MacBook Air: Steady on…

MacBook Air on top of a MacBook Pro on a table outdoors, next to comic books. The Air is the same rough size as the comics.

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.

23 thoughts on “MacBook Air: Steady on…

  1. joe c

    Thanks for addressing other customers besides techheads. There are still some reviewers that forget not every laptop has to do freaking everything but something like this can do 90%+ and better than most, and that is just fine.

    On an unrelated note, wasn’t Flash #300 just fantastic? (And yes very funny including that title.)

  2. Eric

    What do you think of giving my aging parents a MacBook Air 13″ for their web surfing, email writing, non back-breaking computing needs. No large media collection to worry about, just about 3-4 GBs of pictures per trip(2-3) a year (SD card slot FTW). The big variable in this equation is Boot Camp as they need multiple versions of Quicken and Quickbooks for Windows for compatibility with clients. Have you seen any reviews that mention Boot Camp + new Air?

  3. Scott Willis

    For me, the new Air is an answer. I recently upgraded to a new iMac and find my 3 year old 15″ MBP getting turned on only when I’m away from the office or to access my iMac’s shared iTunes library. I was very tempted to get the original Air (until rumors started circulating of a new model) but the performance and storage space were just too limited for me to pull the trigger. Not to mention the screen resolution (Once you have high res, it’s hard to go back).

    The new Air (13″) has the same resolution as my 15″ MBP and the increased disk space will get me more than I currently have in my old MBP (200gb). I’m looking forward to trying out the new Airs and see if it meets what I think and hope it should.

    Great coverage as always. Thanks!

  4. Matthew Ebel

    I’m still waiting to see what Apple does with its pro-sumer and professional lines. As a stage performer, I can’t use (nor afford, nor do I need) an Octo-Mac tower, but I still need serious muscle to handle Mainstage and Logic Pro.

    It’s nice that they’re having fun with A4-based devices and netbooks for people who don’t make the content they’re selling through the iTMS, but sooner or later they’re going to have to focus on portable muscle again, not just weight loss.

    Please wake me when Apple releases an iPad that can handle multi-channel live audio plugins and software instruments. ;)

  5. David Rusling

    Andy, good review and interesting points (as usual). I went for the 13″ to replace my 4 year old black MacBook. I wanted a full sized (keyboard, screen), light laptop with a long battery life. It is all of these things. I’m at a developer summit, and it really does last all day.

    I’m not so sure that writing off the 13″ as a full laptop replacement is the right answer. I think that you have to live with one to answer that. I’m the running experiment and it’s really early days, but it’s looking good so far.

  6. Tony

    I have a 16gb 3G iPad and a Mac mini(started with lion 512 mb ram and 40?gb he’d self upgraded to 2gb/320gb this is quite a good partnership for me, I have the archive on the mini and the outstation iPad. I’d love a MacBook but cannot see where it would fit. Perhaps it Silver fails to run Lion I can justify a new Air as a full machine. Just a little aside that little silver box has run three different operating systems well, it might turn out to be ok for four. The Sony vail I have has run xp, vista, win 7 and various Linux distros. You can’t say I don’t get my moneys worth out of my kit.
    I heard today a rumour that Apple was looking at buying Sony, exactly what would be the benefits of this action? The business models are not exactly the same. Sony make some nice laptops but not in the MacBook league. Nice TVs and PS3. Where do they fit?

  7. Rory

    I think you are dead-on in your assessment at the $999 price point, but you have completely ignored the $1500-2000 price point, where a buyer would be choosing between the top-end, decked out Air or a bare-bones MB Pro. This is not a small segment of the market, based on the amount of 15″ Macbook Pros Apple has sold.

    Disk space, RAM, and “real-world” performance are comparable between choices in this price range. The meaningful trade-offs largely boil down to mobility (Air) vs. Optical Drive and Firewire port (Pro). I think a lot of people will value mobility more.

    I can’t remember the last time I used either the optical drive or the firewire port on my aging 15″ MBP, but I carry it around pretty regularly. Yes, the 13″ screen on the Air is smaller, but screen resolution is the same so that’s sort of a wash. The 13″ Pro also falls in this price range at the high end, but the decision is largely the same: size/weight vs. optical/firewire.

    I’m probably going to hold off for a year and see what next year’s MBPs look like, but if I had to buy now I would choose the Air in a second.

  8. Nick

    “The Air’s *lack* of a built-in optical drive isn’t a handicap until that one day out of a hundred when you need one.”

    Awesome writeup though Andy, I love your writing style.

  9. kenmcn

    The problem with any ‘secondary’ machine is how you get the data you need on it when you use it, how do you decide what to copy from your desktop Mac to the Air?
    Bring on a real MobileMe… or the day when Apple buys Dropbox?

  10. zwei

    Optical drives are goners. Not only does getting rid of DVD allow for smaller products, but it lets apple redistribute that cost to other higher-end features. Also, why not strip it out and make money off of it as a popular extra?

    My prediction: If the plain MacBook sticks around they are going to be moving it to the $799 price range.

