Apple finally has entered the subnotebook market, introducing a lightweight laptop meant to please road warriors. But, typical of Apple, the company took a different approach from its competitors. The result is a beautiful, amazingly thin computer, but one whose unusual trade-offs may turn off some frequent travelers.
The new aluminum-clad MacBook Air, which I’ve been testing for several days, is billed as the world’s thinnest notebook computer. Its thickest point measures just three-quarters of an inch, which is slimmer than the thinnest point on some other subnotebooks. And it employs some innovative software features, such as fingertip gestures for its touchpad that are similar to those on Apple’s iPhone.
Apple refused to make the most common compromise computer makers employ to create their littlest laptops. Other subnotebooks — a category generally defined as weighing three pounds or less — have screens of just 10 to 12 inches and compressed keyboards. The three-pound MacBook Air, by contrast, features a 13.3-inch display and a full-size keyboard.
It’s impossible to convey in words just how pleasing and surprising this computer feels in the hand. It’s so svelte when closed that it’s a real shock to discover the big screen and keyboard inside.
But there’s a price for this laptop’s daring design: Apple had to give up some features road warriors consider standard in a subnotebook, and certain of these omissions are radical. Chief among them is the lack of a removable battery. So, while the MacBook Air will be a perfect choice for some travelers, I can’t recommend it for all. It really depends on your style of working on the road and what features you value most.
The MacBook Air, which will be available next week, costs $1,800 with an 80-gigabyte hard drive and a generous two gigabytes of memory. A second model, with a faster, cutting-edge, 64-gigabyte, solid-state drive and a slightly speedier processor, costs a whopping $3,100. The $1,800 price for the main model isn’t unusual in subnotebooks, which can easily top $2,000, although some competitors cost less.
In my tests, the MacBook Air’s screen and keyboard were a pleasure to use. The machine felt speedy, even with multiple programs running. And the laptop has the same Leopard operating system, superior built-in software, and paucity of viruses and spyware that I believe generally give the Mac an edge. I was able to install and run Windows XP using the third-party Parallels software.
But then there are those trade-offs. The sealed-in battery means you can’t carry a spare in case you run out of juice, and you have to bring it to a dealer when you need a new one. There’s no built-in DVD drive. The thin case can’t accommodate a larger internal hard disk. And the machine omits many common ports and connectors.
The MacBook Air
There’s no Ethernet jack for wired broadband Internet connections and no dedicated slot for the most common types of external cellphone modems. That means that out of the box, the MacBook Air has only one way to get on the Internet — through its fast, built-in Wi-Fi connection. If you’re out of Wi-Fi range, you’re out of luck, unless you buy an optional, $30 add-on Ethernet connector or a cellphone modem that connects via USB.
In fact, the MacBook Air has only three connectors: a headphone jack, a single USB port and a port for connecting an external monitor.
That single USB port is a problem, because so many peripherals use USB. You can buy a tiny, cheap USB hub that adds three more ports, but that’s yet another item to carry.
The lack of a DVD drive is partly solved by some clever software Apple included that lets you “borrow” the DVD drive on any other Mac or Windows PC on your network, so you can transfer files or install new software from a CD or DVD. This worked fine in my tests, in which I installed several new programs from CDs on remote computers, but it requires disabling third-party firewalls on Windows machines. It also doesn’t work for installing Windows on your Mac, for watching DVDs, or for playing or importing music. For those tasks, you need an external DVD drive. Apple sells one for $99.
In my standard battery test, where I disable all power-saving features, set the screen brightness at maximum, turn on the Wi-Fi and play an endless loop of music, the MacBook Air’s battery lasted 3 hours, 24 minutes. That means you could likely get 4.5 hours in a normal work pattern, almost the five hours Apple claims.
But the MacBook Air has another downside: its screen height. Because of the larger screen, the lid stands higher when opened than on most other subnotebooks. So it isn’t as usable as some competitors when the seat in front of you in coach on a plane is reclined.
If you value thinness, and a large screen and keyboard in a subnotebook, and don’t watch DVDs on planes or require spare batteries, the MacBook Air might be just the ticket. But if you rely on spare batteries, expect the usual array of ports, or like to play DVDs on planes, this isn’t the computer to buy.