First look: On cloud nine with Apple's MacBook Air

It's 'a truly innovative product,' but going lightweight means trade-offs

SAN FRANCISCO -- With various rumor sites predicting a subnotebook Macintosh for weeks -- and months in some cases -- it didn't come as a surprise when Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the company's new super-svelte laptop at his Macworld keynote on Tuesday.

That didn't stop the oohs and aahs the MacBook Air got from spectators on the Macworld show floor.

You can't argue that the MacBook Air is a superthin laptop or with Apple's claims that it is the thinnest laptop on the planet. It measures just 0.16 in. at one side and 0.76 in. at the other, but the pictures floating around the Web don't do justice to how thin and light Apple has made this machine. Even Apple's current line of superthin USB and Bluetooth keyboards look fat by comparison, and lifting a MacBook Air with one hand makes you realize that it weighs about as much as a small stack of paper plates.

View more Macworld stories

View more news from the Macworld Expo. Apple also included a mercury- and arsenic-free LED backlit display. The display packs a lot of brightness and clarity that really has to be seen to believed -- it may be one of the best laptop displays ever created. Its immediate full brightness is a nice feature, though the real value comes in the power savings when compared with traditional laptop displays.

The display's environmentally friendly design addresses criticism that Apple has received from Greenpeace International and other environmental groups over the past year. Indeed, no Apple-made circuit boards in the MacBook Air contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or rely on brominated surfaces. The result: a laptop that's thin, light, bright and green.

MacBook Air

The super-svelte MacBook Air, courtesy of Apple.

In his speech, Jobs argued that Apple avoided some of the common concerns that go with ultraportable notebooks. The MacBook Air has a full-size keyboard that supports ambient light sensors and backlighting, the same 13.3-in. screen size used in the MacBook line, and low power to reduce heat and conserve juice.

But it does rely on slower processor options than the current generation of Apple laptops. In fact, it sports chips similar in speed to the original MacBook Pro configuration introduced two years ago.

But MacBook Air buyers aren't likely looking for speed alone, and it still packs more power than many other subnotebooks by using processors custom-designed for Apple by Intel Corp. Those chips -- 1.6 GHz in stock configuration, 1.83 GHz on the top end -- are fine for the most common tasks that users wanting an ultraportable Mac are likely to need.

What's included, what's not

A slower processor is not the only trade-off needed for the MacBook Air's ultralight design. Apple also ditched the optical drive. In that respect, the MacBook Air follows in the tradition of the earlier Apple subnotebooks -- the Duo line from the early 1990s and the PowerBook 2400 from later in that decade. Neither contained an internal drive other than the hard drive. At the time, that meant a missing floppy drive.

The MacBook Air provides two options for accessing CDs and DVDs: a $99 external USB SuperDrive that can read and write discs of all common formats, and a new technology called Remote Disk that allows the laptop to remotely access the optical drive of a Mac or PC using a wireless connection. One obvious concern: What happens if you need to boot from an alternate drive -- for instance, when troubleshooting a hard drive or performing a clean install of Mac OS X? Apple's solution was to engineer the new laptop to support network booting using Remote Disk.

This solution -- elegant in its simplicity for users -- seems to be a natural outgrowth of the NetBoot technology that has allowed Macs to boot from a disk image hosted on a server for close to a decade. The use of the technology in the consumer space is impressive. NetInstall and related network-boot deployment technologies should also be supported with the MacBook Air, a big change from earlier Macs that required wired Ethernet for any form of network booting.

Although Remote Disk is an effective alternate boot solution, it does require access to another computer and network. This could be problematic when on the road, and it could limit the effectiveness of the MacBook Air as a user's lone computer. The optional USB SuperDrive (also engineered to be ultraportable and powered completely via USB) does provide an alternative. But Apple should consider providing the drive as a standard part of the MacBook Air package rather than requiring users to buy it separately.

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