  11. instig8r

    I’m a FileMaker developer. Day in and day out, I lug around a 15″ MBP [named “Flash” NO KIDDING! Well, it’s SnowFlash now that I’ve moved the OS to 10.6].

    When I am at the office I chain ol’ Flash to a big LCD. When I am on-site at a client’s office I tie him into a big screen I request they have for me.

    The 13″ air has the same number of pixels, similar horsepower, better graphics, more battery life and half the weight of Flash. I can even switch to a smaller “mobile office” backpack. The air also costs less than the MBP I was pricing to replace Flash with. I use servers (including FileMaker), DropBox, MobileMe, BackBlaze, Amazon, SuperDuper and Backup a lot to archive my files and access them remotely anyway, so the drive size I could learn to live with. (How many years of photos and TV shows do you need to have immediately accessible anyway?)

    The tricked out 13″ Air is lookin’ like a serious “contendah” for me.

  12. romzburg

    The battery…you say the Air suffers from having only a 5 hour battery, and that a full sized Macbook has a battery that is twice as good, (10 hours?! I wish mine did that!), but I thought the Airs were supposed to have a *better* battery life? Didn’t Steve make a point of saying that? Becasue there were no moving parts to power, and the innards were so small they could pack more battery in there?

  13. Niel

    Wouldn’t it be a cool feature in 10.7 Lion if you could “sync” the contents of an iMac or Mac Pro to an Air?

    What’s that? The SSD drive on the Air is too small?

    Well, when you look at the amount of data stored on the typical Mac hard drive, it is fair to say that most of the space is taken up by media files in the Photo/Music/Movie folders. The Documents folder is probably fairly small.

    Switch gears for a moment and think about the first version of the AppleTV. The hard drive in it was pretty small (especially the 40gb version). Apple was smart of enough to let you sync whatever could fit on the AppleTV drive, and stream the rest.

    Back to the Air, so what’s to keep Apple from letting you sync the contents of the Documents folder between the two machines, and streaming the contents of Photo/Music/Movie folders?

    They have, after all, built this shiny new data center in North Carolina. There have been rumors of streaming your iTunes library for a couple of years now…

    Could computer syncing/streaming be the new “killer” feature of MobileMe and Lion?

  14. larryp

    Pre-iPad, I would have had to shred my credit cards to prevent myself from buying one of the new Airs. Now, I can’t think of too many ways I’d use it instead of my iPad. Maybe when my trusty old Macbook Pro dies…

  15. Anthony

    My mum’s 2007 MacBook Nothing is still the best solution for her.
    Office 2011 and iLife 11 came on DVD discs. She has firewire speakers and a firewire external drive for timemachine. Two USB ports. Upgraded RAM and HDD to 250GB. If it died, we’d have to shell out for a 13″ MBP which is heavier and more costly, or an Air which although would be a pleasure to carry, the 128GB model is as expensive as a 13″ MBP not to mention she’d be needing more than 128GB!

    Today’s MacBook Nothing (love that name!) just doesn’t hold a candle to the original MacBook Nothing with its lack of firewire port and Apple’s inclusion of the SD card slot to differentiate it from the ‘Pro’ series (really, Apple? – a sub $300 netbook has an SD card slot!) and same sized screen resolution.

    I think the 11″ Air is a winner but Apple should just have left it at the fastest CPU configuration since ‘core2duo’ is dying everywhere else and why keep manufacturing the slowest one? And this may just be me but in 2010 no Apple computer should ever ship with 2GB RAM minimum. After all, if Apple wants customers to have a good experience, they should not cripple themselves by offering a more crippled base model. Oh and no backlit keyboard on either models, a downgrade surely!

    My 2 cents.

  16. Steve

    As a primary computer the 27″ cinema display makes this interesting, as you can leave an external hard drive, keyboard, mouse, ethernet dongle and sync cable permanently plugged into that.

    At your desk you’ve then got a decently fast computer with ethernet, local storage and a huge display; plus the advantage of a physically small system for travelling with.

    Understand the cost of all that adds up but if you were going to get the display anyway it solves some of the objections in using this as your main machine.

  17. bwooster

    I’m on the consumer-user side of the ledger. The 13″ air is really the first mac notebook that I salivate over. I’m pretty sure I can use it for my every day computer.

    Aesthetics count for something, and all the mac notebooks are classier and nicer than their pc counterparts. But the price difference has always turned my wallet back to the pc when it comes to notebooks. Not with the air.

    Something is different about this air – the profile, the 2 usb ports, the ssd drives, I don’t know. But I need to replace my aged hp, and I’m having a hard time making the usual cost benefit decision and going with another $700 pc notebook. I want the 13″ 4gb air. Twice the price, not upgradeable, no dvd drive. But I just want it.

  18. Mike

    I curse you, Andy. Every time I read your wonderful reviews, I go out and buy it. Why do you have this power over me? My wife hates you! Seriously, thanks, my friend, you rock.

  19. Tyler

    Hi, I liked the review, but I am wondering why you call the Macbook the Macbook Nothing? Just wondering, thanks.

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