Apple's MacBook Air: A design review

Glaskowsky takes a critical look at Apple's MacBook Air, announced this week at MacWorld Expo.

As usual, there were many specific rumors about what Steve Jobs would be announcing at MacWorld Expo this week. Several were reasonably credible, but Apple runs a tight ship; there's really no way to be sure what will come out at any given show.

MacBook Air
The MacBook Air is remarkably thin and stylish, but it isn't for everyone. Courtesy of Apple

At the beginning of the year, based on the better rumors and some discounting of existing Mac products, I was pretty sure we'd see four things: new Mac Pro workstations, a refresh of the MacBook Pro line with Blu-ray optical drives and Intel 45nm processors, minor improvements for the iPhone, and a new subnotebook.

New Mac Pro configurations were announced a week before the show-- minor updates, but significant for the professional audience. We got the new subnotebook, the MacBook Air, this week. The iPhone and iPod got only some software tweaks. There was nothing new for the MacBook Pro family.

But that's okay. I'll keep waiting for a better iPhone, and I'm still sure there'll be Blu-ray equipped MacBook Pro models before long.

In the meantime, the MacBook Air is worth a closer look.

The first thing to understand about this machine is that it's aimed at a relatively small market. Apple made a series of design decisions that limit the audience for the Air, but for those potential buyers who aren't turned off by these choices, the Air is the best machine on the market.

If you're not part of the target audience, though, the Air might look like a poor choice. To quote a friend of mine, Mac book author Brian Tiemann, "Is it just me, or is this a ridiculously overpriced, feature-poor, and generally useless pig of an idea?" Honestly, I can see where he's coming from. I think he just doesn't see where the Air is coming from.

Let's list the obvious objections:

  • Non-expandable RAM.
  • Small hard disk.
  • No optical drive.
  • Non-removable battery.
  • Peripheral interfaces limited to one USB port and one monitor output.
  • High price for the included features ($1,799 and up).

Start with 100 million potential buyers and go down the list. Most will get past the first two points, but the lack of an internal optical drive will turn away a lot of people. The fixed battery is a big problem for a lot of people, and still more folks won't accept the limited I/O options. If you care about any of these things, the Air doesn't look like a good value for money. By the time you reach the end of the list, only a few people will still be paying attention.

But once they look at the Air, those remaining candidates may be quickly won over. It's so thin! The case is so cleverly curvy that it's actually deceptive. Visually it looks thinner than a fashion magazine, but in fact it's three-quarters as thick as a regular MacBook Pro, at least at the back edge. At the front edge it's thinner, but it doesn't taper smoothly down to 0.16" (4mm) as Jobs claimed in his speech. That edge actually hangs in air almost half an inch off the desk. (I didn't bring one of my digital calipers to the Expo, but I do intend to measure a real machine when I get the chance.)

It's too thin for a removable battery; the Air's battery is a lithium-polymer pack just a few millimeters thick spread across the full width of the machine under the palm rests and trackpad. (If you need longer battery life, you'll need an external battery such as the PPS-118 Portable Power Station from Battery Geek. There aren't many other options for MacBooks because of Apple's proprietary MagSafe magnetic power connector.)

The Air is also too thin for a conventional motherboard with sockets for the processor, memory, network interface, and other configurable options. The Air's processor, chipset, and memory are all soldered down on a board about three by six inches that sits to one side below the keyboard. The 80GB hard disk or optional solid-state disk ($999 extra for 16GB less space!) sits beside it. And that's all that's down there; that's all there's room for.

Apple says the Air is the thinnest laptop on the market, and I think that's true. I checked the websites for some notably thin notebooks including the Toshiba Portégé R500, the Sharp Actius MM20, and the Sony VGN-X505; all are thicker. (But most are lighter, and the R500 has an internal optical drive, so I'd have to say Toshiba deserves similar praise for the sophistication of its mechanical engineering.)

Also, the Air is faster than any physically comparable ultraportable, and probably offers better battery life when comparing the standard batteries. It doesn't have the performance of a full-size notebook, but at 1.6 GHz or (for $300 more) 1.8 GHz, it's plenty fast enough for Mac OS X or (if you prefer) Windows Vista.

And while you would inevitably run into bandwidth limitations, that one USB port can be connected through a hub to multiple devices-- flash drives, external hard disks, external Ethernet adapters, even additional external displays using the DisplayLink standard.

There are a lot of small notebooks on the market that sell pretty well. Dell's Latitude D430, for example, is the same weight as the Air, has the same display resolution (on a slightly smaller screen), has all the usual I/O ports and expandability, and it's a good bit cheaper. It's a decent-looking machine, but it makes no sacrifices to style.

By comparison, the MacBook Air looks like it's from a different planet, a more advanced civilization. It's like that because it's missing all of the functionality that forces the Dell machine to look relatively clunky-- all the connectors, buttons, and lights that make it more usable, all the latches and screws that make it expandable. The Air has almost none of that stuff, but while that makes it irrelevant to most people, the Air's clean, thin lines make it uniquely attractive for others.

If I was a Hollywood studio executive, a New York art-gallery owner, or an editor of one of those fashion magazines, there's just no other computer I'd want to use. I'm not any of these things, of course; very few people are. But do understand: there are people who are exceptionally style-conscious for personal and professional reasons, and the MacBook Air was designed for these people.

There are also people who wouldn't use an internal optical drive or an Ethernet cable or an Option GT Max 3.6 Express HSDPA wireless WAN adapter anyway. For these people, simplicity is a positive advantage. The Air is a complete computer; it just isn't designed to be the center of a complex computer system.

If all you need is a display, a keyboard, and a WiFi interface, and you don't mind paying a slight premium for high style, maybe the MacBook Air is for you, too.

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About the author

    Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

     

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