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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  • michael2k - Friday, February 15, 2008 - link

    Fujitsu P7230: Too slow (one core at 1.2GHz vs two cores at 1.6GHz), half as much ram (1GB vs 2GB) for the same price
    Dell XPS 1330: You can't get a 1210 from Dell.com (one pound (33%)heavier) for 2/3 the price
    Sony TZ250N: You can't get a TX from Sonystyle.com, too slow (2 cores at 1.2GHz vs 1.6Ghz), too expensive ($600 more)
    Sony SZ750N: Too big and heavy (1 pound (33%) heavier and twice as thick) for the same price

    You argue against thinner: Thinner is only a measure of weight. Compare to 3 pounds (2.7 to 3.2 pound) and you already eliminate the toughbook, the Dells, the Portege, and the SZ. Compare to the CPU speed and you eliminate the Fujitsu and Sony TZ.

    So what is left? The Lenovo X300, which is still more expensive, but for that extra expense you get an optical drive.
    Reply
  • mattbull08 - Monday, February 18, 2008 - link

    actually a lot less "cool" but a much better option would be a panasonic T5 thicker but lighter than the MBA but with twice the battery life... and that last is really important in something you always carry and use all day, anything which can't go a full day without a charge is just not worth the expense (I know the T5 will do a UK->West Coast flight on a single charge).

    The only real loss is less performance (do you really need it on the road??) and nowhere near as nice a screen.

    Really depends on what your usage is... but I'll get a T5 when my current notebook goes thanks.
    Reply
  • blumenbach - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    "OK, so then the Sony TX, the Fujitsu P7k, the Toshiba Portege, the Dialogue Flybook, the Panasonic Toughbook, the Dell XPS1210, the Sony SZ, The LG XNote."

    The only one in this list that could compare with the MBA is the Portege, and even here it feels and looks like a plastic toy in comparison to the MBA. The display isn't near as sharp or bright on the Portege, and it's much slower. I owned the Sony, and Anand's review is right on: the cramped keyboard and tiny display made it a definite chore to use ergonomically.

    So, yes, just like the MP3 player (iPod) and smartphone (iPhone) Apple has taken the ultralight class, studied what others have done, and have set a new benchmark by redefining what is possible with these devices.
    Reply
  • themadmilkman - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    "Redefining what is possible with these devices?" That's taking it a bit far, and I'm a rabid Apple fanatic. The MBA is a first effort, and just that. I spent a good amount of time playing with one at the Apple Store yesterday, and the only thing I can say about it is that it is simply too large. I can do without the ports, the external drive, the non-removable battery, etc., since none of those things really affect how I use my laptop. But if the MBA were reduced to an 11" or even 12" screen with a slightly smaller bezel around the screen, I would buy one. Until then, it's worth it to just carry the extra two pounds and buy a MacBook. Reply
  • ninjit - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link

    Regarding the 8 hour time-to-charge you noticed a few times. Did you calibrate the battery when you first got the Macbook Air.

    I've seen similar behavior on Macbook Pros before, when new or after buying a new battery - and it's almost always because the user failed to collaborate the battery initially.

    It's one of those simple things that manufacturers tell people to do (for good reason in this case), but most ignore.
    Reply
  • Omega215D - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link

    I noticed that you missed the page down and page up buttons. I have to say that I like scrolling with the trackpad much better. Place two fingers on it and slide downward makes this a nice feature.

    To me the LED backlighting made the blacks a little richer and less prone to showing bleed like the regular LCD on the MacBook, did you feel this way too? I wished that LED backlighting is available for the regular MacBook like the one I just bought.

    I like the way Apple did keyboard lighting on the Air than the one on the MacBook Pro. Black keys with lighting works much better than lighting on silver keys in my opinion. This being said I get by just fine using the light from the screen to illuminate my keys.

    On a final note, there's no need to miss the right click button on the track pad, I just set the pad to accept clicks and allowed for two finger tapping to be a right click. I find it pretty difficult to go back to other laptops.
    Reply
  • Omega215D - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link

    I noticed that you missed the page down and page up buttons. I have to say that I like scrolling with the trackpad much better. Place two fingers on it and slide downward makes this a nice feature.

    To me the LED backlighting made the blacks a little richer and less prone to showing bleed like the regular LCD on the MacBook, did you feel this way too? I wished that LED backlighting is available for the regular MacBook like the one I just bought.

    I like the way Apple did keyboard lighting on the Air than the one on the MacBook Pro. Black keys with lighting works much better than lighting on silver keys in my opinion. This being said I get by just fine using the light from the screen to illuminate my keys.
    Reply
  • bpurkapi - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link

    When I first heard rumors of the Air I was excited. But seeing that there is no opportunity to upgrade it is worthless to me. For $1800 the ability to upgrade should be standard. This makes me really enjoy the smaller and more affordable EEEpc. If the purpose is just basic internet and note taking the EEE is a much better choice for a college kid, then the overpriced Air. I see the air as a status notebook, at 13.3 it is not really an ultra portable, yes it is light but the form factor is not that portable. I believe the size of the EEE is about as small as one can go without serious drawbacks. I think the Air will sell like the iTV. I just wonder why Apple would release this subpar product following the iPhone? You would think it would have been a tablet and actually had a smaller form factor. As of now the Air is worthless compared to other portables. Why would anyone buy this when the Macbook has better specs and is only 2 pounds more. The thinness of the Air is a gimmick and really doesn't provide much more portability. Reply
  • Griswold - Tuesday, February 19, 2008 - link

    But its a clear winner! This is why:

    http://www.abload.de/image.php?img=macbookcommodor...">http://www.abload.de/image.php?img=macbookcommodor...
    Reply
  • Mathue - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    ""EEEpc. If the purpose is just basic internet and note taking the EEE is a much better choice for a college kid""


    I dunno, the EEEpc is way too small. In my job on the road, field and office I need a light machine that has REAL keys. My fingers are large since I do actually do 'work' in addition my eyesight isn't what it once was. The tiny screen on the EEEpc might as well be an iPhone with the text size. And for heavens sake, if the 'Surf' EEEpc has a RAM slot, darn-it, put a door on it so you don't have the pull the machine apart! I also, much as I dislike it, must have perfect Word, Excel and Powerpoint compatibility, (Watching a colleague running Ubuntu on a Thinkpad July of last year for a pre-made company presentation was painful) the OEM linux 'office like' application doesn't give me that, at least there is office on the Mac. And don't say run XP on one of those, I deal with enough XP foibles as it is then to have to run it on a 7" screen with cramped keys. As it is the Air probably barely fits for me, but the EEEpc just goes way too far size wise and is even less of use.
    Reply

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