There was a ton of speculation about what Apple would launch during this year’s MacWorld, but just about everyone agreed there would be an ‘ultraportable’ laptop offering. The question was how it would be implemented. Now that Apple has released the MacBook Air, it’s time to talk a bit about what it is and what it isn’t.
First off, I want to address the issue of the classification of ‘ultraportable’. As far as I know, there are no standardized classes of mobile computers, so the ultraportable moniker is just something marketing department came up with to describe a small laptop. In my opinion, ultraportable isn’t just about weight, or thickness, or footprint. It’s a combination of numerous properties. In the case of the MacBook Air, weight and thickness solidly places it in my ultraportable category, but footprint is just too large for that categorization. Steve Jobs was correct – companies like Sony did have to make sacrifices, such as the 11.1″ display of the TZ, but that sacrifice was so that its footprint could be made smaller. It’s just a matter of semantics really, but be warned that just because it’s termed ‘ultraportable’, it makes no guarantee that it will fit your idea of one.
My first impression of the MacBook Air was gleaned from a streaming text feed from MacRumorsLive over my lunch break. When I read the 0.16″ to 0.76″ thickness, I wrote it off as a typo. Of course, this was no typo – it’s exactly the effect the announcement had on most people, I’d imagine: disbelief. And while the method of arriving at the 0.16″ thickness is a little misleading, it’s very impressive nonetheless. I was envious for certain. Zero-point-one-six inches. You could practically cut things with that!
It’s interesting that Apple decided to go with the existing Merom core to power the MacBook Air. With all the hubbub from Intel about the complete awesomeness of its 45nm Penryn core, you’d think Apple would equip its newest laptop with that processor. Chances are, Intel wasn’t able to produce the 45nm chip in the smaller packing that Apple required. I have no doubt an update to the laptop will be made later this year with exactly that upgrade. The reduced power consumption and hopefully reduced heat output will be very useful for a design like the Air. AnandTech has a couple articles that go a bit more in depth about the identity and origins of the processor and chipset used in the MacBook Air.
It doesn’t look like Apple has any sort of exclusivity on the CPU + chipset form factor, so I wouldn’t be surprised if other notebook makers start using them for new designs. Lenovo’s rumored ThinkPad x300 may already be using it. Later this year, Intel will be officially launching the small form factor product based on the Montevina platform and Penryn.
What It Is
The MacBook Air is the thinnest laptop available. Motorola ushered in the thin craze for mobile phones, and at 13.9mm, the RAZR V3 was damn thin compared to most other phones of the time. Fast forward a few years and we’re looking at a laptop that is just barely more than 19mm thick at its thickest point. I won’t even bother mentioning that at its thinnest point (at least by Apple’s measurement), the Air blows the RAZR out of the water. Of course, there are thinner mobile phones now, but it just goes to show how much things have progressed in a few short years.
For all intents and purposes, the MacBook Air is aimed directly at the ultraportable market. At 3lbs, <1 inch thick and lacking an optical drive, most buyers are going to be highly mobile users. This isn’t designed to sit on a dorm room desk all day. It calls out to be carried everywhere one goes. Unlike most ultraportables, the 13.3″ widescreen form factor allows a mostly-full-sized keyboard to fit and a screen that’s not tiny. Anyone who has used an ASUS Eee PC would probably agree that a larger keyboard would make typing a whole lot easier.
Although in the 13.3″ form factor, the reduced thickness and the market Apple is targeting with the MacBook Air excuses them for the sacrifices they made to performance. The 1.6GHz or 1.8GHz Core 2 Duos aren’t exactly speed demons and the basic 80GB 4200RPM 1.8″ hard drive will also crimp performance (although a $1000 upgrade to a SSD is available). However, I seriously doubt the laptop will be used for much outside of web, documents and multimedia. The hardware will more than handle those tasks. Apple didn’t go to the Low Voltage CPUs, much less the Ultra-LV ones for the design, which means they wanted to provide more performance than most ultraportables.
The MacBook Air is one damn sexy machine. It’s hard to argue against such a tempting combination of design, performance and portability in a package that isn’t ridiculously priced. However, that`s not to say it’s perfect – far from it in fact.
