Hands-on: The MacBook Air beyond the hype

Apple Air has a slim and sexy form factor, but we found some function there too

By now, you've read all about the wildly hyped MacBook Air, the slenderized version of Apple's MacBook line that looks like it's been run over by a steamroller.

I had a chance to bang on one of these for awhile, and I'm here to report that Mac-centric road warriors used to lugging around a 5-lb. MacBook or a 6.8-lb. MacBook Pro — count me in the latter camp — will find the 3-lb. Air to be just what they've been waiting for.

This ultralight (if not exactly ultrasmall) laptop comes with a heaping helping of Mac OS X, a full-size keyboard, a 13.3-in. backlit LCD and even an optional state-of-the-art solid-state drive.

What more could you want?

Well, how about more than one USB port, a FireWire port or two, an ExpressCard slot and an optical drive? The fact that the Air offers only a single USB port, a micro-DVI port and a headphone jack means that if you tend to hook up a lot of peripherals, you're going to have to rethink how you use your laptop.

Is smaller better?

For a lot of people, smaller and lighter is better when it comes to their laptops. I am not one of those people. I have a late-model 17-in. MacBook Pro with a high-res screen that's still perfect for me. Since I rarely travel, about the farthest my laptop goes is from my desk to the couch, with an occasional foray to the screen porch or the office. (I keep secretly hoping Apple will offer up a 20-in. laptop. Silly me.)

Having made my bias clear, I can say that the model Apple sent over for this review is probably one of the coolest-looking laptops to appear in years — both in terms of size and hipness. "Cute" is the word that keeps popping up when friends and co-workers give it the once-over. This is really a laptop where form has overtaken function. It's so slim that no pictures do it justice, so if you're at all interested in buying one, get down to an Apple Store and eyeball it yourself. And be sure to pick it up so you can judge how light it feels.

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The MacBook Air next to the MacBook Pro.

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In case you missed the details when Apple CEO Steve Jobs pulled the Air out of an envelope at Macworld on Jan. 15, here are the basics: It's 0.16 in. thin at the front, and 0.76 in. thick at the back where the screen hinges are located. It weighs 3 lb., has those three ports hidden behind a small door, offers a built-in iSight webcam and uses a revamped multitouch trackpad.

Some impressive basics

The unit I played with was the entry-level Air, which is now selling for $1,799. That's the model with a customized 1.6-GHz Core 2 Duo chip, a standard 80GB 1.8-in. hard drive that spins at just 4,200 rpm, and 2GB of RAM (which is soldered to the logic board — no upgrades possible). Given that my trusty MacBook Pro sports a 2.4-GHz processor, a 160GB drive running at 7,200 rpm, 4GB of RAM, and that luscious 17-in. LCD screen, you'd think the Air would be something of a comedown.

Surprisingly, it's not. The Air feels just about as snappy as my MacBook Pro in day-to-day use doing the kinds of things most users will be doing: surfing the Web, firing off e-mails, text editing and light graphics work. Sure, the 13-in. screen with its 1280-by-800-pixel resolution feels a bit constrained. But it's a gorgeous display that looks sharper and brighter on the Air than it does on the regular MacBook. No doubt, the new LED backlighting — which the MacBook doesn't have — helps. The switch to LED also eliminates the use of mercury and arsenic in the display, which should make the green-computing crowd happy.

Like its MacBook brother, the Air uses shared video graphics, meaning it pulls video RAM from the 2GB that comes with laptop. In this case, the X3100 chip set grabs 144MB of RAM, and — just as with the MacBook — the setup works fine for casual use. You're not likely to be editing high-def video in Final Cut Pro on the Air, and if you are, you're using the wrong laptop. But for videos, graphics, photos and the fluid motion used throughout Mac OS X, the lack of discrete video RAM is a nonissue. The Air will also drive an external monitor (including Apple's 23-in. Cinema Display) at a resolution of 1920-by-1200 pixels.

The battery is supposedly good for about five hours with Wi-Fi in use and the screen brightness set at 50%, according to Apple. (In my own testing, under the same parameters surfing the Web, doing text editing and listening to iTunes radio, I got just over four hours.) The battery, by the way, is inaccessible, meaning no swapping out batteries on long flights. When the battery finally needs replacing, you'll need to drop off your Air at the nearest Apple Store for a same-day swap-in. Cost: $129.

What's missing? A lot. There's no optical drive, though you can buy an external SuperDrive that reads and burns both CDs and DVDs for $99. (It weighs about 11 ounces and works only with the Air.) There's no Ethernet port, so if you want to connect to the office network using Ethernet, you have to buy a USB-to-Ethernet adapter. Cha-ching! Another $29.

In fact, there are several ways to spend more money on the Air. You can opt for a slightly faster processor (1.8 GHz) for $300, or go whole hog and get the 64GB solid-state drive. In this case, less is more: You pay $999 more for the SSD drive but wind up with 16GB less storage space.

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The MacBook Air is just 0.16-in. thick.

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Is the SSD worth the expense? Not if you think you're getting a much faster drive. According to Apple officials, the biggest advantage to the SSD hardware is that it has no moving parts, which should translate into durability and longevity. While some functions, like reading large chunks of data, might be faster than the stock 80GB drive, others won't be. The end result: The perceived speed of the Air will be about the same, regardless of which drive you get.

Totally tricked out, an upgraded Air could cost you north of $3,000. My advice? Don't do it. That's like putting a V8 in a Volkswagen Beetle. The $1,799 model should suit 95% of its target market just fine.

Booting up

It certainly suited me, and I'm not even in the target audience. Booting up the Air from start-up chime to desktop took longer than the 40 seconds or so my MacBook Pro needs — it took the Air 70 seconds — but that's to be expected given the slower chip and the slower hard drive. Waking it up from sleep mode took about 2 seconds, and the LED backlighting means the screen hit full brightness as soon as it was awake (non-LED screens need a few minutes to warm up to achieve full brightness).

