The MacBook Air: First impressions, second thoughts

Some compared Apple's new laptop to the Cube; so did I, at first

Right after Apple Inc. announced its new ultralight, ultrathin laptop, the MacBook Air, last week, a colleague asked me what I thought.

"Great. For $1,799 you can get this year's form factor with yesteryear's processor. And no optical or firewire, either? And you can 'upgrade' your hard drive from 80GB to 64GB. Not impressed."

I wasn't so much angry as a little insulted by Apple's new creation. It must have been the buildup leading to this year's Macworld Expo, the first since the iPhone changed everything a year ago. I mean, how do you follow the iPhone? (OK, I can think of one: "We've redesigned the automobile: No gas! Just plug the iCar into your Mac's USB port.") As I read over the keynote speech transcript, I had the sinking feeling that the MacBook Air was -- and I don't say this lightly -- Apple's first misstep since the Cube.

For those too new to Apple to remember that hardware, in July 2000 Apple released a sleek-looking, cube-shaped computer, aptly named the Cube. It was a critical success since the Cube excelled in terms of balancing design, size and processing power; it was even one of the first Apple desktop machines to incorporate wireless networking. The award-winning Cube won praise for its whisper-quiet design and was even showcased in the Museum of Modern Art. It was also a commercial failure, largely because it was awkwardly priced. Within Apple's own hardware lineup, consumers could get a similarly equipped Power Mac that was more expandable and it was $200 cheaper than the price of a Cube. They could save even more with an iMac. Though not as powerful as the Cube or Power Macs, the iMac at the time came with a built-in monitor and most felt it was plenty fast enough, especially given the price difference. So it was that the Cube remained a product many admired, but never bought; Its value didn't hold up compared to Apple's other products and looks alone couldn't save it.


I mentally checked off the reasons I thought the MacBook Air was going to fail: at most, a 1.8-GHz Core 2 Duo processor -- "Oh good," I thought, "Apple's caught up to the year 2006!" There's an 80GB hard drive standard (running at a pokey 4,200 rpm), but you can upgrade to even less space -- a 64GB solid-state drive -- for $999. Fantastic! Less storage than an iPod. There were no Firewire or Ethernet ports, a built-in, nonremovable battery, 2GB of RAM soldered to the motherboard and an opening price of $1,799 that with upgrades flat out clears $3,000.

Reading the specs, I couldn't see why Apple would charge so much for so little.

So I watched the Macworld keynote video that Apple posted to its site. It was only then that the impact of the MacBook Air struck me, especially when Apple CEO Steve Jobs pulled it from an interoffice envelope. The difference between reading specs in a transcript and actually seeing the product -- even if only by video -- made me rethink my initial assumptions. This wasn't a new Cube, doomed to failure; it wasn't exactly an iPhone, either. But it did have its place in Apple's lineup.

I don't expect it to be a game changer like the iPhone, which is still reshaping the mobile phone industry here in the U.S. and abroad. From the design to the deals struck between Apple and AT&T, the iPhone disrupted some of the telecom industry's bad habits. Without that introduction, we'd all be using phones where the idea of user-friendliness means jamming as many screens and keypads as possible into one device -- and the manufacturers would continue to release phones crippled by their own service providers.

Thanks, iPhone.

Where the iPhone was revolutionary -- a 21st century Swiss Army Knife of technology -- the MacBook Air is not. After all, its main selling point is a remarkably thin profile -- 0.16-inch at its thinnest point, 0.76-inch at its thickest. The problem with this line of thinking is that every year laptop components become smaller and more powerful. Someone would eventually come up with a slim design built around similar specs, though it would lack Apple's flair and wouldn't arrive until sometime next year. Miniaturization is just part of the game. And since thin is the selling point here, Apple can only get away with that for so long before competitors catch up and try to cross the bar it has just set. If you go strictly on tech specs, the MacBook Air at its current price should be left sitting on a shelf somewhere, looking pretty but costing too much. Why buy one when a regular MacBook has a larger hard drive, more ports and connectivity, and an honest-to-goodness optical drive? Staring at specs alone, the price difference wouldn't make sense.

That puts us back to where we were in 2000 with the Cube.

One of the Cube's main issues was its place in the Apple product matrix. It was designed for those who wanted power in an impressive, silent package and was supposed to fall somewhere between the iMac and the Power Mac lines. But it was more pricey than either one. The MacBook Air, like the Cube before it, is being marketed on the amount of power that can be shoved into as small a space as possible. The Cube showed just how much Apple could shrink the then-current hardware; the MacBook Air mimics that formula by allowing Apple to show off what it can do compared to the competition in terms of size and power.

The MacBook Air is only 0.75 inches thick at the hinge.

But unlike the Cube, the MacBook Air actually has a logical place and price point in Apple's current lineup -- at least on the low end. Once would-be buyers get past what it doesn't have -- and focus on what it's worth -- the MacBook Air offers a tremendous value for those looking for something lightweight, full powered, but not necessarily full featured. You want a full-feature set, larger display and full power? Get a MacBook Pro for a few hundred bucks more. You say you'd rather have something with a full complement of ports and a built-in optical drive? Fine. Apple has a MacBook with your name on it, and you can save a few hundred dollars to boot. Truth be told, the MacBook Air costs a little more than most people may want to spend; I'd rather see it at $1,599. But it's this in-between category that could be most telling. It's quite possible Apple is scoping big business as a target market here. It may be priced just slightly out of consumer range, but its well in line for road warriors who like to go powerful and light.

Logic goes out the window when you actually see the MacBook Air. What a profile! Words can't describe it. For a laptop with a 13-in. screen, it's razor thin. Viewed from the front, the MacBook Air actually appears to be floating; from the side, it nearly disappears. Its curves and lines flow in very deliberate and very subtle arcs, the end result being a gorgeously thin laptop with no hard edges. It's as if the original clamshell iBook paired up with a MacBook Pro and this was their offspring: an ultrathin, ultramodern iBook/MacBook Pro hybrid, powered by an Intel Core 2 Duo.

Did I mention that it's thin? Sure, competitors will eventually catch up and make similarly thin laptops. But I've never seen a thinner, sleeker-looking laptop. It's jaw-dropping, conversation-starting thin. Form rarely overcomes function for most people, but in this case, it comes damn close. Even stripped of everything except the bare necessities, it still offers revolutionary advances such as Bonjour optical-drive sharing. Is the thinness really that drool-worthy: Yes, in this case, after taking some time to think about where the MacBook Air fits in, I'd say yes.

The MacBook Air is an amazingly well-designed laptop. It's impossibly thin and fully powered, though not completely full featured, and it even includes the until-now Pro-only backlit keyboard -- and my personal favorite, a built-in iSight.

So will I buy one?

At $1,799, I'll have to pass for now. But that won't stop me from lobbying work to buy one for me.

Meanwhile, technology will continue its march to miniaturization and certainly the MacBook Air's feature set will improve: solid-state drive prices will drop, speeds will improve, and Apple will likely lower the price -- some day.

Of course, once I actually lay hands on one of these when they hit Apple stores in a couple of weeks, all bets are off.

Michael DeAgonia is a computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macintoshes and working on them professionally since 1993. His tech-support background includes tenures at Computerworld, colleges, the biopharmaceutical industry, the graphics industry and Apple. Currently, he is working as a Macintosh administrator for a large media company.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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