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.

Reader Comments

PXLated

February 1, 2008 12:29 AM

The easy answer for the lack of ethernet and no WiFi is an Airport Express. Works like a champ and is what I use when the hotel is only wired.

Steve Wildstrom

February 1, 2008 9:23 AM

@PXLated--It doesn't make sense to me to go after the thinnest and one of the lightest notebooks on the market and then have the schlep around a wireless router. This seems to defeat the whole purpose of carrying a super-mobile computer in the first place.

doog

February 1, 2008 11:08 AM

Well, Dlink makes a very nice travel router that is smaller than my palm. If I really needed it, I could use that (though I think that the ethernet adapter is a better choice.)

But, seriously - is a usb extension cable *really* that much of a burden? Can't you just leave it connected to the end of the USB wireless dongle? Had Apple included a wireless radio, it would have either been GSM or EVDO only, so you'd be limited to only two broadband company choices.

In the end, carrying an Air, a small travel router or the ethernet dongle or the cellular modem, and even the external DVD drive takes up less space and is lighter than a Macbook, a Macbook Pro, etc. If light is what you want, this is a great, great choice (and far better than the flimsy plastic Dell Latitude X200 I used to carry around.)

Martin

February 1, 2008 12:49 PM

I agree with you Stephen. I find this to be an attractive machine despite it's limitations save for one, the lack of built-in wireless broadband. While Wi-Fi might be thought of as readily available it more often than not is unavailable where you want it. In some ways, as more and more people have caught on to securing their Wi-Fi, it is less available than it was a couple of years ago.

If this had 3G or EvDo built-in I would definitely buy but it's a deal breaker for me as well.

Ale

February 1, 2008 1:49 PM

MBA comes with 1.6 or 1.8 GHz Core 2 Duo. THere is no 1.4 GHz option.

Steve Wildstrom

February 1, 2008 2:03 PM

@ale--My mistake; that should be 1.6 GHz, not 1.4. That's what I get for trusting my memory when writing on an airplane with no Internet access.

Robert

February 1, 2008 4:26 PM

Given the machine's dimensions, I wonder if an express card slot or built in Broadband was even possible.

If I needed an express card slot, I think I'd be in the market for a bigger laptop. Say, a ThinkPad or a MacBook Pro.

Just my two cents.

Pat

February 1, 2008 4:52 PM

Is there not a way to see the CPU speed from inside the OS? I don't know much about macs so just currious. Also why didn't they just put the USB port farther out of the case? My guess is there will be a whole line of Mac Book Air USB accessories specifically for fitting that USB port. And they will cost twice as much as any other brands. Some times in my opinion, function over form might make Apple's products better.

Roger Desilets

February 1, 2008 6:09 PM

Thanks for the honest review, I'm seriously thinking of converting to the apple religion once I seen the unix based OS, then the mac mini, then I bought a iPhone, fell in love and now they've got the macbook air. I have no problem with a non-user battery replacement, I usually buy a new notebook before I need a new battery, the cramped usb and/or lack of NIC doesn't bother me, I carry all sorts of "attachments" for my iPhone and current laptop. Only thing that worries me is the lack of some other port better or diffent and/or faster than usb for some other flexability in manufacturing, like USB 3.0 (when it comes) how will be upgrade... NOT. Other than that hesitation I will probably buy the model .2 or version 1.1 Thanks again.

Steve Wildstrom

February 1, 2008 6:52 PM

@Pat, @Robert--Yes, About This Mac would have told me. Didn't think to do that, either. The issue is not putting the USB further out but the size of the opening around all three of the ports. Real estate is unbelievably scarce on the Air. I don't think there would have been room for an Express Card slot, though they might have been able to squeeze in a mini-PCI radio. My point it that it would have been better to make the Air a little bit bigger to include vital features.

Bryan Steiger

February 1, 2008 7:07 PM

Re: wireless broadband- MacBook Air has bluetooth, and you can use your cell phone as a modem if it's bluetooth equipped. I have a Verizon blackberry, and when I'm away from WiFi, I connect directly to the blackberry using bluetooth and off I go. If you're the type of person who's using a laptop to write articles on an airplane, you're probably *also* the type of person who's carrying a smartphone. Give it a try. Good article, though.

tim

February 2, 2008 4:36 AM

you cant just plug in your iphone and use that to connect to the wifi?