Commonly used programs like Safari, Mail and iPhoto all launched in two or three bounces of the application icon in the dock, and on relaunch opened in about one bounce. (Mac OS X's ability to cache application code makes relaunching much faster.) Using them to surf, check e-mail and manipulate photos was pretty much on par with using them on my MacBook Pro.

An older version of Photoshop CS took 36 seconds to fully open, which isn't bad, given that it's an older version that runs under emulation in Mac OS X using Rosetta. Next, I opened a 5.5MB photo and applied the stained-glass filter to it. That process took 50 seconds on the Air. For comparison, I did the same thing on my MacBook Pro. Opening Photoshop took 33 seconds, only 3 seconds less than on the Air, but applying the same filter to the same photo took much less time: 32 seconds.

In other words, everything worked fine — it just took a little longer on the Air.

I also had no problems using the Air's full-size keyboard, which is pretty much lifted right out of the black MacBook. The chiclet keys on the Air felt more solid than I remember them feeling on the first MacBook I tested last year. There's no side-to-side "wiggle." Apple also smartly added LED backlighting for the keys for use in dim light.

I will say that the black keys, to me, detract from the professional look of the Air. Given that the laptop is aluminum, I'd prefer to see the keys match. And the space between them allows the LED backlighting to leak out around the base of the keys when you're in a darkened room. It's not annoying, but it is noticeable.

Give it a swipe

I do like the new trackpad, which is larger even than the one on my MacBook Pro and one of several groundbreaking features on the Air. It works much as the multitouch screen does on Apple's popular iPhone. You can "pinch" your fingers together or spread them apart on the trackpad while in iPhoto and resize photos. In Safari, those motions change the font size on Web pages. With three fingers you can "swipe" through photos or Web pages. And gestures allow you to resize Finder windows when using Coverflow to flip through files.

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The Air's new multitouch functions.

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I quickly found myself using three fingers to swipe through Web pages. Swipe left to go back to the previous page. Swipe right to move forward. It's a simple and easy way to maneuver through pages and a feature I'd expect to show up in the next iteration of Apple's pro laptop lineup. (And no, don't look for a software retrofit for older laptops — Apple officials said the multitouch features require new hardware as well as software. Bummer.)

Another innovation offered in the Air is Remote Disk, which allows the laptop to access another computer's optical drive wirelessly. This is important because the Air doesn't have its own optical drive and you're likely somewhere along the way to need an optical drive to install software — or even to reinstall the operating system. You simply install software on the second computer that allows the Air to "see" the drive. Then you can install software, copy files or do a full system restore just as if the drive were built into the Air. (The software works on Macs and Windows PCs.)

I tried it out and found that moving files between the Air and my MacBook Pro worked just as advertised, though it took a little longer than if I were simply moving files around using a FireWire cable and Apple's target disk mode.

Once I had installed the CD/DVD-sharing software on my MacBook Pro, I found another option under "Sharing" in System Preferences that allowed the Air to share the DVD drive. I popped in a DVD, gave permission to share the disk, and voila — the disc icon showed up on Air desktop, just as if it had a built-in drive.

Next, I tried the Migration Assistant, the Apple utility built into Mac OS X to migrate files between a user's computers. I typed in my password, told it I wanted to transfer files from another Mac, launched Migration Assistant on the second computer, told it I wanted to migrate files to another Mac, typed in a password, and I was ready to transfer files. It was as easy as pairing a wireless keyboard or mouse. Pretty nifty.

File sharing wirelessly from another computer's hard drive also worked well. I copied a 155MB file from my MacBook Pro to the Air in just under a minute and a half (1:28 to be exact). The fact that both laptops use the faster 802.11n Wi-Fi standard no doubt helps, and Apple recommends that if you're transferring files, you should keep the computers close together to ensure maximum transfer rates.

While those options should go a long way toward assuaging worries about the Air's lack of an optical drive, personally, I'd still opt for the $99 external optical drive, just in case you need to access a CD or DVD while on the road. That way, you don't have to have another computer for optical disk access, and you don't have to jump back and forth between two computers simply to install files from a CD or DVD. The external drive weighs only 11 ounces, so it's not going to add substantial weight to your laptop bag.

I'd also consider getting the $29 Ethernet-to-USB adapter. Wireless networks may be growing in popularity, but they're not everywhere yet. The USB adapter Apple sent with its review hardware worked as billed, allowing me to connect to my network at work with no problem.

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The MacBook Air's three ports: headphone, USB and micro-DVI.

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I do have a little concern about the long-term durability of the little door that swings down from the right side of the Air to expose the laptop's ports. Little doors break. This one doesn't feel particularly flimsy, but the USB port felt tight whenever I connected or disconnected the Ethernet adapter, leaving me worried that I was just one tug away from breaking the port door.

Conclusions

For the users the Air is aimed at — execs who lug around laptops all day long, road warriors or students who cart their computer from classroom to classroom — Apple's latest creation seems to be a solid choice. It does enough of what it needs to do to be a viable option, and for those who need more ports for peripherals, Apple has provided workarounds that work. But it's the form, more than the function, that will sell this laptop.

The more time I spent with the Air, the more I came to see it as analogous to having a second car in your driveway. A MacBook or MacBook Pro represents the family hauler, basically doing everything you need for it to do with all the space and horsepower you could want. The Air is more like the weekend two-seater convertible that you enjoy driving even more, but only for specific reasons. You may not always be able to use it like you would the other vehicle, but when you're headed out of town on a road trip, it's the one you almost always want to take with you.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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