Understanding the Ultra Portable

Before we get anywhere in this review, we have to have the talk. A friend of mine likes to call this talk a DTR, or Defining the Relationship. Usually with her it refers to something romantic but with the MacBook Air there are many similarities. It needs to be very clear what your expectations are of it and what sort of relationship you plan on having with the notebook in order to avoid something unpleasant.


Are you going home with it?

When Apple announced the MacBook Air, it was met with harsh criticism from many; it was almost as if the Air was being treated as the next MacBook Pro instead of an ultra portable Mac.

Let me give you an example. Back in college I needed a notebook to take to class with me that I could take notes on and email/browse with during class (not all lectures were as captivating as I’d like). Lugging even a 5-pound notebook around to class was a pain, I wanted something whose weight and form factor resembled its name; I wanted a notebook, something very thin, very light and just as easy as a pad of paper to carry around with me.

This wasn’t going to be my ultimate work machine, I wasn’t going to be running Photoshop on it, I just needed it to do some basic writing and web browsing. In many senses all I needed was a notebook-sized iPhone.

Since writing and basic internet access were the main duties of this machine, things like hard disk space, having an internal optical drive and absolute performance weren’t really concerns; running Notepad or TextEdit just doesn’t require much. At the same time, having a good keyboard, a killer form factor and keeping weight down were all more important than with a regular notebook.

Historically the ultra portable has been first and foremost, a very light notebook. The first ultra portables were around 3 lbs, but over the years we’ve seen entries into the space weigh in at less than 2 lbs. If you look at the weight of a textbook and remember how much you hated lugging that around in school, you’ll understand how even a 1 pound difference in notebook weight can make a big difference.

The weight side of an ultra portable is only one facet of importance, form factor is the other. This thing has to feel small in your hands when carrying it around, it has to feel just as natural and painless as carrying a paper notebook around.

The problem is that in the quest for small size and ultimate lightness, a number of sacrifices are made. Performance, keyboard, screen size/resolution, expansion, durability, battery life and price are all areas that you have to make sacrifices in if you want an ultra portable notebook.

You give up performance because the cooling and power requirements of a high speed CPU just aren’t possible to satisfy given the form factor and weight requirements of an ultra portable. There’s no budget for a large battery and heatsinks need to be on the order of millimeters in thickness. Ultra Low Voltage CPUs are generally preferred here and it’s only recently that we’ve seen ultra portables really get faster than 1GHz.

The screen size of a notebook actually determines the keyboard layout and size. In order to keep power consumption down, smaller screens with cramped resolutions are the norm in the ultra portable space. With a smaller screen, the keyboard that the screen covers when closed is similarly tiny. These two limitations generally run in contrary to one of the main uses for having an ultra portable: writing a lot becomes difficult. I owned a Sony X505 imported from Japan and it got me through my last year of college, but the keyboard was terrible to type on. It had a Japanese key layout so some of the key labels were in the “wrong” places. I had to rely on memory of a US keyboard layout to figure out which one to hit which is more difficult than you’d think on a keyboard with very small keys. Writing normal sentences wasn’t a problem, it’s the punctuation that really threw me off. My hands always had to do this strange ballet/gymnastics move in order to punctuate anything, which eventually drove me away from the notebook.

Expansion is an obvious problem; most of the ultra portables I’ve owned over the years didn’t have integrated optical drives, which made installing applications or just reading a disc handed to me while on the road frustratingly impossible.

In order to keep things light, ultra portables generally have tiny batteries and are built out of very lightweight materials - resulting in poor battery life and a hardly durable feel. The durability issue is compounded by the notebooks being very thin, which only makes them feel more likely to break. Admittedly I’ve never had an ultra portable break on me, but I’ve also never really dropped one. They do develop creaks over time just like other notebooks, there’s just no getting around that.

And finally we have the issue of price; the culmination of all of these sacrifices is a very light weight, very portable device...that also costs a great deal of money. Spending $2K - $3K on an ultra portable isn’t out of the ordinary.

