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

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

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Also gone but not forgotten are several ports common to today's Macs. The MacBook Air includes only a mag-safe power-adapter port, a single USB port, a micro Digital Video Interface (DVI) port for using external displays and a headphone jack. (Their design is innovative, particularly the flip-down panel for the USB and DVI ports and the headphones.)

FireWire? Gone. Ethernet? Ditto.

Given the common use of FireWire in Macs over the past several years -- and the use of the FireWire port for Target Disk Mode, which allows a Mac's internal hard drive to be mounted as an external drive on another Mac and used by the Mac OS X Migration Assistant to transfer settings and files to a new Mac -- it's particularly surprising that Apple elected to remove this port. But more ports mean a bigger logic board, so in this case, form won out over function.

The MacBook Air does sport an updated version of the Migration Assistant that can transfer files and settings via a wireless network, though performance may fall short of what is offered via FireWire when using Macs with slower wireless cards or an older wireless network.

MacBook Air

The thin and light design requires some trade-offs. Image courtesy of Apple.

Another missing port is Ethernet. Out of the box, the MacBook Air is a Wi-Fi-only machine. While this may be fine where Wi-Fi is common, it does present issues in environments where wireless networking is frowned upon. Often, physical network ports can be used to isolate specific network segments and limit or provide easy access to resources. Yes, this can theoretically be done with Wi-Fi, but doing so requires a more complex network design. As with the optical drive, a USB adapter is available as an add-on product if Ethernet is needed. That adapter is $29.

Another difference that could rankle the faithful is that the MacBook Air's battery is built into the computer. This space-saving design prevents users from carrying multiple batteries and simply swapping in a fresh one when needed.

It also puts users in the same position as iPod and iPhone owners: As the battery ages and begins to lose its ability to hold a charge, there's no simple way to replace it. Given that users typically hold onto their computer investments for several years, this could pose a concern. Apple will make replacement batteries available for $129, which is not far off the cost of a replacement battery for recent Mac portables.

Apple estimates that the battery will power a MacBook Air for five hours. Although such estimates are often optimistic, if true, that should help offset the inability to swap batteries on the road.

Innovations galore

One of the least obvious innovations in the new laptop -- and the one virtually everyone will use -- is the track pad, which integrates many of the multi-touch technologies found in the iPhone. You can use three-fingered motions (called swipes) to flick backwards and forwards through Web browser pages, photos in iPhoto and in other ways throughout the system.

The track pad also supports "spreading" and "pinching" motions to zoom in and out on items such as photos or Web pages, and it even works with the Cover Flow view in the Finder. Likewise, a new rotate feature makes rotating photos and similar content easy. The number of tasks and finger combinations can be confusing, so the MacBook Air's track-pad preferences offer video tutorials directly in System Preferences; you can activate only the multi-touch techniques you need.

Yet another innovation in the MacBook Air is the use of 1.8-in. hard drives (2.5 in. is common in laptops) and the option for a solid-state drive (SSD). Apple is no stranger to this hardware, which has been used in iPods for more than five years now. SSDs are a major change for laptops, offering better performance on less power than traditional hard drives.

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