The Best Keyboard on an Ultra Portable? Evar?

I can't believe I'm typing this on an ultra portable. I covered CES on an ASUS U1E, which is considerably smaller than the MacBook Air. As pleasant as it was to use and type on, I still found myself running to my MacBook Pro whenever I really wanted to get some writing done. I needed the U1E's portability on the show floor but I needed the MacBook Pro's keyboard when I wanted to get work done. Apple's decision to include a full sized MacBook keyboard on the Air was perfect.

The keyboard is incredible. There's no searching for keys, no fat fingering any two keys and honestly the only complaint I have is that there are no dedicated page up/page down keys.

Typing on this thing is absolutely perfect, the keys have great tactile feedback and make a pronounced but pleasant sound when pressed. It's the same keyboard that's in the MacBook but I've never owned a MacBook, so I'm allowed to fawn on this one a little more than normal.

The edge of the Air's chassis is a little too sharp, which can make typing at some angles uncomfortable. I noticed it when I was using the Air but it wasn't a big enough deal to really bother me.

The fiber optic backlight on the keyboard is an absolute necessity; I'm shocked that more notebook manufacturers haven't adopted it by now. I'm writing this very paragraph in the dark with a well illuminated keyboard and it's great. The backlight alone isn't reason enough to recommend the MacBook Air, but it's a little feature that makes the ownership experience all that much more pleasant.

The keyboard backlight appears to stay on more aggressively than it should, at least compared to the MacBook Pro. The light sensors on the MacBook Pro are located under the speaker grills to the left and right of the keyboard, facing the ceiling. On the MacBook Air, the light sensor is located to the left of the iSight camera on the screen - perpendicular to the ceiling (and presumably the brightest source of light). The end result is the screen dims and keyboard lights up more aggressively than on the MacBook Pro. It's nothing terrible, just an interesting difference. I actually prefer the more aggressive keyboard backlight as a result.


The light sensor on the MacBook Air - to the left of the integrated iSight

There is a problem with the location of the light sensor however; since it's facing you and not facing up, if you are casting a shadow on the sensor it'll make the screen dim. That in itself is fine because you'll also be casting a shadow on the screen, but if you keep moving left and right - casting and removing your shadow from the sensor the LCD will get brighter and dimmer accordingly. If you keep in mind the position of the sensor it's not a problem, but if you don't realize where it is you may end up wondering why the screen keeps changing its brightness while the ambient lighting hasn't changed.

The eject button is kind of cute on the keyboard, when you press it you get the standard eject overlay on the screen - but obviously nothing happens. With the external SuperDrive attached, the button will eject whatever you put in the drive.

It Feels So Good The Trackpad
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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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