Richard Fisher

February 2, 2008 6:33 AM

Great point Bryan.

The problem with including built in wireless broadband as I see it is its restrictiveness. One commenter pointed out the 2 differing networks in the US but how would you go about implementing it globally? Apple sells its products all over the world remember.

Even if you went with 3G via a removable sim card I think you'd still have problems. At least in Australia each carrier that offers wireless broadband implements it differently and requires their own software to connect. I think connecting to your smart phone via bluetooth is a much better solution.

I'm not sure where the rumor regarding built in wireless began but I don't see it as at all feasible.

Richard Fisher

February 2, 2008 6:47 AM

Further Reflections: the software required would of course be hardware drivers for the USB or Express Card and not for connection to the network. Currently a GSM SIM will work in any GSM phone therefore it would be totally possible to do. Note to self, think before posting comments in future.

Steve Wildstrom

February 2, 2008 8:29 AM

@Bryan Steiger--That's a reasonable solution when it's available. But not all phones support use as wireless broadband modems--the iPhone, in particular, does not--and not all that do can be used that way with Bluetooth.

Steve Wildstrom

February 2, 2008 8:32 AM

@Richard Fisher--The way this is usually done in notebooks is that the broadband radio goes in a mini-PCI slot. This allows you to switch between CDMA and GSM technology by putting the appropriate radio in the slot. For GSM, the SIM card goes in a separate slot, usually with fairly easy external access. Finding room for these slots and providing access for them would be a challenge given the design of the Air, but one that I think is necessary to meet.

joan

February 2, 2008 9:38 AM

Is it just me, or the fact that there is only ONE usb port bothers me considerably? I have not had to deal with this since the tangerine clamshell ibooks, and no firewire, just like the clamshell, is just like going back 9 years in Expandability, trading it for 2 Lb? I know is a product with a market of its own, but 2 pounds and .3 inches make up for the lack of usability this tradeoffs represent? and we all agree that if you where too remove the optical drive from a macbook you could slim-it down .4 pounds. and the bigger the drive the more it weights, I mean isn't this thing just an optical illusion of "THINK THIN".

Dan

February 2, 2008 11:38 AM

I havnt tried an Air, but how is a solid state drive slower than a disk drive?

paul merrill

February 2, 2008 11:54 AM

Spot on.

If I was traveling via a Bombardier CRJ200, I'd probably have the money for one of my very own, as well.

Steve Wildstrom

February 2, 2008 12:23 PM

@Richard Fisher--The way this is usually done in notebooks is that the broadband radio goes in a mini-PCI slot. This allows you to switch between CDMA and GSM technology by putting the appropriate radio in the slot. For GSM, the SIM card goes in a separate slot, usually with fairly easy external access. Finding room for these slots and providing access for them would be a challenge given the design of the Air, but one that I think is necessary to meet.

Steve Wildstrom

February 2, 2008 12:25 PM

@Dan--The Air I was using did not have an SSD--I'm not sure they're even available yet. The 1.35-in. hard drives used in the Air, the same design used in the iPod Classic, are much slower than the standard 2.5" drives used in most laptops.

Steve Wildstrom

February 2, 2008 12:28 PM

@Paul Merrill--No luxury in that RJ. It was just a United Express flight between Palm Springs and Denver.

Alex Wolfe

February 2, 2008 2:31 PM

Thanks for sharing Stephen. I was curious what the overall experience on these new laptops would be. Sounds like it's pretty positive. I'm a designer/developer so this little invention would not suffice for all of my needs, however as with all technology I'll bet that changes really soon. I'm even pondering getting just to take work example out when meeting with clients etc. What I think is really amazing is how the cd is literally being phased out. Your article points out that we are obviously not totally there yet, but it's starting to happen pretty quickly. With wi-fi and downloads becoming the norm these days, it'll be interesting to see how long it takes before cd's are the 3.5' floppies.

Don

February 2, 2008 3:26 PM

"HEADPHONES FOR THE EYES"

I am a Powerbook and iPhone user and while I enjoy these products, use
them daily and find them indispensable, I also believe the notebook
and cell phone form factors to be dead ends.

