Further Reflections on the MacBook Air
Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on January 31, 2008
I often have to review products after using them for a much shorter time than I would like and the was definitely true for my column on the MacBook Air. I’ve now had time to get to know the Air a lot better, including taking it on a transcontinental trip. But if nothing, my original conclusions about it have strengthened with experience: What seemed good feels even better and the defects feel even more deficient.
The Good: As long as you are not hobbled by its limitations, the Air is a joy to use. I find that I type more comfortably and accurately on the rather flat keyboard of the air than I do on the more sculptured keyboard of the MacBook Pro. The screen is gorgeous with the LED backlighting providing very even illumination from corner to corner.
The ambient light sensing, which I once thought of as a sort of MacBook gimmick is extremely effective at keeping the screen at a comfortable level of brightness under just about any lighting condition except direct outdoor sunshine. Automatic dimming under low light conditions is not only easier on your eyes, but conserves battery life.
The thin body and low hinge mounting of the Air keeps the vertical dimension, critical for airplane use, low. I was even able to use it on my tray table in the cramped confines of a Bombardier CRJ200 regional jet.
Although the processor runs at a relatively slow 1.4 gHz, it is a full-power Intel Core 2 Duo and has all the speed you’ll need on a notebook of this class. The hard drive is also significantly slower than the 2.5-in. drives used on most notebooks, but again, you’re not going to be using the Air for video editing or software development.
The Bad. The more I used the air, the more I regretted Apple’s decision not to offer a built-in wireless broadband option. This is a go anywhere machine and it wants connect anywhere wireless. Wi-Fi is great when it’s available, but it wasn’t, for example, in my room at the Marriott Desert Springs Resort in Palm Desert, Calif., during the DEMO 08 conference. I used the wired Ethernet with my backup ThinkPad X61.
Apple didn’t make it easy to devise a wireless alternative. The Air lacks the MacBook Pro’s Express Card slot, so that option is out. AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon all offer USB modems for their wireless data services, but I have yet to find one that fits in the Air’s very cramped USB port without use of an extension cord, which makes for a very clumsy arrangement, especially when you want to connect on the fly. If there were one thing I could change on the Air, this would be it. As it stands, the lack of a wireless broadband option is probably a dealbreaker for me.
In and of itself, the lack of a built-in CD/DVD drive isn’t much of a drawback. You can always use an external drive. I left the Apple external Superdrive (which, incidentally works only with the Air because of its high power draw) on my desk, but used the ThinkPad’s clunkier read-only drive for movies on the plane without trouble. This lack will become even less objectionable once Apple fleshes out the catalog of iTunes movie rentals—there’s not much there yet.
Apple’s Remote Drive software solution that lets the Air share a drive on another Mac or PC only sort of works. It can’t be used for DVD video or Audio CD music nor can you boot from a Remote Drive disc, which rules out using it to install and operating system under Boot Camp, Parallels, or VMware Fusion. That pretty much limits it to use for loading software, and even here a wired Ethernet connection would be useful for speed. I loaded Microsoft Office 2008 using Remote Drive and it was painfully slow over Wi-Fi.
For now, at least, I didn’t find the lack of a replaceable battery to be a big problem, since the four hours or so of running time I got was adequate. The questions will come once that battery gets some miles on it and its ability to hold a charge begins its inevitable decline. Heavy users will likely end up spending $135 for a battery replacement after a year or so.
The Ugly. You have to be kidding. There is no ugly.