The MacBook Air: Thoroughly Reviewedby Anand Lal Shimpi on February 13, 2008 12:00 AM EST
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I started this review by defining the expectations of a notebook like the MacBook Air. The problem is that Apple's mainstream popularity has made a device like the MacBook Air, which would normally be targeted at a very small niche, appeal to a much wider audience. Most who are considering the MacBook Air would probably be sorely disappointed by it, because they want a smaller MacBook - not an ultra portable. Apple doesn't offer a smaller MacBook and thus I find myself writing a conclusion for a wide variety of people.
I'll start with the general populace and drill down to the intended audience of the MacBook Air, and how the notebook fares when presented to each type of user.
As a standard notebook, the MacBook Air falls short in the most obvious of ways. It's hardly expandable, it has no integrated optical drive and it's got a fairly small, low performing hard drive.
I've already talked to far too many people that are allowing emotion to cloud better judgment and are considering the Air when they shouldn't be. If this is going to be your only notebook and you plan on using it as your main computer, chances are the Air isn't for you. It does look very cool and it's incredibly light, but ultra portables are the exotic cars of the notebook world. If you own an exotic it's generally not your only car, you've got other things more practical in the stable so you don't end up driving a Ferrari in two feet of snow.
Part of the problem with the MacBook Air is that it's designed for a world that doesn't exist yet. Wi-Fi access just isn't ubiquitous, you need to rely on a combination of Ethernet, WiFi and a 3G modem if you really want connectivity. The portability of the Air starts to be challenged once you look at carrying around various dongles and such. Apple has a great relationship with AT&T right? Why not allow the iPhone to tether to the MacBook Air or at least let you stick your SIM card in it to enable a 3G modem. I expected more from Apple in this regard, which brings me to my next point.
Apple had the chance to really revolutionize the ultra portable world, but instead it provided its own sheep for the flock. It's not a bad notebook by any means, but Apple's constant praise in the media also means that it must be held to a higher standard of scrutiny. I'd be blown away by the Air if it were built by Dell or Gateway, but from Apple I expect more than a nice design.
The iPhone was the result of very clever engineering, it was a hardware and software solution to a problem that impacted many. The same could have been true for the MacBook Air; it could've revolutionized mobile computing and raised the bar for how thin and how light we expect our notebooks to be. The MacBook Air is an amazing chassis coupled accented by good hardware choices but with very little added innovation or engineering. You may think I'm being too harsh on Apple, but the fact of the matter is that I wanted the iPhone of ultra portables and got a thin MacBook instead.
Now if you're specifically looking for an ultra portable and are part of the willing to sacrifice/spend niche that the Air should be targeted at, then we need to be having a very different discussion.
Sure expansion is limited, the thing is expensive and at least two accessories should be included from Apple but aren't - but would you look at this thing?
The build quality of the Air truly stands out among all of the incredibly impractical notebooks I've used in the past - it's excellent. Generally you see an ultra portable and are impressed, then you hold an ultra portable and are scared. The same just isn't true with the MacBook Air; it feels just like it looks and it's surprisingly sturdy.
As the MacBook Air is the only ultra portable Mac around, in many senses it doesn't really have any competitor. Sony, Dell and more recently Lenovo all have similarly equipped notebooks but none of them run OS X. When I first reviewed OS X on a notebook I talked about how many of its strengths really came in handy in a cramped screen environment, which is what you get with a notebook. On an ultra portable machine like the MacBook Air, especially one with a fairly low screen resolution, the window management strengths of OS X grow even more important.
The full sized keyboard is a must for any writer and it's a decision that I'm beyond glad Apple went with on the Air. This entire review was written on the Air and it was done even faster than if I were at my desk typing it all out, mostly because I could be in whatever more comfortable environment I wanted to be in while writing it. If you need something ultra portable it's generally because you want to carry it around with you all the time and presumably use it for something. The CPU and keyboard choices Apple went with made it so that you can actually get work done on the MacBook Air.
Apple did sacrifice a lot with the Air, the lack of an optical drive and limited expansion both come to mind. But honestly, it's all made up for by the form factor, build quality, CPU speed and keyboard decisions. Apple may have given up a lot but these four factors have made it so that the MacBook Air will be my desired travel companion from now on.
That's just me however, if you're not a fan of OS X then the MacBook Air loses one of its biggest assets and you have to start looking at things a little differently. Had the Air been more revolutionary it would've been the ultra portable that pulled in Windows users, much like the iPhone reached out to more than just Mac users.
As it stands, if you're an OS X user the MacBook Air is a solid ultra portable. If you're a windows user with no interest in OS X, the Air just doesn't make sense - luckily you have many more ultra portables to choose from.
For Apple the iPhone changed everything, we must now grade both the hardware and Apple itself for the product. The MacBook Air gets the nod and although Apple gets a B for effort, we expect more. You've gotta earn that stock price Steve.