When Apple introduced the MacBook Air is created quite a stir, a laptop that is incredibly thin without culling things you want like a fast CPU, big screen and good keyboard. A lot of people are saying that it is too big to be an ultra portable, but in my opinion the Air manages to be compact, without cutting out the things you really need.
I’ll start off by saying the Air looks great in it’s aluminium shell. Since buying my MacBook Pro laptops without a metal case feel a bit cheap, a feeling that the Air definitely doesn’t share. The unit is very solid, with a high-quality feel to it. You can toss it into a bag without fear that it will bend 😛
And it’s so slim! It slips into a leather notepad case with ease.
Like all Mac laptops, the Air has a smooth bottom. Most laptops these days (particularly the Dell’s I have owned) have awfully bumpy cases, with large rubber feet, vents that stick out like cheese graters, and batteries that aren’t flush with the case. Four small smooth rubber feet keep the Air secure on a desk, and a thin air vent right up the back evacuates the little heat produced.
The screen is a thing of beauty. The 13.3” display has a 1280×800 resolution, and has LED backlighting for a brighter, more even spread of light, and a glossy coating to make everything more vibrant. I’m a fan of these screens (I didn’t get it on the MBP because there was a month wait, doh!), and the one on the Air is fabulous. Even in a bright, naturally lit coffee shop I have the display on one or two spots from maximum.
The larger display makes working on the Air a much more pleasant experience. Many critics say that using such a “large” display makes the unit too big, but I’ve always been of the belief that if the unit isn’t comfortable to use, then it hasn’t really worked that well. You never get that sense with the Air.
Along the same lines is the keyboard, which is large, and has excellent feel. Instead of using shrunken keys the MacBook Air uses the same sort of keyboard as the MacBook and the new Apple desktop keyboards, which looks weird at first, but is actually amazing to type on. It’s even backlit!
The combiniation of the screen and keyboard mean you never want for your regular laptop, they are so good. I mean just compare the keyboard to the Apple BT Keyboard, they are identical!
I love the addition of media controls on the keyboard. The F7, F8 and F9 keys serve as previous, play/pause and next buttons, a feature I find very handy when working on documents while listening to music. All the function keys are labelled with their functions (backlight adjustment, dashboard, expose, keyboard backlight, media controls and volume) which is far less confusing, particularly to new users.
On the left side is the MagSafe connector, which follows the line of the side and is angled downwards. On my MacBook Pro it works fine (it’s saved my MBP from flying off a desk at least 3 times), but it is a PITA on the Air. It is so easy to knock it out, and to put it back in you have to lift the machine off the desk. I don’t think the magnet is strong enough on the Air.
On the other side is the micro-DVI, USB and headphone ports, which flip down on a small door. The problem with this arrangement is the USB and headphone ports are slightly recessed, making fatter USB plugs (and particularly USB memory sticks) and headphones with slightly bulky plugs unable to connect. It’s a flaw that is unavoidable with the design of the bottom case. A small USB extension cable would be a good idea (I’ve got a 4in long one that does the trick nicely), same goes for headphones.
On the front right corner is the LED indicator and Apple remote window.
Up the top of the display is the integrated iSight camera, flanked by an ambient light sensor (left) and microphone (right). This is great news for frequent travellers who use programs like Skype to keep in touch with colleagues and loved ones. There is no microphone jack so the integrated one will have to suffice.
And here is where we start seeing stuff go missing. There are only three ports on the Air aside from the power connector: the micro-DVI connector, USB2.0 port and headphone jack. That’s it. Need more USB ports? Prepare to bring a hub along. Needed to connect to a wired broadband port in a hotel room? Buy the optional USB network adaptor and lose your only USB port. Want to throw together a quick video in iMovie from your DV Camera? No go since the Firewire ports gone. Received a CD from a conference? I hope you’ve bought the optional USB Superdrive, otherwise you’ll have to ask your mate to put it onto a USB drive for you. One more USB port would have been nice
Fortunately Apple include the adaptor to use the DVI port (both DVI and VGA in the box), but the USB Ethernet adaptor and the Superdrive are optional extras, even on the top spec machine! Come on Apple, that Ethernet costs nothing to make, throw it in like the display adapters.
