MacBook Air review (and video)
It's easiest to define Apple's MacBook Air by the standard ingredients it leaves out: a CD or DVD drive, an Ethernet wired-networking port, even a hard drive. There's not much left after all that editing--but there is a capable, pricey portable computer.
Of those two Air models that Apple introduced last month--a $999-and-up configuration with an 11-in. screen and a 13-in. model that starts at $1,299--I picked the smaller, cheaper and lighter one to try. The review unit loaned by Apple PR arrived with an extra 64 gigabytes of flash memory (for 128 GB total, with 109 GB free out of the box) that pushed its price to $1,199.
At just 2.3 lbs., this model is as light as any netbook I've tried lately but more pleasant to use than its cheaper, Windows-based competitors. The screen is not only larger than the displays on most netbooks but, with a resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels, far sharper. Its keyboard features full-sized keys and a roomy, multi-touch-sensitive trackpad that doesn't induce wrist strain.
The design of this shows Apple's usual monkish devotion to detail. The LED next to the FaceTime webcam, for example, lurks behind some nearly invisible perforations in the aluminum bezel around the screen. (You can see this in action in this week's video segment, playable after the jump.)
And yes, it's thin--barely thicker than a CD case at its aft, hinge end, almost thin enough at its other end to serve as a letter opener. (It doesn't work in that role; yes, I tried.)
But the Air's trim contours force some design compromises, even compared to its 13-in. sibling. Although both Airs offer two USB ports instead of the single one of the first Air, the smaller one lacks an SD Card slot. The processor inside is relatively slow, although that made no notable difference in everyday Web use. Nothing inside--not the battery, not the processor, not the memory, not the flash storage--is user-accessible.
That solid-state flash storage--an "SSD," for "solid state drive"--is the Air's most interesting feature and the one most likely to influence other Macs. Dispensing with a hard drive makes the Air nearly silent, save only for the occasional faint whine from the screen, and allows it to boot up in about 15 seconds. It helps the laptop sip power, drawing only 11 to 14 watts when on.
The Air's battery life may depend on a different sort of flash--Adobe's Flash multimedia software, which Apple no longer preinstalls. In that stock configuration, with Safari on ESPN's home page, the Air lasted for 6 hours. With Flash installed, however, battery life dropped to 4 hours and 33 minutes. But I saw no difference when I repeated this test with Safari on the Post's plainer home page, getting 5 hours and 21 minutes with and without Adobe's software.
Flash storage's greatest advantage, however, may be its lack of moving parts. The Air's SSD can't suffer the kind of mechanical failure that's wiped out the data of too many friends and colleagues over the years.
The entry-level Air poses an interesting dilemma to Apple shoppers. Do they get this $999 model or Apple's other $999 laptop--the regular MacBook that offers a bigger screen, better battery life and a hard drive that offers more storage? It's a problem I've been focused on myself lately, as my mother-in-law's aging iBook is due for replacement. So what do we get her: The stylish and slim Air or its bigger, more expandable sibling? Help me out, readers: What would you recommend?
Watch below to see me demonstrate some of the Air's features--and debut a new sort of laptop case, available in mass quantities in any office supply closet. And for other videos, such as last week's demo of Microsoft's Xbox Kinect, see the video channel we've set up.
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