They are at a dead end for only one reason. You can't reduce the
device's size because they are at the limit of the size of a human
hand plus the resolution of the human eye.

The trend in phone form factor shrinking while maintaining adequate
computer power has struck this brick wall.

The viability of the iPod depends completely on the existence of high
quality earphones, bringing high quality sound very close to the
eardrum and thus small size, weight and power drain, not to mention
privacy.

It seems unbelievably obvious to me that the next breakthrough will be
"headphones for the eyes". Existing head mounted displays are too
crude and/or ugly to make this possible, but this need not remain
true. Technology exists to shrink such displays to clip behind
existing prescription glasses or sunglasses, essentially eliminating
objections of style, convenience. function and quality.

Should Apple be really daring they'd build a machine using the MacBook
Air motherboard, add a port for a radio card in anticipation of WiMax
and other 4G formats, and strip it entirely of display and keyboard.

You then have a wearable computer running full OS X, with a 1280 x
1200 high res monocular or binocular display inherently readable in
bright daylight. Input would be roll-up cloth full size keyboard and
pocketable Bluetooth mullti-touch trackpads and, perhaps eventually,
one-handed chording keying devices.

It would soon be evident that this display is far more useable as a
camera viewfinder than anything available to date. Film crew members
could each have a hands-free live camera frame to work from without
need of so much direction.

Cameras could become optical peripherals and offload needlessly
redundant displays, storage and CPU power, making them cheaper and
higher quality. Think of an iSight camera on steriods with Nikon or
Canon components and a full 35mm sensor able to be operated at the top
of a 20 foot pole. How about an iSight camera clipped to the same
glasses. This makes the personal digital universe cheaper overall at
the same time. Captured stills and video go directly to the editing application and main user storage.

And finally we can settle on the full OS being available anywhere,
anytime, hands-free with much less constrained screen real-estate. We
can eliminate the waste involved in using a dozen interfaces on a
dozen devices and concentrate on the OS virtually everyone has already
invested thousands of hours mastering. Let's not underestimate this one factor alone.

Nothing really new is needed to accomplish this save convincing
existing head mounted display manufacturers to upgrade quality and
appearance to mainstream acceptance as "headphones for the eyes". Then
bring the cost down to equal or better what computer makers now pay
for a laptop screen.

If you agree with this analysis and stategy, please forward the idea
to others and create demand. The consumer is nowhere near as
conservative as the computer industry seem to think. Look at the
rapid adoption of the GUI over the command line. Apple achieved this
in 1984 by educating the public of its compelling advantages. Head
mounted displays, at high quality, could be the same magnitude of
"bolt from the blue" if similar education is implemented while seeming
to be mere ads.

It would be a lot of fun to call it the "MacBook Face" and tie into
Facebook. Or perhaps call it the "iTop" showing the progression from
desktop to laptop to palmtop to eye top.

We are so close to a "wearable" that it is painful waiting for
something this obvious.

I hope Apple author this because I feel others would make it too ugly
to catch on.

If Steve and Apple are who I think they are, they'll read this and
holler, "Where's the leak?!!

There is no leak. This is purely "obnosis", a coined word meaning
"observing the obvious".

auramac

February 2, 2008 4:56 PM

Yesterday's news: Botox.

Tomorrow- brain implants and/or contact lenses that, along with speech recognition technology and the blink of an eye takes computing to a whole new level...

I swear I experienced something similar back in the 60's, though...

Chris Lewis

February 3, 2008 12:04 AM

Back in the days when iBooks did not have Airport cards as standard - anyone else remember that dark period? - I used a USB-to-ethernet dongle without hitch. The USB cable would be long enough to fit into the Air's cramped port. It would be as pretty as a blue 10/100 snake from a built-in ethernet port.

Antony Watts

February 3, 2008 5:14 AM

Its about time the Telcos started adopting computers, not computer adopting Telcos. They need to wake up the market and realise that people want open 3G internet access, pay as you go, at low cost.