The comparisons Steve Jobs made between the MacBook Air and the Sony TZ would made you think the MacBook Air had no sacrifices, but it does sacrifice a lot. Apple may have one of the best design teams in the computer and electronics industry, but they can’t defy the laws of physics or conjure up computer components that do not exist. In order to fit the thermal and power envelope, you won’t see any of Intel’s top line mobile processors.
Many ultraportables look toward 1.8″ mobile drives as opposed to the 2.5″ ones that are more common; however, those laptops are typically in the 12.1″ or smaller form factors. As far as I know, The MacBook Air is the first 13.3″ laptop to not be compatible with 2.5″ drives. The performance issue can be solved by opting for a SSD, but at the cost of well, a lot of money. There isn’t much real estate available in the Air’s chassis – the front half of it is taken up by the oddly shaped battery, leaving only the rear half to house all the rest of the hardware components.
Speaking of the battery, it is non-removable in the traditional sense. It doesn’t seem too difficult to actually disassemble, assuming you’ve got some tools handy, but it’s not something you’ll be doing out in the field when the built-in battery has run out of juice. For an ultraportable, battery life is paramount. If you’re on the road for a full day, many ultraportable users will want to carry around another battery to switch out, but you don’t even get that option with the MacBook Air. Apple is quoting 5 hours of ‘wireless productivity’ time with the built-in battery, but if that number was arrived at using the same algorithm for the regular MacBook’s ‘up to 6 hours’, you’ll probably be looking at 4 hours or less. If the battery life is enough for you, you have nothing to worry about – but for many, it’s a deal-killer.
One of the most commented issues with the MacBook Air is its selection of ports or lack thereof. It has 3. Count them, one, two, three. One audio out, one USB 2.0 and 1 micro-DVI. That’s it. No ethernet, no PCMCIA or ExpressCard, and no Firewire. Just about every ultraportable comes with at least 2 USB ports and an ethernet port at least. But if you want to connect to a land-line, be sure to plug in that USB-to-Ethernet adapter into the only USB port. Wireless 802.11n may serve as an adequate substitute for ethernet in many cases, but there are also plenty of times when wireless is either not available or not nearly reliable enough. Apple says wireless N is so fast and so available, but with current hardware, it’s not only slower than your standard 100mbps Ethernet, it’s also extremely rare. The positive spin on the lack of an Ethernet port has the effect of being a false claim. The lack of a PCMCIA or ExpressCard slot and no built in support for cellular wireless means you won’t be connecting to any cellular data network with your fancy new ultraportable laptop without taking up the only USB port.
Tackling the 13.3″ widescreen form factor into an ‘ultraportable’ offering was a design decision on Apple’s part, but while there is definitely a market for it, I believe they’ve missed the mark for many ultra-mobile users. Thickness is a factor in the buying decision, but once that’s within reason, footprint is much more important. Let’s take the Sony Vaio TZ Steve Jobs compared the MacBook Air to. While the Air is undoubtedly thinner, it also has a much larger footprint, to the tune of around 1/3 more desk or surface area. Let’s be honest here – the TZ isn’t exactly fat at 0.8″ to 1.17″ thick. I can understand the obsession with thin in mobile phones – you may easily slip that into your pants pocket, but are you planning on stuffing a 13.3″ form factor laptop into your pocket? I think not. Can you guess which is the TZ in the picture below? (Hint: It’s the smaller one.)
Form Over Function
Apple has always been a bit guilty of stressing form over function, but at least in the past, with the MacBook and MacBook Pro, the function was still there. This time, the form is more available than ever. The Air’s design is possibly the most impressive thing to come out of Apple yet, but their maniacal focus on thin, sleek, and skinny cost them a lot of function with the MacBook Air. For many, it will be enough, but I believe it will be passed over by people who realize that Apple’s focus with the Air just doesn’t satisfy their needs. Up until recently, Apple’s computers were something of a niche product, but the Air pushed itself into a market that is a bit too small. Perhaps with the next iteration Apple will address some of the challenges facing the MacBook Air.
Until then, I can only wait to see the sales numbers. Ironically enough, the publicity surrounding the MacBook Air has made me want a Sony TZ more than any other laptop now. Thanks. Mr. Jobs. for opening my eyes.