optical drive? One USB port? Very expensive!
I'll wait awhile, thank you.

Posted by: Paul Bingham | January 31, 2008 6:01 PM | Report abuse

I ordered my MacBook Air as soon as I had familiarized myself with the specifications and read reviews by Mossberg, Pogue and Baig. It will be a companion to my 8-month-old MacBook Pro which will go to desktop replacement duty. I invariably have two computers, so concerns about installing optical media to the MacBook Air do not apply. I currently have a last generation PowerBook G4 and my MacBook Pro. I think the Air will make an even better companion relationship because of its portability. Three pounds less weight on my shoulder and back are grounds for rejoicing, not lamentations.

Apple informed me my MacBook Air had shipped in an email this mornig. I can hardly wait until it is my hand. (No, the singular is not a typo.)

Posted by: Podesta | January 31, 2008 10:04 PM | Report abuse

I agree with dwyersteve completely! Sprint cool again? What insight!

Posted by: MatthewInLux | February 1, 2008 2:49 AM | Report abuse

I'm looking at getting an Apple laptop and I'm not considering the Air. I'm not that much of a Road Warrior, and the savings on weight doesn't really come close to giving up the optical drive or the ethernet connection.

And I don't know that an all-wifi world works yet. I've already had some issues with neighbors setting up networks on my channel, or when the wireless phone seemed to interfere with my AppleTV. The multi-touch track pad looks cool, and I can see using it in iPhoto. But that's about it. Aside from hi-end painting programs I don't think there are many touchy-feely programs to use it with.

Posted by: justsomeguy | February 1, 2008 11:10 AM | Report abuse

So far the only thing that seems like a real fault is the lack of Ethernet -- and apparently there's a USB-ethernet dealie available, so that would solve that.

I guess the lack of a replaceable battery is also potentially vexing.

I did kinda swoon over the new track pad gestures.

Posted by: Tony | February 1, 2008 1:21 PM | Report abuse

> When I take a laptop on a trip, I don't care about its thickness--I'm only interested in its weight.

Quite right -- although I think many users would also like their laptop to have a small enough footprint to fit comfortably on a back-of-the-seat tray table.

I believe Apple's obsession with thickness is also the reason the MacBook Air has such limited hard drive capacity. More storage would have required a slightly thicker hard drive.

I wouldn't miss having an internal DVD drive, although IMHO it would have been smarter to include the external DVD drive with every machine. This wouldn't have raised the price very much, and it would have avoided the need for Remote Disk.

What I really dislike about the MacBook Air is its single USB connector, and the very limited RAM and hard drive capacity. I would have gladly purchased an updated version of the old 12-inch PowerBook, but I think the MacBook Air requires too many needless sacrifices. Sorry, no sale.

Posted by: Craig | February 1, 2008 3:10 PM | Report abuse

My MacBook Air was in Anchorage as of 3:00 p.m. yesterday. It may arrive in Portland today. I believe that as I and other MacBook Air buyers get their machines and people see how useful they are, there will be fewer naysayers. Seeing is believing. The only long-term MacBook Air haters will be cheapskates.

Posted by: Podesta | February 2, 2008 4:20 AM | Report abuse

>Would an Air work for you?

Nope. MacBook Air puts fashion first, and functionality dead last. It has fewer features than a bottom of the line $500 Compaq notebook computer.

For travelers, when the MacBook Air's sealed batter runs out and can't be replaced with a spare, it will make a pretty looking coaster. (grin)

Posted by: TomJ | February 2, 2008 2:19 PM | Report abuse

> My MacBook Air was in Anchorage as of 3:00 p.m. yesterday.

This has *nothing* to do with the MacAir, but Podesta's comment reminded me of similar activity when I ordered my HP laptop a few months ago.

I tracked the FedEx shipment's progress, saw a notation just like the above ("in Anchorage as of 3:12pm") and watched it fly on to Seattle, Memphis, Louisville, back to Seattle and then on to (ta-da!) Anchorage!

The following morning there was a knock on my door in Chugiak (25 miles north of Anchorage) and a FedEx girl presented me with my well-traveled laptop.

Ah, globilization.

Posted by: Denny, Alaska | February 2, 2008 3:40 PM | Report abuse

I am a photographer and I travel with my Mac for work. I have a 17" MacBook Pro for Photoshop. So, the MacBook Air is probably a non-starter, I like editing photographs on a computer with a larger screen.

I will say this for the MacBook Air, in the past have happily worked with machines that had smaller hard drives and are much slower than this machine. But, time marches on.

When I head out the door with my heavy computer backpack, and my heavy camera bag, and maybe a bag of strobes, the prospect of trimming a couple of pounds from the load sounds quite attractive.

Green Valley, AZ

Posted by: Michael | February 4, 2008 1:12 PM | Report abuse

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