Review: MacBook Air

The envelope had been lying there on the minimalist desk all throughout Jobs’ keynote. The rumours had been clear: Apple is going to launch a subnotebook, a sort of MacBook Mini. Despite the rumours, the collective gasp of amazement was clearly audible when Jobs pulled the MacBook Air out of the envelope. I have to admit, even I was all wowed. Consequently, you can imagine I was delighted when Apple NL agreed to loan me a review unit as soon as they had the MacBook Air in stock. Read on for the review.

Apart from the ‘wow’ feeling when I first saw the MacBook Air, I immediately had my doubts too. The device was light, thin, good looking, yes – but also appeared to be awfully limited, with barely any input/output options, no optical drive, and no upgradability of any mentionable kind. Even though these might not exactly be features one would look for in a notebook of the MacBook Air type, it did worry me, especially seeing the fairly hefty price tag.

In any case, I now have the MacBook Air, I have been testing it for a while now, so I can now see if my reservations had any validity.

They sent me the following configuration:

  • MacBook Air
  • 1.6Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo processor
  • 4200rpm 80GB hard drive
  • 13.3″ TFT at 1280×800
  • Intel GMA x3100 graphics chip with 144MB of shared RAM
  • iSight video camera

They also included the USB-to-ethernet adapter and the external USB SuperDrive.

The look

The MacBook Air comes in black packaging, and when you first pick up the box you actually wonder if they put bricks in there – the box is heavy. In fact, the empty box of the Air is much heavier than the Air itself, which only illustrates how light this notebook actually is. After unboxing the whole thing, and holding the Air in my hands for the first time, I have to admit that my usual cynical self was nowhere to be found – I was absolutely baffled by the thinness and lightness of the MacBook Air. I kept turning it around in my hands, weighing it, and seeing how many fingers I needed to pick it up. Do you remember Apple using the “Where did the computer go?” tagline for the iMac G5? Trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Simply put, the MacBook Air is a normal MacBook, made out of aluminium, squashed to a third of its thickness. This is a completely different approach to ultra-portable notebooks than many other manufacturers have taken.

I subjected the MacBook Air to a ‘wow’ test. This is a simple test that you can perform on just about any item; just show it to your friends and family, and see how many times people go ‘wow!’ or something similar. I always got a whole lot of ‘wows’ when people saw my Cube, but that was nothing compared to the amount of ‘wows’ the Air received. Boys, girls, young, old: they were all drawn towards the Air, they wanted to hold it, pet it, and play with it. This machine has a seriously high ‘wow-factor’.

The build quality seems excellent, but despite what other reviewers have said, this device does in fact flex quite easily. I could get various surfaces and corners to bend fairly easily by applying minimal amounts of pressure. In other words, I am not so sure about its sturdiness as many other reviewers and bloggers have been. Since I am not rich, and oh, also because this MacBook Air is actually not mine, I do not have the means to actually test its durability properly.

Looks are, of course, heavily subjective, but personally, I really like the looks of the device. It has more curved surfaces than Apple’s other notebooks, giving it a distinctive look, even from a distance. Its exterior surface is completely smooth, except for the collapsable ‘slot bay’ (and a few other obvious things like air vents and the rubber feet). As soon as you open the device, you will notice the black keys of the keyboard, the large touchpad, and the apparent lack of speakers.

The keyboard

The Air’s full-size keyboard is a gift – many devices this small and light tend to have crammed, unusable keyboards, so having a full-sized one is a relief. The keyboard has one much-touted feature that needs quite some work: the keyboard lighting. In all honesty, it is driving me nuts. Let me explain. Without the keyboard lighting, the keyboard is unreadable in lower-light conditions (which basically means the second the sun goes down, I prefer few lights in my house – much cozier that way), so you really do need the keyboard lighting.

The normal way in which Macs handle keyboard lighting is by using the ambient light sensor (my PowerBook G4 does that too); the lower the light conditions, the brighter the illumination. Sadly, this somehow never works quite the way I want it to, so I just put the lighting to maximum manually using the dedicated function keys. All good, right?

