A Discussion of Specs

This is as good a time as any to talk about the specifications of the MacBook Air, something we did for the Mac Pro when it was first launched. To understand the MacBook Air you must first accept that it's not aimed at the same target market as the regular MacBook or MacBook Pro. Unfortunately, a side effect of Apple's very strong marketing is that many who shouldn't be considering the MacBook Air, are.

The MacBook Air is designed to compete in the ultra-portable space, where compromises are inevitable and prices are very high. The compromises get less and less severe as the years go by; technology gets better, Moore's law makes things faster and you can generally do more in less space. The first ultra-portable I owned was a Sony Picturebook C1VN; it used the Transmeta Crusoe processor which was unbelievably slow (barely the real world speed of a Celeron running at 400MHz), the screen was horribly cramped, the keyboard was beyond annoying to type on and overall system performance was hardly acceptable. It was very portable though, and with enough extended batteries pulling 12+ hours wasn't a problem - perfect for a flight to Taiwan.

The problem with my Picturebook and every other ultra-portable I've owned (including the sub-2lbs Sony X505) was that I'd get to a point where my productivity suffered too much and I'd switch to a larger, but more usable notebook. The keyboards were too small, the performance too low or the screen resolution insufficient; there would always be a reason and I'd end up abandoning my sexy little notebook for something more practical.

To cover this year's CES, ASUS sent us all one of its U1E ultra-portables. The notebooks actually worked very well and the U1E was the first ultra-portable I'd seriously used since my X505. The keyboard wasn't as bad as what I had on the X505, although the shape and size of the U1E wasn't too far off the amazing Sony. Performance was absolutely abysmal, but as long as you didn't turn the system off (hibernate worked far better) you didn't have to deal with an unbelievably painful boot process. Battery life wasn't even that bad, since all you wanted to do on the machine was type in notepad.

The MacBook Air, at least on paper isn't all that special, it's simply Apple's attempt at an ultra-portable. Honestly, the MacBook or MacBook Pro is a better solution for the vast majority of people, and I'm not completely convinced that the perfect ultra-portable is even possible with today's technology.

Performance appears to be all but solved. The fact that Apple can cram a nearly-2GHz Core 2 Duo into the MacBook Air either means that Moore's law has caught up with our desires or Apple is going to make it so you can no longer have children.

The hard drive is a definite weak point of the MacBook Air, but the SSD option is bound to fix slow disk performance in this ultra-portable devices. Unlike mechanical hard drives, you don't give up performance to get a physically smaller drive - it's simply a case change. The 1.8" SSD in the MacBook Air will offer the same performance as a 2.5" SSD, something that can't be said about 1.8" hard drives vs. 2.5" and 3.5" offerings.

Cost is going to be a problem, but it looks like Apple isn't really overcharging for the 64GB option. Apple's cost on the 64GB SSD is at least $800, making the markup to $999 justifiable. You can probably save yourself some coin by snagging a 32GB drive aftermarket but you won't save much buying your own 64GB drive, at least in the near future. Thankfully since SSDs are based on Flash, price will continue to drop over the coming months/years making it a more affordable option on the Air.

The lack of a user replaceable battery is less of an issue as you'd think at first glance. The biggest problem is that you can't carry a spare, but lugging around an extra battery would really eat into the MacBook Air's portability factor. Chances are that within 2 years you'd be able to get the portability of the MacBook Air with even fewer compromises, or purchase something even more portable - so the usefulness of such a product is more limited than most computers. It's an expensive proposition, especially when you keep in mind that you'll be tempted to replace it in 2 years, but this is how the ultra-portable world turns.

Apple is putting a lot of faith in the ubiquity of WiFi, given that it's the only way to get online with the MacBook Air. It's not unusual to see a lack of connectivity options on such a small computer, my old X505 didn't even have integrated wireless - the motherboard was too small, you had to use a PC Card. The problem is that WiFi isn't quite everywhere, WWAN or Ethernet are necessary to ensure connectivity in more places. There is a single USB port on the MacBook Air so you can always connect a 3G dongle from a cellular provider, but that's a more clumsy solution than simply sticking in an ExpressCard.

The screen resolution on the MacBook Air is a bit low for my tastes, but OS X does a good job of window management so it's possible that productivity won't be hurt too much.

The full sized keyboard is a welcome change from most ultra-portables; for someone who does a lot of writing, it's quite possibly the most important feature of the Air. My concern still ends up being whether the MacBook Air will be another in a long list of ultra-portables that simply loses its appeal after a while. We'll know for sure soon enough.



View All Comments

  • Mathue - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    What, you can't operate a screwdriver? Reply
  • plinden - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    Nope, I took a look at one yesterday at the expo.

    It's not seamless. The bottom has about a dozen screws. I spoke to a rep and he told me everything's soldered to the board and only an Apple tech could change anything. So your warranty would be invalid if you changed the HDD or battery or RAM yourself.

