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
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
Comments Locked


View All Comments

  • bsozak - Monday, January 18, 2010 - link

    For the price difference between the two it seems hard for me to justify the SSD version, though intuitively it would seem like the advantages would be greater. The odd thing to me is the number of people who claim to really notice the difference, even though the benchmarks don't seem to be that drastically different in a lot of areas.

    I also wonder if the type of SSD makes a difference? I've heard great things about Runcore SSD which has some really good pricing here - but if I end up dropping that kind of coin for moderately better performance, I don't think I'd be too happy.
  • bsozak - Monday, January 18, 2010 - link

    That link didn't seem to take, so let's just try this: http://bit.ly/6Yz3cU">http://bit.ly/6Yz3cU
  • pink78 - Friday, April 11, 2008 - link

    I've heared that next-gen MacBook pros are to recieve the multitouch trackpad: http://www.maconair.com/next-gen_macbook_pros_to_g...">http://www.maconair.com/next-gen_macbook_pros_to_g...

    is that true?

  • RedWolf - Thursday, February 21, 2008 - link

    The start of the review comes off as a bit too pro-apple. It was quite thorough and by the end, I didn't feel the same pro-apple bias. I thought the comparison to the Ferrari was excellent. The MBA is a luxury. If you can't afford two laptops you should get a more practical laptop and skip the MBA.

    I was dissappointed in the lack of a mention of Windows on the MBA. My Dell Inspiron 700M is getting a bit old and I'm looking for a replacement. I have a need to run windows regularly. How does the MBA run windows in bootcamp? Does the drive sharing work?

    I can see the MBA working for people who have the money to spend on a third computer (second laptop) and for anyone who does a lot of typing but needs a laptop that can be carried around. I can also see it working for my wife (the primary user of our 700M). She wants something that is light and easy to carry around the house. One of my biggest complaints about my 700M is the cramped keyboard. A full size keyboard would be wonderful.
  • AnnonymousCoward - Tuesday, February 19, 2008 - link

    1 button trackpad? Lame!
  • kac77 - Tuesday, February 19, 2008 - link

    I feel the review was good overall. But really I think the MBA was put in the most positive light as possible. Everyone says it's a niche product, well what niche is that?? Once you start to go deeper the whole niche theory, or "Its not made for you" aspect starts to appear rather light in common sense. Lets look at the supposed markets:

    College Students

    OK the MBA could possibly work it here. However, how many of you had two computers when at college? The MBA really does require a companion PC in order to assure the buyer that he/her can reinstall the OS if problems arise. In addition, having 1 USB port in college would be insane. When I was in College mine got a thorough work out. I transferred files to and from via USB drives, logging onto the network, installing software which was apart of the class. That one USB would be a hindrance no matter how you look at it.

    Traveling Managers (Marketing or Sales I presume)

    These people use their laptops even more than college people do. They are designing presentations. Most of them require the need to VPN into their office network in order to retrieve misc files they might require. They are downloading email often from remote locations so having 3G capability would be mandatory. Since there isn't a express port or PCMIA slot they are stuck with WIFI?? Trust me on this the sales guy isn't sitting in Starbucks in order to download his/her email or work on the latest spreadsheet.

    These points are what I'm talking about. When you just scratch the surface it appears fine but when you go deeper the lack of ports, no drive, no 3G, no Ethernet, (and no, being in IT I am not going to have the Marketing department change their own battery or hard drive) I think it makes the MBA become more of a product you get to do small work on a weekend when you happen to want a latte.

    Finally what wasn’t touched on at all, transferring files from the host PC. Most likely you are going to want to put some music on your computer, or just sync those files that you need for work. I’ve heard reviews from other sites that this process can take way more than 2.5 hours more like 5 or more. Some weren’t even able to complete the process without using the Ethernet dongle. In addition, you can’t use the one USB port with the Migration Assistant. Just how much weight would have been added to put on FireWire anyway???