No. The Air insists on turning the lighting off after a short period of inactivity – watch a scene on TV, and the illumination turns off. The problem? It does not automatically turn on again. In other words, you need to turn it on manually every time. Trust me – this gets real old, real fast. There is a slider in Keyboard Preferences that lets you set the illumination to never turn itself off – but this option does not work. It will still turn itself off.

On a keyboard that actually requires this lighting in order to be used properly, these sorts of bugs or errors are unforgivable. I hope a software fix is all it takes to fix this.

This does not mean, however, that the keyboard does not look good. Trust me: the black keys, with the white illuminated symbols on it, and a white glow surrounding each key – it looks nothing short of stunning. I hope Apple fixes the bug soon.

The speaker

The speaker actually deserves a special note. Yes, you read that right, that is the singular form. That in and of itself is not a problem at all; seeing this device’s intended use cases, there is no need for stereo speakers, in my opinion. The speaker’s quality is of course abysmal, but again, I have no problems with that. This device is not intended for playing music out of its own speaker – nor is any other laptop for that matter.

So, what is the problem then? Well, the location of the speaker. It is located underneath the keyboard (slick!), to the right. Meaning, all the sounds you hear come from the right. This may seem like a trivial thing, but trust me, this is really, really annoying. I certainly would have preferred the mono speaker to be centered.

The trackpad

The MacBook Air is the first Apple notebook which incorporates the multitouch technology used in Apple’s iPod Touch and iPhone. While on those two devices it actually makes sense to have such features, I am a bit more skeptical about this technology on my touchpad.

First of all, Apple made the touchpad big. As in, really big. This is a good thing, as it gives you more room to play with. The bad thing is that they made the trackpad button significantly narrower than on other notebooks, and this poses problems for accuracy – Fitts’ Law, anyone? It is really easy to miss the button now during some serious touchpad action.

The big thing is of course the multitouch gestures that are implemented in the new trackpad. You can ‘pinch’ to zoom photos/images, you can rotate photos/images, you can ‘swipe’ through lists, and zoom the desktop. You can activate and deactivate these gestures in the Keyboard & Mouse preferences panel, where videos are shown that explain how the actions work – nicely done.

To me, the multitouch feels like a fun but rather useless gimmick. It has not been implemented in a wide-enough fashion for it to be of any real use, and the places where it is implemented, it simply lacks refinement. For instance, you can pinch and zoom in Safari, but it only zooms the text, not the images or the webpage itself. The desktop zoom does zoom everything, but of course just makes it all look blurry. In all honesty, I have never seen any use in desktop zooming without proper resolution independence anyway.

The ports (or lack thereof)

Three ports: mini-DVI, USB 2.0, audio-out. No, FireWire, no ethernet, no second USB port. Apple has concluded that the world is going WiFi anyway, so let’s discard of all those ugly holes in the side of your laptop. The three ports are located in a collapsable ‘slot bay’, which has its ports all cozily snuggled next to each other, which means you need really small plugs in order to actually use the ports.

The MacBook Air also lacks an internal optical drive. While this surely helps in keeping the Air light, thin, and beautiful, it also severely limits the device. This means you are always dependent on other computers or peripheral devices if you want something off a CD or DVD.

Apple has two ways to get around this problem: the first solution is optical drive sharing. Any Windows box or Mac can share its optical drive with the MacBook Air, which then becomes accessible on the Air itself, provided they are on the same network (of course). There are limitations; you cannot watch DVDs or listen to CDs, and you cannot rip them either. This feature also allows you to remotely install Mac OS X on the Air.

The second solution Apple came up with is a really, really slick external Superdrive, which comes in at USD 99/EUR 89. The device uses the USB 2.0 plug, and works just fine, and looks really good while doing it. Sadly, the drive only works with the Air, so forget using it on your other Macs (I would have bought this drive immediately to ‘upgrade’ my PowerBook from its combodrive to a superdrive if it were not for that fact). The drive works with just about any format, including dual-layer discs.

The lack of an ethernet port also raised some eyebrows. This issue can be solved by the optional USB-to-ethernet adaptor (USD 29/EUR 29), but that means yet another device to carry along – which kind of defeats the purpose of the ultra-portable.