John

February 3, 2008 6:49 AM

Pretty cool item. But it's just a PC for doing work or in the case of those who love to show of, just for showing off. Most of those with laptops in public don't actually do anything productive that they couldn't do by spending a dollar/pound in a web cafe.

Mac User

February 3, 2008 8:46 AM

It's a repeating pattern with Apple:

"Design dictates functionality"

and it is incredibly stupid and annoying!!

Steve, wake up and listen to the customers!

There's nothing bad with a good design, but
the functionality is the critical aspect of
a product, and should always come first.

The user should have the choice of multiple
input methods, e.g. keyboard, touch-screen,
touch-pad, track-point.

If I look at an IBM - err - Lenovo tablet
it's the complete opposite to a MacBook Air:

- loaded with interfaces
- multiple input interfaces
- extremely rugged keyboard
- extremely rugged body

I wish I could run OS X on a Lenovo tablet!

Dan Mosqueda

February 3, 2008 8:59 AM

As I sit here working on my Dell Latitude D830 with a 2.0 GHZ Core Duo CPU, 2 GB RAM, Vista, NVIDIA Quadro NVS 140M, 802.11n WLAN mini-card (built-in), 120 GB drive @ 7200 rpm.

Would I give it up for a clearly inferior, in terms of performance and capability? Yes, in a heart beat.

Why? This brand new laptop is very frustrating. It's probably more Vista than Dell, but Dell is at fault too. It requires a lot of manual manipulation to go back and forth between wireless and ethernet access. Nothing automatic about it. It's heavy, it runs so hot - ouch. I really hate it.

I haven't touched the DVD drive in weeks. When I need internet access on the go, I rely on my iPhone.

As for the extras req'd to make the MBA more practical, I think they're small enough to fit in my Oakley bag with 2 or three MBAs vs this behemoth.

Now, if they'd get them in the stores.

Craig

February 3, 2008 9:33 AM

Steve,

I have been using my MacBook Air for three days now and absolutely agree with your comments. I will be traveling with an EVDO modem connected by an USB extension cord. I'm not happy about the separate parts and disappointed that Apple did not build one in, but am willing to make the trade off for the better keyboard and larger screen when compared to other sub-notebook laptops that have cellular models or slots built in.

I have been thrilled with the touchpad. I first thought of it as a toy and now find web browsing with it an absolute joy.

egg

February 3, 2008 12:12 PM

We would all still be using Floppy Disks,
if it were not for Apple.

Fanbois LULz

February 3, 2008 1:22 PM

Why would I purchase the clearly overpriced and inferior macbook air when I could get an IdeaPad with superior specs under IBM and run Ubuntu 7.10.

MacBookPro Revision

February 3, 2008 3:03 PM

I like the direction Apple is going with the design factor; I'm hoping some of the Air form factor will carry over to the MacBook Pro.

Mac User

February 3, 2008 3:04 PM

I forgot to mention:

Apple's decision to make the battery not user
replaceable escapes all logic -- it's another
good example of "Design dictates functionality"

Why would a customer buy such a crippled
device, not being able to quickly remove the
battery to shut it down (cell phone), or to
replace the battery with a fully-charged one?

What would you do if you're using your brand-
new MacBook Air in an airplane - no pun intended - and you run out of battery?

Such stupid design decisions by Apple limit
the usability of their devices.

I really hope that the MacBook Air will be a
complete disaster and that somebody at Apple
will start waking up..

Good Morning Mr. Jobs!

In the mean-time I will look at ways to run
OS X as a virtual machine on my lenovo notebook. I heared rumors that it's possible.

harry

February 3, 2008 3:44 PM

Irritating to read complainers and whiners.

if you dont like the MacBook Air - dont buy it.
Its not as if Apple is short of customers.

If you want OSX on a Dell, you are nuts.
Its NOT going to happen.
Why would anyone ant to buy a Dell? Poor quality and lousy OS.

You dont build the best OS on the planet and then give it to Dell.

If you want to plug into ethernet, buy the damn usb connector for $25 - its VERY small.
Or is that a 'deal breaker'?

If you need full-time everywhere web access, get an iPhone.

