The MacBook Air's fatal wireless flaw

The laptop's lack of a 3G modem takes away from its skinny design.

Apple's MacBook Air doesn't live up to its wireless promise.

To quote an Apple tagline, "without wires, you're free to go anywhere." But the wireless part of the "air" play on words fails to deliver. (The other half its light-as-air weight: here it does deliver.)

As I've written in the past, I like the Air . I got one in February as soon as it was available at retail and have been pleased with the performance, screen, keyboard, build, and, until recently, the battery life (which has dwindled to under an hour). Of course, the head-turning aluminum aesthetics is also a major appeal to many people.

That said, after a spurt of trips including a 10-day stay on the East Coast and a few treks to Los Angeles, the Air's wireless shortcomings have become painfully clear. In a word (or two), no 3G.

Now, before I get slammed, let me say that I fully realize that I'm not the first person to reach this conclusion so I'm not claiming any unique epiphany. There were a number of observers citing this paradox way back in January. Some frustrated users even attempted hacks to shoehorn a 3G modem into the Air. The point is: because of the price and the way it's marketed, 3G should be built in.

But the full brunt of not having 3G hit me on Friday when I made a trip to Qualcomm to get briefed on a new version of the Snapdragon applications processor (more on this in another post). Sitting there in the nerve center of one of greatest wireless companies in the world, I couldn't get a wireless connection. Everyone else in the room had 3G connections of one kind or another. The Air instantly became the proverbial doorstop (or paper weight--choose your simile, or maybe it's more apropos to say it was a dinosaur.)

It didn't take much prodding from me to get the Qualcomm product manager to point out this fatal flaw.

This came after weeks of not being able to use the Air in many situations when I desperately needed a wireless connection. For instance, not all LA airports have reliable Wi-Fi connections. The John Wayne Airport in Orange County being one example. And when I was on the East Coast, one sprawling place I stayed at for several nights had Wi-Fi only in one inconveniently situated area that was inaccessible at night.

In these situations, the Air is nothing more than a slab of beautifully sculpted aluminum.

Hewlett-Packard Compaq 2510p (L) and MacBook Air.  The HP comes with a built-in WWAN option, the Air does not.
Hewlett-Packard Compaq 2510p (L) and MacBook Air. The HP comes with a built-in WWAN option, the Air does not. Brooke Crothers

Which brings me to the cult of Steve Jobs. Apple was brilliant enough to deliver a groundbreaking design like the Air but why wasn't it savvy enough to build in 3G?

Before I get slammed again, let me throw out some reasons (excuses) why Apple didn't build in 3G, based on reports I've read and my own observations. Apple didn't like the fact that 3G modems often made the user commit to one service provider, i.e., Verizon or Sprint or Vodafone. Or, it believed that if users wanted 3G, they could simply plug in a USB 3G modem.

I have serious problems with both of those reasons. Particularly when you're paying typically more than $1,800 (or $2,500, depending on the model) for a notebook billed as a wireless wonder (for Apple ad copy on why the Air is such a wonderful wireless laptop, just cruise over to Apple's MBA page.) And I have even more of a problem when ultrathin Netbooks are coming with 3G at one-third (and potentially a tiny fraction of) the cost of the Air.

For comparison, let's look at another Valley company, Hewlett-Packard. HP has been selling WWAN (Wireless Wide Area Network) modems in its business laptops for at least two years (and probably longer). The HP-Compaq NC6400 laptop introduced about two years ago was offered from day one with WWAN built in.

Granted, the choice of carriers at first was limited but look at HP's offerings today. Models (including those in the EliteBook line) are offered with Qualcomm's Gobi modem. Gobi obviates the need to have unique radios for each carrier. Gobi supports Verizon, Sprint, and others in one device.

Where was Gobi when Apple refreshed the MacBooks in October? I'm sure Apple has plenty of excuses (for example, not enough space in the Air's ultrathin design).

But Apple should have had 3G from the beginning and certainly in the October refresh. In today's 3G world, continuing to call it the MacBook Air brings another meaning to the play on words: lightness of weight with a touch of advertising hot air.

Additional comments::
The point is not that a user can potentially add an external WWAN modem (though even that's not necessarily easy to do), the point is that the Air should come with 3G capability built in considering how the computer is marketed.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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