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Posted at 2:23 PM ET, 11/16/2010

MacBook Air review (and video)

By Rob Pegoraro

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.

macbook_air_closeup.jpg

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.

macbook_air_facetime_led.jpg

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.

By Rob Pegoraro  | November 16, 2010; 2:23 PM ET
Categories:  Mac, Mobile, Weekly video  
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Comments

Looked at the 11" air last weekend. With the 128Gb SSD it's no more expensive than a tablet computer with 4 32Gb MicroSD cards.

It looks like it'd be a good on the road media player.

OTOH, the Archos 70 (if it's ever released) will be a 250Gb $350 Android tablet.

Posted by: wiredog | November 16, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

I've been rocking the 13" MBP for almost a year now, and for half of that time with a 256GB SSD. The big flaw within the cheapest new line of MBAs is the 64GB SSD -- that's TOUGH to work for anyone who is an average to power user. Maybe grandma who's just doing e-mail and has a few photos from her camera, but those HD videos that everyone is taking on their iPhones and importing into iMovie eat up space, along with all those new Beatles songs they'll be getting off iTunes. Even with my 256GB I've got about 60GB free and I'm constantly hunting for old large files eating up space.

Flash on the MBP and MBA drinks the battery. I don't need a heater on a cold DC autumn evening -- I can just put my MBP on my lap and watch some Hulu to stay warm.

Posted by: mcs37 | November 16, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

As an owner of two generations of the MacBook Air, including the original, I recommend it for your mother-in-law. She will find it capable of all the things most people do with a laptop, yet so adaptable she will carry it with her more often than she would a full-size computer. My MacBook Pro became my 'desktop' computer once I purchased my first Air. She could keep her MacBook and use it for home multimedia playing and streaming, keeping most of those files off the MBA.

I'll be getting the third generation of the MBA this summer.

Regarding reviews and videos, I would like to see them posted to iTunes as podcasts. The Boston Globe's tech writer Hiawatha Bray does this (though not as often as he should) and I really enjoy watching those videos on my HDTV using Apple TV.

Posted by: query0 | November 16, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

By all means the MacBook Air if she travels alot otherwise, the MacBook if she uses the computer for more than just email.

Posted by: mike231 | November 16, 2010 6:32 PM | Report abuse

I've had a first generation Macbook Air for nearly 3 years and have had the top half replaced at no cost twice under Apple Care due to hinge failure. As a result, the first thing I checked-out on the new Macbook was the hinge mechanism. From my 20 minute investigation at a local Apple Store, I have decided that they have completely fixed the weak hinge issue in the new Macbook Air.

I also tried the most Flash intensive site that I know of (Stickam Group Chat), and the 11 inch Macbook Air handled the site with ease without overheating. My first generation Macbook Air with its Intel GPU overheats on this site and throttles itself in order to compensate. The new Macbook Air showed negligible heating and ran the Flash app with ease.

The GPU throttling due to overheating and the weak hinge issues were my only complaints with the first generation Macbook Air and both issues seem to have been fully addressed in the new Macbook Air. I'll be adding a new Macbook Air to my collection.

Posted by: Annorax | November 17, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse

If Mother-in-law's going to be taking it out and about, get the Air (AND APPLECARE! -- ok, get Applecare no matter what).

If it's mostly going to sit on a desk/coffeetable/etc, get a regular MB.

Posted by: Bush--notrelated | November 17, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

I don't see any conundrum here.

It is decent computer. The best of the highly portable breed, and quite expensive. The 13" screen resolution is quite high.

It is quite portable yet by the time you add the other things you will need you will have around the same weight asa MacBook and a lot of clutter that is harder to work with.

It may be an alternative to the iPad for many users who will find it hard to get their work done on those smaller screens.

The way to select your primary platform is to ask what you are going to need most of the time and then can you still get the other stuff done the rest of the time.

Many reviews omit that you can plug in an internet cable through an adapter cable. For that case, the missing feature, most needed, might be a third USB port.

Posted by: AlanBriggs | November 17, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

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