    The overall thing with this device is that in order to achieve a baseline of functionality you are conceivably carrying around an Ethernet dongle, possibly the Super Drive (probably not in college, but most definitely if you are traveling) a USB extension cord, plus some sort of 3G device if you really want to be mobile. Once you are carrying around all of these things have you really saved any weight? With 3G this product really would have made some sense. The argument to looking forward where all information is on a network somewhere or at home would have held some weight. Without it the product comes off as trying to sell a drowning man a glass of water.

    This device really has one market …the CEO. This is a person who checks email at home or in the office isn’t really going to be accessing the VPN much from a remote location. Having 1 USB port would be fine. He isn’t doing the presentations, someone else usually is. At best while on the go he’s taking notes. For this person this device makes perfect sense but for anyone else I just don’t see it.
  • MacTheSpoon - Saturday, February 16, 2008 - link

    Thanks very much, this was a really comprehensive, excellent review!
  • Phrozt - Friday, February 15, 2008 - link

    Two comments about the benchmarks, one question about the battery.

    First, about the battery. It's been said that one of the shortcomings of the iPhone is that there are a limited number of times the battery can be charged. Does the Air suffer this same fate? Obviously this would have less of an impact than the iPhone situation, because the battery can clearly be removed and therefore replaced, but I'm still wondering about it's limits (especially after the mention of the 8 hour bug).

    As for the benchmarks, I think something needs to be said about the differences of expectations in real world use (in regards to the SSD vs. stock HDD argument). You said that you noticed everything starting/working quicker w/the SSD, but the benchmarks showed that in write situations, it showed an obvious disadvantage. I think it's important that you stress real world expectations in this situation. The more you use a computer, the more your expectations change. You *want* a program to start up at the snap of your fingers, but you *expect* saves/exports/transfers to take a long time. Therefore, from a real world useability standpoint, the SSD would be much better experience, because it improves in the areas where you have high expectations, and only falters in areas that you already have low expectations.

    Finally, about the usage tests. All three of these tests are heavily read reliant with almost no writing. Since the SSD takes longer to complete write projects, and therefore more energy overall to complete the process, I would be interested to see what the usage time would be if you were to script out a process that included a lot of PDF/image/file conversions/saves.

    All in all, a very good, in-depth and objective review. Wonderful job.
  • totenkopf - Friday, February 15, 2008 - link

    "Thinner and lighter" only covers about two thirds of ultraportable, It's still basically the same footprint... how is that helpful? Can you not handle two extra pounds and the oppressive thickness of the mac book? When you open it up it's the same size as the rest of the mac books! If you take an old walkie-talkie cellphone and make it lighter and slimmer and than call it ultra portable... IT STILL DOESN'T FIT IN YOUR POCKET! , They completely missed the point of the ultra portable! The asus eee can operate as an extension of your desktop by allowing you to write, surf and accomplish minor tasks away from your primary machine. Yes, it is not the most comfortable on the eyes or the hands... It's not supposed to be! Apple was afraid to make the necessary sacrifices to make a true ultra portable computer.

    As a thin laptop it's a failure! No removable battery? What if i want to use some optical media on a train/bus/plane? I have to plug in some stupid portable optical drive? that isn't convenience that's a tragedy. I don't care how nice the display looks if i'm looking at a machine with worse specs than a $700 cheaper mac book. Once again, Apple is selling form over function... that's right, you get nothing extra for your money, just the envy of other iNerds.

    And to the author: describing it as a ferrari is laughable. True, it isn't fit for use as your primary machine, but isn't it supposed to perform better than your primary machine? I'd call it the mac book "airhead". It's like that blonde, oxygen thief piece of arm candy you always wanted to make you look good around your friends!It doesn't actually do anything very well, but at least it's inadequate for everyday use.
  • Brau - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    "The SuperDrive won't work on a regular USB port as it draws too much power"

    Wrong. The MBAir Superdrive uses standard voltage and draws a normal 500ma of current. (See AppleInsider indepth MBA review). Apple has apparently simply chosen not to provide the driver that would allow this drive to work on other Macs, as it will still show up as a USB drive but can't be used. What remains to be tested is whether the MBAir Superdrive can even be used to import a burned CD/DVD on another MBAir once it has been initiated to a first machine. If it fails this test then it would indicate hardware based authentication ala Microsoft & Vista.

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now