My review of the MacBook Air went out on Monday, in case you missed it. Here’s a link to the review. As usual, I cross-posted the photos to my Flickr account, so folks could see them in higher resolution.
The basic takeaways:
- I had two major complaints about the original Air: it was too expensive, and came with enough shortcomings that it couldn’t really be considered a “real” Mac. Both of those problems were definitely addressed with the two updated models.
- These are real computers that can handle just about any regular Mac app. Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, iMovie…they’re all on the table. And the full-sized keyboards and trackpads make them as comfortable to work with as any other Mac.
- The 11″ is the clear standout. I love the smaller form factor; you’ll definitely be taking it more places than a regular MacBook and even the 13″ Air, I think.
More reviews of the new Airs have been circulating…
[Yes, “Circulating Air.” Unintentional joke. When the thing you’re writing about is called the Air, you find yourself noticing what’s just landed in a preceding sentence, and then you sigh, and then you move forward.]
…since mine was published. Many of them promote a surprising idea: that the new Airs are so powerful and useful that they can take the place of a conventional MacBook.
Some even go so far as to say that the Air is clearly Apple’s vision of the future and that the standard MacBook design is now marked for death.
Steady on, people!
Let’s not lose our heads. There are two different kinds of notebook users out there. Some people need a notebook that’s just as capable as a desktop. Others are more consumer-oriented; they have simpler needs that don’t go far beyond the Web, Email, Office, and basic photo and video editing and sharing.
Neither Air is a great answer for either user.
There will always be big tradeoffs to owning an Air instead of a regular MacBook. The people who will truly feel the pain will be the ones (like me) who use a notebook as their main computer. The cheapest conventional MacBook (the $999 MacBook Nothing) comes with a 250 gig hard drive and if you want a bigger one, you can upgrade it to 500 or even a full terabyte. The most storage you can get on an Air is 256 gigs, and that’s on the most expensive model.
As with the Air’s system RAM, you can’t upgrade anything later on, either. A standard MacBook uses standard SATA components and you can swap in whatever you want whenever you want.
The Air’s of a built-in optical drive isn’t a handicap until that one day out of a hundred when you need one. The lack of high-speed FireWire will affect any operation that relies on moving lots of files in and out of the machine…like drive backups, and media editing, if you keep your photos and videos on an external drive. Note: when your notebook’s storage is lifetime-limited to 128 or 256 gigabytes, you will definitely be keeping that stuff on an external drive.
Lack of high-speed Ethernet is another feature that hurts you a few days a month. I do a lot of Skyping and most of it is actually work-related. We can’t record MacBreak Weekly via WiFi; only copper is truly reliable. And because I spent all of $40 to run high-speed copper throughout my house, I’m getting the full speed of my Verizon FiOS home broadband, not a fraction thereof. It’s fast enough that I can happily keep all of my files on a central server.
When you buy an Air, you are willingly and thoughtfully choosing to trade away flexibility for mobility. That’s perfectly fine if you know you’ll have another machine to pick up the slack. The Air just can’t fill the same “good as almost any desktop” role, like a regular MacBook can.
Okay, but what about that second category of buyers? The “Webbin’, Emailin’, and Office-in'” gang?
Easy: The MacBook Nothing costs $999. It’s a much better value for this consumer. It’s bigger and heavier than a $999 MacBook Air, but would this buyer consider that a problem? I think they’d be more attracted to the MacBook Nothing’s other features:
- Full-sized screen, not a dinky 11″ ultramobile display.
- Full-sized battery with twice the life of the 11″ Air’s five-hour battery.
- Four times the storage of the $999 11″ air’s Fun-Size 64 gig solid-state drive.
- A DVD drive. That’s actually a big deal to many consumers. They’re not concerned about making a third-backup of critical data while in the field. They want to be able to play DVDs. And they’re going to buy a lot of software on disc.
We can argue about the limited needs of consumer-type users and how 64 gigabytes of storage is plenty. But it isn’t. 64 gigs is Survivorman storage rations. 128 gigs is…well, it’s credible, if you’re a little disciplined. 256 gigs is the minimum amount of storage for the place where you’re going to spend most of your computing life. iTunes, iPhoto and iMovie libraries are gaseous entities that expand to completely fill the dimensions of the container you’ve put them in.
Realistically, if someone is dead-set on buying an Air as their main machine I’d have to direct them towards the $1299 13″ model, with 128 gigs of storage. So: for the “just the basics” consumer, it’s $300 extra for not as much Mac. The more ambitious user can buy a MacBook Nothing with lots of options for the same price…or he can move up to the 13″ MacBook Pro and still save a hundred bucks.
You’ll notice, though, that I have no complaints about the MacBook Airs’ processing power. On paper, their CPUs aren’t nearly as beefy as the standard MacBooks but in practice, I felt just fine using Photoshop and iMovie on the Air. And keep in mind that I was using the lower-powered 11″. Their CPUs might be weaker but the extra speed of the solid-state drives closes the gap considerably…particularly with an app like Photoshop, which relies so heavily on swap files.
My 11″ Air is an Apple loaner, of course. It goes back to Cupertino at the end of November. I’d love to keep it, but I’ve already got its roles covered with existing equipment. Lilith is my 15″ MacBook Pro. It’s my main computer, day-month-and-year. I also own an iMac and a couple of Windows desktop, but I rarely even need to fire them up. My iPad (64 gig 3G) — Lil — fills the role of “ultraportable computer.” It’s so small that I take it with me whenever I’m going to be out of the office for more than an hour or two. And it’s so good at the things I need it to do that when I leave the house for two or three days, I take Lil and a wireless keyboard instead of the full-scale MacBook Pro. And on those occasions when I really do need to run real Mac software on the road, I still have the option of taking Lilith.
Things would be different in a world in which an iMac was my main computer, or in a world in which there was no iPad or that the iPad couldn’t really handle my needs when I travel. Then, a tiny $999 MacBook would be pretty damned tempting. I said in the review that it’s the clear star of the MacBook Air line.
[Sigh. Move on.]
It’s the best expression of the Air concept, which is: bring notebooks back to their original roles.
When notebooks originally hit the scene, their designers weren’t motivated to replicate a desktop computer as faithfully as possible. That was by necessity, of course. The reduced physical and power footprint forced them to ask “Let’s assume that our consumer will own this AND a desktop. What would he or she be willing to sacrifice in the name of mobility? Does this person really need two floppy drives, or will just one drive tide them over until they get back home or to the office?”
Twenty years later, that same kind of thinking can produce something as small and smart and useful as the 11″ Air. Do we need a big, 13″ screen? Do we need the whole array of ports? Is the optical drive negotiable? It won’t be the right answer for everybody — which is why these “an Air is a replacement for a standard MacBook” arguments puzzle me — but there’s a definite role for it. For many people, it’s the answer to a lot of prayers. At last, we Mac folks have a true high-performance ultralight, too.