As the Macintosh guru in my group of friends and colleagues, the question on everyone's mind over the past week (other than "what happened to Apple's stock price!?") is "what do you think of the MacBook Air? - and should I buy one?" Rather than answer everyone separately, let me share my pre-1st hand knowledge/thoughts. Keep in mind, I've been called an Apple Fanboy enough times for me to think it might be true....
The MacBook Air is an amazing piece of machinery. It is ahead of its time on a lot of fronts. However, some details certainly are cause for concern.
- The processor. Intel is late on their delivery of their ultra-low power 45nm laptop chips. Clearly, the MacBook Air is the exact computer that these types of chips belong in. So Apple and Intel spun it as going out of their way to do something special. That something special was jimmy-ing a 65nm chip onto a board that was made for a 45nm one. The 45 nm chips will be arriving by mid-year and will likely be put in rev 2 of the MacBook Air. They will use less power per CPU cycle and that five hour battery life could easily turn into six - and with the reduced power consumption, they might be able to crank the processor speed up to and beyond 2 Ghz or maybe even fit in some more wireless options..
- Wireless. I am not talking about Wifi which the Air has in spades, I am talking about 3G/WiMAX here. It isn't built in. For the road warriors that this device is made for, having 3G Internet access is almost a prerequisite. Of course you can get a decidedly unsexy USB 3G "dongle", but Apple is going to eventually have to cave to pressure and start including these things in its products. Dell, HP and others have included this functionality for years! Apple could even partner with their iPhone buddies, AT&T on this and offer a seamless package. Or how about WiMAX with Intel? Intel is building WiMAX into its next round of CPUs. Again. Rev 2. More on the missing 3G here.
- As much as I hate to say it about Apple - or any company - Rev 1 parts are glitchy - especially the first ones off of the assembly line. I pre-ordered/picked up one of the first MacBook Pros out of the factory a few years ago. Over the course of that first year, nearly every part on it had to be replaced (Motherboard, HD, battery, etc). It is almost a whole new machine after all of the part swaps. That doesn't mean Apple wasn't quick and happy to replace everything - and it is still a solid machine: I am typing on it now as a matter of fact. However, it was a pain to lose it for a few days at a time and my early impressions of it shot my confidence in its quality. These MacBook Airs are going to be going to the people who don't really have that much patience and desire to send it back to Apple for a few days while they swap defective parts - especially at the price premiums.
- Option 1: 80GB Hard Drive. I've booted my MacBook Pro from an iPod before. It isn't fast - I wouldn't want to have to do this on a regular basis - especially on a brand new, expensive machine. Apple may have added a few tricks, but the bottom line is that the 80GB hard drive is still a 1.8 inch 4200 rpm iPod hard drive - which is not only significantly slower than 2.5 inch drives at 7200RPM but also more prone to damage from shock. (UPDATE: The 80GB hard drive model has been tested) Apparently there is not enough room in there for the 160GB iPod hard drive either - it isn't an option. That is tight! The next round of 1.8 inch drives will be faster, smaller and store more information. Me? I don't want to be using an iPod drive on my laptop - which leads to...
- Option 2: That $1000 64GB SSD drive. It is the top of the line, fastest 1.8 inch form factor solid state drive out there. But this is an area that is growing by leaps and bounds. Soon there will be 128GB (or 96GB - there is a 48GB SSD drive afterall) sized drives available for this thing. By midyear or earlier they should be hitting the same price points at the current 64GB SSDs. Meanwhile the 64GB drives will cost about half of what they do now. Those price points seem a lot more digestible to me.
- Docks. Right now there isn't much in the way of docking stations for this thing. With the exception of Kensington's USB dock not much comes close. This is definitely a problem in need of a solution. I'd like to see something that plugs into the MicroDVI port as well - and include a superdrive in a sexy package - these laptops aren't going to the aesthetically challenged.
- Overall speed. The specs of the MacBook Air pretty much line up with a last generation (Rev B) Mac Mini or 1st generation Rev A MacBooks. Some specs are lower, some are higher. So you'd expect a similar experience from this machine. For the high-end target market to which this is obviously aimed, that speed may not sit well.
- Expandability. Everyone has been talking about the lack of expandability of the MacBook Air - which overall I think is unfair, concessions had to be made. However, some things do stick out. RAM. It doesn't take up much space and I want as much as possible. Apple, make a 4 GB option! Street prices say this should be $300 more (Rev 2?) but Apple charges 2-5 times more than street costs. Realistically, pricing details this small won't matter to high end users. Battery. There have to be more options. I am sure someone will make a MagSafe adaptable external battery/crank/solar charger - but until then, once you use your 4-5 hours, you are SOL until an AC/DC outlet avails itself. Think ten hour overseas flights without power - believe me, they exist.
- Size. "Thin! thin! thin!" If Apple had its way, that is all you'd hear about. Well that isn't the only dimension that matters. The truth is that this is hardly an utraportable. It has roughly the same footprint as a MacBook - with the same wasted space around the edges of the screen and keyboard. As such, it won't fit in a standard purse like a Sony TZ and won't open as comfortably on a tight airplane ride as a true ultra-portable. Think about it as a MacBook sliced in half. Perhaps Apple will offer a 14 inch screen in Rev 2 that actually goes to the edges of the device or shrink the footprint to the edges of the screen/keyboard. Here is the MacBook Air compared to a full sized MacBook Pro.
- Price drops. As this is an Apple/early adopter device, the price will drop significantly for the next round. We saw this in the iPhone and we see it every time Apple astounds us with new products. It isn't just component costs - which will be significant - it's also the ramp up of production numbers which will bring prices way down. This could easily be late 2008 or 2009's MacBook.
But for a lot of people, these things - or anything else - don't matter..You know who I am talking about. The person who:
- saw the machine and said "I have to have it" without needing to hear any of the details
- has virtually unlimited discretionary spending money
- cares much less about the specs and more about aesthetics
- is spending most of his/her time on the web and email - who needs more of something to show off than a real workhorse.
Not to mention that these people will probably be the first ones to get the Rev 2's anyway.
Truthfully, there are a lot of legitimate reasons to snap up one of these beauties - and as they said in the earnings call last week, Apple is getting lots of orders for these things. But they obviously are only for the select few who can justify its unique characteristics.
For the rest of us, it might take some consideration, even if we lust for it like crazy at first glance.
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