    That said, since the insides are so easily accessible and an Apple tech can replace the HDD, battery and RAM (from my experience of Apple "geniuses", they're good but not with any technical skill better than I have) you could probably change things yourself if you had any level of soldering skills above beginner.
  • 8steve8 - Thursday, January 17, 2008 - link

    here is a good table of ultra laptops


    personally id like a 4gb penryn air with uefi 2.0
    2gb ram when ram is practically free.... well that sucks.
  • michal1980 - Thursday, January 17, 2008 - link

    You get some of the other laptops pointed out in the other thread. Because a 3/4 inch thick laptops around 3lbs that come with all the ports, and disk drives exsit on the market.

    Yet once again the media, and to some degree Anandtech, seem to potray apple as some revolutionary company that is doing things no one ever has done before.

    And yes the ipod when it came out set a standard... But the ipod time is over. And now apple is just making 'pretty' things. And without even saying they are first, let the media do it.

    For example: after every mac event or launch, the local news stations cover it, and talk about all these great new apple product.

    Then the next day on local radio the talking heads that dont know much about tech,ooh and ahhh over apple, and the new air.

    Dell/hp/sony/toshiba/asus can launch a product.... and the media is silent.

    Whats this media love affair with apple?

    Apple can start selling apples tommorow, and the media and the drones will ohh and ahh, saying that they've never seen an apple before and it tastes so good.
  • yesno - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    The media love affair with Apple is that it takes technologies that already exisit, and packages them in a form that is actually useful.

    There are fewer iPhones than Windows Mobile phones, but far more data traffic from iPhones than from Windows Mobile. Not just a litte bit more.

    Why? Web browsing on a cell phone certainly isn't "new." But Apple is the first company to make the experience pleasant, easy, and accessible to people who don't want to futz around with engineer-desinged usability nightmares.

    One example on the Macbook Air is Apple's implementation of remote drive sharing and Netbooting, which is, by far, the slickest and best implemantation of that old technology that I've ever seen.

    They're even better at making useable Unix tools than other companies. The command syntax of hditutil, for instance, is much better than your typical cryptic Unix syntax.

    I know A LOT about hardware, software, and technology. I know more than anyone else that Apple's technologies aren't usually "new" in the sense that no one has ever done thing "x" before. And yet, I will usually buy an Apple product rather than a competing product, usually paying more for the privilege. Because I know that it work the first time around, well and intuitively. My time is valuable.

    Just like I set up Linux machines for people, but wouldn't use one for my ordinary desktop environment, it is possible to know and understand technology and still prefer Apple products.
  • rADo2 - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    "seem to potray apple as some revolutionary company that is doing things no one ever has done before" - but isn't that true? There is **no other company** that cannot fit Ethernet port, at least 3 USBs, PCMCIA card reader, DVD-RW writer, flash card reader, and many other neccesary things into 3 lbs. computer.

    Apple did it first!

    It is the first company that created a notebook that cannot have external mouse and USB dongle connected at the same time, the first company that created a notebook that cannot play DVDs and/or insert CDs, and the first company that prevents you to connect to hotel internet (via Ethernet port).

    You see, Apple is first for many things :-) (it does not matter all of them are negative)

    Unlike e.g. Toshiba, less than 2 lbs. in its R500, DVD-RW, Ethernet, card reader, PCMCIA, all included.

  • lemonadesoda - Tuesday, January 22, 2008 - link

    I do agree with your "business use" missing features. Most people with deep pockets dont want TWO laptops, just one. And that means a laptop that can be used on business and travel.

    No ethernet port is a big omission.
    No PCMCIA port is a big omission too. (Even if only to add environment certified high security wifi, or an ethernet card).

    ...although a LOT cheaper to build.

    But 2 USB ports are needed as a minimum! Especially when without the ethernet and PCMCIA.
  • Mathue - Monday, January 21, 2008 - link

    Man, you are incredibly bitter for someone who hasn't even seen this notebook in person. Seriously, you need to walk away from the online tech news for a bit. Reply
  • michael2k - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    Does it help that Anand wants one too? Reply
  • Griswold - Friday, January 18, 2008 - link

    You hit the nail on the head. One possible explanation for this type of mass behaviour could be that apple managed to plant this little seed into the minds of the general public and the media drones, that tells them to think that apple and its products are, without exceptions, "cool and hip". And because most people want to be considered "cool and hip" instead of boring and square, they love to talk about it, hoping to catch some of the imaginary shining light that surrounds the product for themselves and of course to cater to the alleged public demand to hear about amazing thingies all day long. Similar to the funny things people will do and say to get associated with movie or music stars...

    This has nothing to do with the actual quality of the product (and apple does have nice products), its rather a brilliant marketing feat they pulled off at some point in time that enhances the value of their company and products without spending too much on marketing - the media drones will do it for them. Brilliant, just brilliant. And perhaps the best thing apple has ever achieved.

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