Sloppy article, whining comments.

pawel

February 3, 2008 10:55 PM

I understand that its intimdating to see an apple user with a cutting edge computer. Because there are lots of people who buy clones instead to save money, critics are common. These critics are usually pretencious, outdated, and truley unexpeirenced with the true applications of these computers. Too bad if youre confined to a box and can't understand how apple is and always going to be the best personal computer. Have all the sour grapes you want, the clones will never have anything a real computer users needs.

Joseph

February 3, 2008 11:23 PM

@Harry - people talk about the good and bad of every product to let the companies know what the consumers want. Without these valuable comments they won't be able to maximize consumer exposure and acceptance; everything they make would be guesswork at best. Surely big companies like Apple do their market research to get to know what most people want before developing a new product. Of course they can't please everyone, that's just impossible.

Nothing wrong with talking about the good points and the bad points of a product.

Mac User

February 4, 2008 12:59 AM

@Joseph: exactly!

Just to clarify, I love the Mac OS X!

I think Apple did an amazing and outstanding
job of putting BSD UNIX on a consumer product,
and at the same time make it manageable through GUIs without the need of a real super user (root). I think they should win a prize for that.

Mac OS X makes the Apple computers far superior to any Windoze PC - no doubt.

I personally don't run Windows, just UNIX/LINUX, that's why I wrote I'll look into
running OS X on my IBM tablet (which runs LINUX). ;-)

mdb

February 4, 2008 10:41 AM

It's like owning a Porsche. Pay three times as much for two less seats, a little trunk, and astronomical maintenence and insurance costs. Because its cool.

Gus

February 4, 2008 11:34 AM

The "ugly" of the MBA is its price. It should be sub-$1000 notebook. Apple's pitting it against its own MacBook Pros at that price range. Any rational customer would get the slightly heavier and thicker, feature-rich MBP than the MBA.

Geoff

February 4, 2008 11:37 AM

You can boot from a Remote Drive disc if it is the disc that comes with your Air.

IT guy

February 4, 2008 12:46 PM

I would never allow this product in our company, it looks like the average user would snap this thing in half in about 2 seconds...

BTW... Any pc can run mac os it's just a Unix varent...

Steve Wildstrom

February 4, 2008 12:57 PM

@Geoff--That will help with an emergency recovery (assuming your Air is capable of connecting with the remote drive. But it won't let you load an OS in a virtual machine.

I don't miss an optical in the Air for anything routine. But it is essential to have one available when you need it for a variety of tasks. Any old USB drive will do.

Steve Wildstrom

February 4, 2008 12:57 PM

@Geoff--That will help with an emergency recovery (assuming your Air is capable of connecting with the remote drive. But it won't let you load an OS in a virtual machine.

I don't miss an optical in the Air for anything routine. But it is essential to have one available when you need it for a variety of tasks. Any old USB drive will do.

Steve Wildstrom

February 4, 2008 1:03 PM

@IT Guy. The Air seems to be a lot sturdier than it looks, certainly sturdier than the ultra-light Sonys and Toshibas that I have used. Despite the thinness, it appears to be a tough notebook, though only time will tell.

Your second point is simply wrong. Any x86 PC can run FreeBSD, on which OS X is based. But OS X checks for an Apple equipment signature before it will install. There are hacks that will get OS X installed on generic equipment, but they offer limited functionality and violate the terms of the OS X license.

MM

February 9, 2008 9:41 AM

Bottom line is that Macbook Air isn't target to everybody. Apple focus on a market that trades off some functionality for state-of-the-art design, high portability, status, brand image and awereness, appeal, etc. I agree it's like having a Porsche... If you need functionality or Pro features, get a regular Macbook or a Pro instead.

Barbara S.

March 1, 2008 10:16 PM

I don't know why you say it is difficult to use an external modem with the air. I use my Verizon UM150 card which says from Qualcom on the back. It is small, light and goes easily into the usb port of the air. I just came back from a trip and it was perfect across the country. I never bother with Wifi as this is $60/month unlimited with broadband access.

dude

April 9, 2008 11:53 AM

wireless=without wires. you guys already forgot about it? what you want on this box is a wired broadband connection.

Unhappy with mba

August 31, 2008 9:44 AM

My bigeest dissappointment with mba is its built in isight cam. Extremely poor resolution and very very bad quality images.

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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