The good: The design is revolutionary, but Apple’s MacBook Air will appeal to a smaller, more specialized audience than the standard MacBook, thanks to a stripped-down set of connections and features. Incredibly thin yet surprisingly sturdy; new trackpad gesture controls are very useful; remote optical drive makes living without a built-in drive much easier.
As we’ve come to expect from Apple, the design and engineering that went into the MacBook Air is extraordinary, but it’s certainly a much more specialized product than the standard 13-inch MacBook and won’t be as universally useful as that popular system.
Choosing the Air over the cheaper, faster standard 13-inch MacBook, or the comparably priced MacBook Pro, will depend on your needs. And while the MacBook Air’s specs are inferior to those found on the cheaper MacBook, they compare more favorably when you look at other ultraportables, where a price premium is always exacted. For instance, both the Sony VAIO TZ150 and Toshiba Portege thousands more than the MacBook Air and feature slower CPUs and half the RAM as the Air.
Although it shares a desktop footprint with the standard black and white MacBooks, the first thing you notice about the Air is its aluminum chassis–similar to the one found on the MacBook Pro, and much more fingerprint resistant than the standard MacBooks.
The MacBook Air includes an iSight camera and mic, and an LED-backlit display that works with an ambient light sensor to adjust the screen brightness in response to the light in the room. The keyboard–the same full-size version found in other MacBooks–has backlit keys that are also controlled by the ambient light sensor, although we had to adjust the room lighting a good deal to see any difference.
The revamped trackpad is large, measuring nearly 5 inches diagonally, and it works with new multitouch gestures. Other MacBooks let you do things like use two fingers to scroll through documents–this one lets you use three fingers to go forward and back in your Web browser history, and use your thumb and forefinger to zoom in and out of documents and photos–much like on the iPhone. The three-finger forward/back gesture was immediately useful, and we’re already missing it when using other laptops.
Another noteworthy new feature is the remote disc function. Since the Air lacks an optical drive, you can instead remotely use the optical drives of other systems, PC or Mac, as long as they’re on the same network. The setup was a little cumbersome for the “host” PC–requiring us to insert the OS X disc that came with the Air, run a small setup program, and then find and turn on “CD and DVD sharing” in the Windows control panel. Once we set it up, however, it worked like a charm. You won’t be able to stream DVD movies or music CDs via remote disc, but it’s fine for getting files and installing apps.
The real key to finding out whether the MacBook Air is right for you lies in its stripped-down set of ports and connections. Those who regularly use more than one USB device, or need FireWire, an SD card slot, or an Express card slot will find the single USB jack too limiting. Likewise, we often say the telephone modem jacks and S-Video outputs on most laptops are a waste of space, but the MacBook Air goes even further, removing the Ethernet jack and offloading video output to a pair of included dongles (one VGA, one DVI).
If you live on Wi-Fi hot spots, use Bluetooth for your external mouse, and only need a USB port to occasionally sync and charge your iPod or iPhone, these limitations may not be a deal-breaker for you. While most hardware vendors offer a choice of mobile broadband options, Apple continues to offer none, which is disappointing for a system so clearly meant for life away from home and office. Without an Express card slot, your only option would be a USB mobile broadband modem, but with the sole USB jack under a tiny flap on the right side of the system with limited clearance, you may need a small USB extension cable to get a bulky USB mobile broadband modem connected.
With no moving parts, and advantages in heat, power consumption, and reliability, SSD hard drives are certainly the way of the future.
And as we often point out, any modern dual-core CPU is going to be more than adequate for Web surfing, multimedia playback, and productivity tasks, and we were able to surf the Web, play videos, and work on a document at the same time with absolutely no slowdown or stuttering. We’re currently conducting additional benchmark tests and will update this review with new results as they’re available.
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