The thing this machine has in its favour is the powerhouse under the bonnet. Unlike its competitors who are using low power, slower, more expensive chips, the Air uses a shrunken-version of the full-blown Core 2 Duo. Admittedly it’s only either a 1.6GHz or a 1.8GHz, but it does pack some punch! Since the Air is mainly going to be used for email, documents and web surfing, the CPU doesn’t have any problems keeping up. Added to that is the 2GB of RAM, and you’re laughing.
The HDD is slightly disappointing, maxing out at 80GB. They are sticking 160GB HDD’s in the iPod now, it’s such a shame they couldn’t fit one in the Air! The model I have though is the more-cramped 64GB SSD. This $1000 option ($1000!!) aims to make the Air faster, more rugged and have better battery life, but honestly I can’t see the justification. It’s such a huge amount of money in a machine that is only going to see office work.
On the speed front, booting up the 1.8Ghz SSD Air takes around 28 seconds from off to desktop (ready to run apps). In use the unit feels very snappy, and mated to the 2GBs of RAM it doesn’t bog down either.
When I first turned the Air on I thought it must have had a flat battery, because there was no sound whatsoever when I pressed the button. Then the Apple logo showed up, played its tone, then booted into OS X. It is amazing how quiet this machine is considering it’s packing a Core 2 Duo chip into a case as thick as a pencil. The SSD would be playing a part in the quietness of my review machine, as a normal HDD will make noise when in use, but even so it’s definitely not going to disturb the people around you in a class or a meeting.
The Air doesn’t get particularly hot either, only warm. My MacBook Pro gets alarmingly hot at times, but the Air never gets hot enough to be uncomfortable to use on a lap.
Since all my documents and files are on my MacBook Pro, I didn’t use the Air extensively but home, but if you were you wouldn’t have any complaints. When you’re at home you can hook up a hub with all your USB peripherals and a monitor if you need a bigger screen (I use a 22” display with my MBP). I was surprised to find the Air could drive my 22” LCD at its native 1680×1050 res without any trouble, since other laptops I’ve tried with integrated graphics won’t. Very impressed by that.
I used it mainly out and about, at university and the coffee shop, and the battery life was excellent. With the display on 2-3 bars from the top, and connected to HSDPA via my N95, I consistently got around 4hrs of use. I decided to run a test combining my BatteryGeek 130Wh external battery and the Air, just to see how long it would last. I set it on the desk with the display on 3 stops from max (still very bright), WiFi and Bluetooth on (WiFi connected) and a DivX file playing repeatedly. Starting the test at 7:15am before I went to work, it lasted on the BatteryGeek until 3:30pm. From then on it had to make do under its own power. From 3:31pm, it lasted until 7:12pm, 3hrs 41mins later. I think that is fantastic!
This machine obviously isn’t aimed at satisfying the needs of all mobile warriors. Some may consider it to large for their needs, and be prepared to sacrifice screen size for it, or they will want a larger hard drive. Others will want built-in WWAN, there isn’t a way to satisfy everyone. I think it is perfect for a student like me, who needs to carry books to university everyday, and want a thin notebook with a good keyboard and screen so I can remain productive in class, without sacrifice. For business people who want something light to slip into their briefcase, the Air could likely serve as their primary machine. I’ll be posting a short comparison with the new Fujisu Lifebook P8010 shortly, since it’s similar in price, and weights the same 1.3kg as the Air.
In short, I love it, and I don’t want to send it back!!
The MacBook Air can be purchase from Apple online or from authorised resellers
MSRP: AU$2499, US$1799 (AU$4338/US$1398 as tested with 1.8Ghz CPU/64GB SSD)
What I Like: Fantastic design, uncompromising screen and keyboard, very solid, light, excellent performance.
What Needs Improvement: SSD is very pricey, single USB port.