Many consider Apple to be a leader in the computing world, but in many ways it is an attentive follower. Apple hasn’t historically been the first to introduce a new type of device, but rather a company that looks at where others have done poorly and attempts to do better. Apple didn’t invent the ultra portable, but with the MacBook Air it’s attempting to do it right.

With that pesky DTR out of the way, let’s get to know the Air a bit better.

The Air on Paper

On paper, the MacBook Air's size is impressive until you compare it to the MacBook - in many ways the Air is just a thinner MacBook. The screen is identical and the footprint is virtually unchanged. The two pounds Apple has managed to shave off and the reduction in thickness are huge, regardless of how small they may seem in numerical form.

  MacBook Air MacBook MacBook Pro 15"
Dimensions H: 0.16-076"
W: 12.8"
D: 8.94"
H: 1.08"
W: 12.78"
D: 8.92"
H: 1.0"
W: 14.1"
D: 9.6"
Weight 3.0 lbs 5.0 lbs 5.4 lbs
Screen Size/Resolution 13.3" / 1280 x 800 13.3" / 1280 x 800 15.4" / 1440 x 900
CPU Intel Core 2 Duo 1.6 - 1.8GHz (65nm Merom) Intel Core 2 Duo 2.0 - 2.2GHz (65nm Merom) Intel Core 2 Duo 2.2GHz - 2.6GHz (65nm Merom)
GPU Intel GMA X3100 (144MB UMA) Intel GMA X3100
(144MB UMA)
NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT (128MB - 256MB)
Memory 2GB DDR2-667 (fixed) 1GB - 4GB DDR2-667 2GB - 4GB DDR2-667
HDD 80GB 1.8" HDD
or 64GB 1.8" SSD
80 - 160GB 2.5" 5400RPM SATA HDD 120 - 250GB 2.5" 5400RPM SATA
200GB 7200RPM SATA
Optical Drive Optional External USB SuperDrive Integrated Combo drive or SuperDrive Integrated SuperDrive
Networking 802.11a/b/g/n 802.11a/b/g/n
10/100/1000 Ethernet
802.11a/b/g/n
10/100/1000 Ethernet
Built in iSight Yes Yes Yes
Inputs 1 x USB 2.0
1 x Integrated mic
2 x USB 2.0
1 x FireWire 400
1 x Audio in
1 x Integrated mic
2 x USB 2.0
1 x FireWire 400
1 x FireWire 800
1 x ExpressCard/34
1 x Audio in
1 x Integrated mic
Outputs 1 x Audio
1 x Micro-DVI
1 x Audio
1 x mini-DVI
1 x Audio
1 x dual-link DVI
Battery 37WHr 55WHr 60WHr
Price $1799 $1099 $1999
It Feels So Good
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  • Brau - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    "The SuperDrive won't work on a regular USB port as it draws too much power"

    Wrong. The MBAir Superdrive uses standard voltage and draws a normal 500ma of current. (See AppleInsider indepth MBA review). Apple has apparently simply chosen not to provide the driver that would allow this drive to work on other Macs, as it will still show up as a USB drive but can't be used. What remains to be tested is whether the MBAir Superdrive can even be used to import a burned CD/DVD on another MBAir once it has been initiated to a first machine. If it fails this test then it would indicate hardware based authentication ala Microsoft & Vista.
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    You are correct - it looks like the power draw is identical to any other USB optical drive. I don't see any indication of any hardware based authentication tied to the drive, although I haven't specifically tested it.

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • Brau - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    Wow. Thank you very much for looking into it. IF you do get a chance to test out the drive on another MBA, I'd sure like to know the result. I'm really hoping they haven't invoked any limitations similar to Remote Disk under the assertion that people could use it to share media content.

    Cheers,
    Brau
    Reply
  • Xenoterranos - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    Bravo Anand. I loved the review, and it reminded me of why I started reading Anandtech in the first place.

    I honestly couldn't care less about the Macbook Air, but the review was top notch.
    Reply
  • mlambert890 - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    So Anand...

    Seriously.. the Mac koolaid is making you drunk.

