Apple exec touts MacBook Air innovations

(Blogger's note: Someone asked about battery life; Update below....)

Having finally gotten my hands on a MacBook Air I can vouch for one thing: Thin is in.

This thing feels like a clipboard when you walk around with it closed up. Road warriors -- a group to which I don't actually belong -- will be happy. But will they be as happy with some of the changes Apple made to create what is essentially a flattened MacBook -- especially when they upgrade the $1,799 entry-level model I'm using with a faster chip and the high-tech hard drive?

A couple of days after the MacBook Air (MBA) arrived from Apple -- it's theirs, not mine, and after I use it for a couple of weeks, back to Cupertino it goes -- I had a chance to talk with Todd Benjamin. He's the director of portables marketing at Apple and he knows the MBA about as well as you know your own house. So as he talked up Apple's latest creation, I fired off a few questions about some of the compromises necessary when form and function clash.

Not surprisingly, Benjamin had a slew of answers ready.

I asked him, for example, about the MBA's target audience.

"MacBook Air is designed for people who value portability," Benjamin said. "We make a lot of portable computers, but this one is designed for someone who's going to take it from place to place all day long, [executives] going to meetings, students going from class to class, people who are going to compute from anywhere. It's radically thin."

Even so, he stressed that the MBA still offers a full-sized keyboard -- pretty much lifted right out of the black MacBook -- that's backlit like the one in the MacBook Pro. And he noted that the 13.3-in. screen is larger than those usually offered in the ultra-portable notebook range.

"Most people who are looking for a small computer are looking at an 11-inch screen and an undersized keyboard," Benjamin said. "We give you a full-size keyboard and full-size display and it weighs just three pounds. And along with the keyboard is a nice large trackpad [with which] we've implemented the multi-touch functions from the iPhone."

In other words, if you have an iPhone or have used one to flip through Web pages or photos, you'll do just fine with the oversized trackpad included with the MBA.

What about the hard drive? The stock 80GB drive, which spins at just 4,200 rpm, will slow the system down, right? Isn't the solid state drive (SSD) -- a $999 upgrade -- faster?

Not necessarily, according to Benjamin. The big advantage to SSDs is that there are no moving parts, which should translate into durability and longevity. "For people who really want to be portable, that's an attractive option. It's faster at certain kinds of things, like reading large chunks of data. Certain things will feel faster, but in general you'll find it's about the same [as the 80GB drive]. It balances out overall."

I'm all for durability, but I'm guessing a lot of people might decide to skip the $999 SSD for now, and keep the 16GB of storage they'd have to give up by going high-tech in search of an elusive speed boost.

From what I can tell, the biggest change is the loss of all those ports we've come to know and love. My own 17-inch MacBook Pro, for instance, has three USB ports, a Firewire 400 port, a Firewire 800 port, Ethernet, an ExpressCard/34 slot and DVI out. The MBA has a headphone jack -- analog, not digital -- one USB port and a micro-DVI port. I asked Benjamin why Apple opted for just one USB port instead of two. I mean, who plans on hooking this thing up to a monitor?

His response: Apple found that a lot of laptop users already have Bluetooth wireless peripherals such as mice and keyboards. Since the Air has Bluetooth built in, they're good to go. And wireless printing is available for anyone with an Apple Extreme WiFi base station. Just plug in the printer, configure the base station and it shows up wirelessly on your laptop. As for the micro-DVI port, Apple found "a fair number of users need to use a projector or want to hook up to a full-size display at home or office." The Air, which relies on the same shared graphics video hardware that's in the MacBook, comes with an adapter for DVI and VGA monitor connections and can support Apple's 23-in. display running at a resolution of 1920-by-1200 pixels.

He's got a point. I, in fact, do use a Bluetooth mouse and print wirelessly. The only thing I plug into my own laptop is an external drive for Time Machine backups. And I've never used the ExpressCard slot. (Serious road warriors take note: there are USB-based EVDO cards available, including newer ones that don't even dangle from the port; they're more like thumb drives, according to Benjamin. So if the loss of an ExpressCard slot is a concern, you have options.)

I also asked about battery life (and forgot to include Benjamin's comments earlier). He says to expect five hours, which is what Apple has said before about others of its portables. That's measured with WiFi on and maximum brightness set to half way. Given the screen's inherent brightness, that's not at all unreasonable -- unless you're outside in sunlight. Whether it'll last five hours remains to be seen.

As for how long it'll last in general, Benjamin offered no specifics except to say "several years," and he noted that the Air can be dropped off at any Apple Store for a same-day battery swap-in. Cost: $129. And don't forget to make your genius appointment first.

I'm still putting the MBA through its paces, so expect more detailed information next week as I take the opportunity to put this puppy to the test.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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