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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  • 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,
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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!

  • 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& 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...

  • 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.)
  • lopri - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link


    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?
  • aliasfox - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    It may be 50% faster than the 1.2 GHz ULV processors in most other ultraportables, but that also means it's also about 50% slower than most mainstream high end CPUs (2.2 GHz and up).

    Slow hard drive doesn't help either.

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