    Youd be "blown away" if Dell and Gateway took away the removable batteries from their existing thin and lights (they dont make ultraportables, and neither does Apple), made them thinner, and removed a bunch of ports and the optical drives?

    Were you "blown away" by the Sony X505? Or how about any of the MANY PC based notebooks that are a LOT smaller and lighter than the MBA?

    I guess not. They're not that nice white color with the Apple logo and arent held up by Jobs at the Mac expo.

    Are PC guys really getting THIS desperately bored that now we're going to join the flocks swooning over any crap Apple chucks into the marketplace?

    At least be honest man. If the MBA had a Dell or Gateway logo you would TEAR IT APART for lack of ports, too large of a footprint, weight that was mediocre since there is a BIG list of sub 3lb PC notebooks and.... NON REMOVABLE BATTERY.
    Reply
  • mlambert890 - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    Not to be picky but, well, *PC* reviews are always picky. There is NO WAY the MBA is an "ultraportable"

    Its HUGE in terms of the dimensions that mean something - LxW. It is a THIN AND LIGHT.

    Im typing this on a Fujitsu P1610. THAT is an ultra-portable - 9.1x6.5x2.2lbs

    13x9 is massive. My Sony SZ had similar dimensions and I couldnt open it in a cramped coach seat on a plane.

    People keep talking about how "the MBA is for special people - you dont get it". MANY of us *do* "get it". There are ALOT of travelers like myself who have been using notebooks in this space for YEARS.

    Apple has given us yet another ~13x~9x~3lb notebook. The only difference is this one is THINK (useless) and has NO REMOVABLE BATTERY (big problem)

    I keep seeing Mac lunatics ranting about how the battery *IS* removable because you can surgically remove it. Its funny because thats pretty directly counter to the argument of "only special people use this type of notebook" since those "special people" are executives and road warriors who NEED TO SWAP BATTERIES WHILE ON A PLANE and also need to open the thing on a plane.

    Sorry to all the drooling Mac-o-philes, but the MBA is a miss.
    Reply
  • Griswold - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    But but... its only 10 tiny screws of varying sizes that need to be removed to change the battery - anyone can do that on a plane!

    ;)
    Reply
  • Souka - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    13.3" screen and 3lbs...

    Why not a
    faster laptop
    heckuv a lot more durable (proven)
    2.2lb (26% lighter!)
    upto 4GB of ram
    upto 200GB SATA HD, not old school PATA...
    Wi-fi a/b/g/n + EVDO broadband (Verizon or AT&T...you can choose!)
    you can CHOOSE what CPU, RAM, an HD you want....
    fingerprint reader
    hardware based security encryption (if you set it up and lose your laptop the data is %100 safe)
    choice of 4 or 8 cell battery....carry an extra and change without taking 10 screws out...or upgrade at any time
    can be purchasd in tablet-form...uber cool

    Oh yeah...prices start at hundreds less than Macair



    what am I talking about?? Lenovo X61...and other laptop makers are in the SUB 3lb market....


    True...Lenovo's development is way more experienced at ultra-portables than Apple... and I do say the Apple is "pretty" and sleek... but if I had a kid in college, I'd spend the $$ on a Lenovo laptop as I know it'll take the abuse much better than the Macbook air and heckuv lot less likely to be stolen...

    My $.02...

    Reply
  • OccamsAftershave - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    And a X61 with a Penryn, 100GB HD and Ultrabase+DVD is $1600 vs. Air+DVD $1900.
    Only comparison negatives: with an 8 cell X61 is 3.3 lbs and resolution is XGA, not WXGA+.
    (And the 4 cell weighs 2.7 lbs. not 2.2 lbs.)
    Reply
  • lopri - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link

    quote:

    This wasn’t going to be my ultimate work machine, I wasn’t going to be running Photoshop on it, I just needed it to do some basic writing and web browsing. In many senses all I needed was a notebook-sized iPhone.

    What happened to the special, customized, and powerful Core 2 Duo CPU that Intel designed just for Apple?
    Reply

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