In conclusion, I am guessing whoever thought of the brilliant idea to leave out all the ports and the optical drive never really left the Apple campus or the local Starbucks, since out in the real world, freely accessible WiFi is uncommon. Sure, my university has WiFi, but that is only for students and employees. Cafeteria with WiFi are still a rarity in The Netherlands (even in Amsterdam), and WiFi hotspots out in the wild? You have more chance of spotting a dodo in Antarctica than finding one of those around here. And this is The Netherlands we are talking about – a country with very high internet and broadband penetration, and one of the richest countries in the world with a very high population density. What about the rest of the world? Anything else but the western world? Rural Germany, France, or United States?

While I would love to see a world where wireless internet is ubiquitous, we still have a very, very, very long way to go before we ever reach that utopia. In other words, the MacBook Air caters to a world that does not exist yet; a world that the Air will most likely not even see in its lifetime. For a device that is meant to be taken on the road, it simply lacks the connectivity options to deal with actually being on the road.

The setup

Settig up the Air is a breeze, just like any other Macintosh, thanks to the excellent migration assistant that ships with Mac OS X. Just boot up your ‘old’ and new Mac, load up the migration assistant, connect them via a FireWire cable, and off you go… Wait, the Air lacks a FireWire port, right? How would this work?

Enter, unsurprisingly, WiFi. Yes, you can now use the migration assistant over WiFi, and contrary to the experiences of other reviewers out there, it worked just mighty fine for me. The Air had some trouble finding my PowerBook, but once they found each other, it just took a lot of waiting to transfer the 8GB of data that I needed transferred (just 8GB? I am such a lousy geek). I in fact do not know how long it actually took, seeing I needed to leave for work about 3 hours into the process. When I got home three hours later, it was all done, and my Air looked exactly like my PowerBook.

The performance

In all honesty, I do not think I am the right person to be telling you about performance, since I do not place my computers under a lot of stress. I do not play games, do not do any heavy compiling, and I do not edit video like Eugenia does all the time. I do use Photoshop, but since even my 1.25Ghz PowerBook G4 with 2GB of RAM serves me just fine on the Photoshop front, you can see how I would not be hindered in any way by the Air’s supposed lack of power compared to the ordinary MacBook.

The Air performs just fine in my book, and I feel little in the way of slowdown for my usage patterns (email, IM, browsing, university work) compared to the ordinary MacBook I tested in November last year.

The conclusion

The MacBook Air is an excellent piece of engineering by Intel and Apple, and both companies deserve praise for making such a slim, beautiful, and sexy laptop. If it are looks you are looking for, look no further than the MacBook Air – I find it the best-looking notebook money can buy.

It does have a serious set of limitations, but those limitations are based largely on personal usage patterns and expectations of what a laptop of the Air type needs to be able to do. My personal opinion is that since the Air is supposed to be used ‘on the go’, it better be equipped for being ‘on the go’ too, and in that area, the Air simply does not deliver. It works fine for an urban, western lifestyle (did I actually use those three words in a single sentence? May god striketh me down), going from work/university to Starbucks, back to home. But leave that comforting triangle, and the MacBook Air kind of starts acting like a fish that cannot swim. However, that opinion is based on my personal expectations of an ultra-portable notebook; seeing there is no set definition of this niche of the market, it is hard to generalise that opinion to the rest of you.

Then there is the issue of money. The MBA costs USD 1799/EUR 1699, which is a lot of money for a laptop that actually does less than the 1099 ordinary MacBook – and let’s face it, the normal MacBook is no heavyweight either. It is completely up to you if you are willing to spend that much more money on a laptop that gives you fewer features, better looks, and more portability.

An eery feelings creeps up my spine. Are we looking at the laptop equivalent of the PowerMac Cube? Yes we are, with one major difference: Apple is on a winning streak. The Cube was launched in a pre-OS X, pre-iPod world, and those two things alone seriously hindered the Cube. The Air does not have those disadvantages, and as such, I am sure it will be a hit for Apple.

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