Going thin on Road Trip 2008 with the MacBook Air

After a couple of years using a MacBook Pro every day, it was a nice change of pace to work on a MacBook Air for a month, despite some problems.

The two MacBook Airs CNET News reporter Daniel Terdiman used on Road Trip 2008. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

SAN FRANCISCO--After working on an Apple MacBook Air for the last month while on Road Trip 2008, it was a real shock when I returned home and picked up my regular work MacBook Pro for the first time.

Compared to the Air, which I'd really gotten used to as I drove around the South, the Pro was really heavy. Shockingly so. And thinking back over the countless hours I spent with the Air in my backpack on my back as I visited endless places, I'm eternally grateful for all that weight I didn't have to carry.

And there can be no doubt that the thinness and the very light weight of the MacBook Air are its major selling points. That and its very bright, very clear LED screen. Several times during my trip, people came up to me to say how amazed they were by how bright the screen on the Air was, even in direct sunlight.

I also heard plenty of people saying to each other as they walked by me in one place or another things like, "Wow, look how thin that is," or "Hey, look, it's that new super thin Mac."

So having spent a great deal of time over the last month using this loaner machine--I'm writing this on the Air--I can say that, on the whole, I really enjoyed it.

As I mentioned, the weight--or lack of it, really--was a seriously wonderful thing, especially since I was always carrying the computer in a backpack full of camera gear, notebooks, magazines, and other things. In that regard, this is definitely the most impressive computer I've seen in a very long time.

The MacBook Air that CNET News reporter Daniel Terdiman worked on throughout Road Trip 2008 resting on top of his everyday MacBook Pro. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

Of course, it's a fully functional Mac, so that means it's a much better computer than just about any PC I can imagine. Sorry, folks, but that's just the truth.

I found it to be fast, for the most part, easy to use, great to look at, and generally a touch simpler to use on a day-by-day basis than my MacBook Pro.

It seemed to recognize Wi-Fi networks more quickly than other computers, and to shut down faster, as well. As I said above, its LED screen was consistently brilliant, no matter how much light was shining on it. This is a big improvement over what I've used before.

I did have a few issues with the Air, some which will surprise no one, and another which I think caught even Apple off guard.

The first is that the machine is definitely a bit hampered by its size. The fact that it has just a single USB port and no optical drive is limiting, despite easy ways to work around that.

For example, I bought a small USB hub, and used it often. But many times, I was in a hurry and didn't want to go digging around in my bag for the hub and wanted instead to be able to just plug my camera and my EVDO card in. No luck. Similarly, not being able to play DVDs without the external drive Apple lent me was a bit frustrating.

Still, these are not new issues, and I know that before too long, Apple will come out with a MacBook Air that has additional USB ports and an optical drive. Lenovo already has such a computer--it's not a Mac, though--so it's clear that it can be done.

The more troubling problem I had was what at first seemed like an inexplicable slowing way down or even outright freezing up that happened some days when I was trying to watch rented movies in iTunes or videos on YouTube. It got so bad when I first encountered the problem--shutting down the computer and rebooting didn't seem to solve it--that I freaked out a bit given the prospect that I wouldn't have a working computer to use.

I managed to get past the problem over the next few days by judiciously turning off the computer when I wasn't using it instead of just putting it to sleep. That seemed to help, and I thought maybe I'd solved the problem.

But eventually, the slowing down and the freezing up came back, and I couldn't deal with it. So I called Apple, and after explaining what was going on, we agreed that they would send me another MacBook Air given that it sounded like something was wrong with this specific machine.

So, after I left New Orleans, where I'd been writing about how that city has fared since Hurricane Katrina, I drove toward Pensacola, Fla., where I was going to watch the Blue Angels perform at their home base. Along the way, I stopped at a UPS Store in Mobile, Ala., and there, waiting for me, was the second MacBook Air.

That night, I downloaded a film through iTunes, and the next day, after leaving the computer on all night and most of the next day, sat down to watch it. But before long I noticed it was behaving the same way: it was slowing way down, and acting like it would freeze up.

I asked my colleague, Tom Krazit, who covers Apple for CNET News, if he'd heard of such a problem. He said no, but did a little research and then sent me a link to an online forum where people were discussing this very issue. It appears that the MacBook Air suffers somewhat from overheating, and the result can be the slowing down and freezing I was experiencing.

That made sense, since the problem always seemed to creep up after I'd had the computer on for a day or more.

As a result, I began making more of a point to shut down both computers when they were not in use, and to elevate them, say, with a book under each side, when trying to watch movies. That seemed work, lending more credence to the theory that this was an overheating problem.

This also seems like a good time to weigh in with my thoughts on the movie rentals program iTunes offers.

First, let me say that I think it's a great idea. While the selection of films needs to grow--and quickly--there were plenty of good films on offer. But the limitation that once you begin watching a film you only have 24 hours to finish it has got to go.

I would say that two-thirds of the films I rented I was not able to finish in 24 hours. Perhaps my Road Trip schedule was a little more intense than that of the average iTunes movie renter, but it seems that there must be plenty of people for whom finishing in one full day is not realistic.

I'm not sure, then, why it can't be 48 hours. What's the difference?

In the end, however, despite some problems with the MacBook Air, I would have to say it's a worthwhile machine, and something I would enjoy using as my primary computer while on the road again. I certainly am looking forward to a future version of the computer that solves the overheating problems--if that's indeed what it was--and that offers additional USB ports and an optical drive.

But this computer really is what Apple is marketing it as: A machine for the wireless road warrior. With a little bit of careful preparation, you can make the Air do what you want it to do. And your back will hurt a lot less than it does if you carry around a full-size laptop. Trust me on that one.

 

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