Text and photos by West Coast Editor Steve Casimiro
Breathe, must remember to breathe. It’s just a computer. Really, just a computer. Breathe, son, breathe. Keep telling yourself it’s just a computer.
Who am I kidding? The Macbook Air is the sexiest laptop ever. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it connects to the internet, processes words, “i”s your life, etc., etc. But those lines! That sleek, svelte silhouette…it’s like nothing you’ve ever laid your hands on. And yes, you have to lay your hands on it to get the full effect. You can YouTube the “manila envelope” ad like it’s a Victoria’s Secret fashion show, but there’s no substitute for touching. It’s true for Victoria (I’m guessing) and it’s true for the Air.
Now, I have made some foolish buying decisions when swept away by product lust. The Contax G2 rangefinder camera comes to mind—beautiful, but for me impractical. The Air, though, is more than a hot piece of sculpted aluminum—it’s a powerful computer that could easily replace your current laptop. Indeed, the $1,800 1.6 GHz version kept pace with my year-old Macbook Pro, even though it has less RAM and processing speed. If my photography didn’t require more intensive needs (Firewire port, larger hard drive), I’d snatch up the Air in a second. The speed, diminutive size, and special Apple sauce make it a compelling, almost irresistible ultra-portable.
Let’s take a look at key points:
Eight years ago, I was sitting in an aisle seat on a cross-country flight, testing a laptop the size of a paperback book. A flight attendant looked down at my lap and said, “Wow, it’s so small!” “Yes,” I said proudly, “yes, it is.” And then I turned bright red.
You’ll have no such interactions with the Air. This is a full-size laptop with a 13.3-inch screen and spacious, comfortable keyboard. Ergonomics are not compromised in any way. Its weight and size reduction are achieved through thinness—the Air is just three-quarters of an inch at its thickest point. And while you can read such numbers all day long, you have to put it in your hands to grasp fully how portable this little device is—it has the heft of a leather portfolio, the dimensions of a design magazine, and the cool-to-the-touch exterior of some exotic metal. I found myself taking such joy in its portability, I looked for excuses to carry it, pack it, or slip it in and out of my messenger bag.
I don’t know how much attention you pay to tech blogs, but the big buzz right now in computing is ultra-portable internet tablets—devices that are larger than a cell phone but smaller than a laptop. Even Apple is rumored to have one that will be announced in September. You know what? It’s already here, but it’s called the Air.
The Air’s 1.6 Ghz engine is more than capable of running the typical processing tasks you’ll throw at it. Even with four or five applications open and working, including memory hog Aperture, it ran merrily along. Intensive computer tasks, like heavy-duty video editing or photo processing, are more likely to be slowed by the lack of ports (just a single USB 2.0) than by an undersized power plant. Indeed, I’ve even used it for moderately intensive photo work (family vacation, light pro shooting) and found it plenty capable.
The 80GB hard drive is another story. With no additional applications aside from Aperture, only 41GB of storage remains available for music, video, photos, and files. A weeklong vacation with video and pictures could easily chew up 10 or 15 gigs. The simple solution is to carry an external hard drive, but doesn’t that diminish the point of the Air? Far better would be for Apple to offer a 120GB drive or larger.
NO DVD DRIVE
If you’ve heard much about the Air, you probably know it doesn’t have an optical, i.e. DVD, drive. At first, this seems like a stumbling point, but in practice it turns out to be almost irrelevant. If you need to use a DVD--probably to install software--you simply “borrow” another computer’s, which you connect to through wi-fi. Just enable disk sharing and voila—the Air found my Macbook Pro and my wife’s G5 instantly. Software loaded flawlessly, DVD videos played at full resolution with no slowing or glitches, even when walked through the garage and onto the street with it. In this case, the benefits of eliminating the drive to create a smaller chassis far outweigh the inconveniences. You know what? I think it’s kind of cool, actually.
Apple’s claimed battery life is five hours, which needs to come with as big an asterisk as Barry Bonds’ record. Since nobody should believe battery life claims, there will be no illusions lost. However, if you do nothing but word processing, reduce the screen brightness to a minimum, and invert the screen from white to black (Control-Option-Command-8), you could probably eke out close to five hours. But that’s not real world computing. In the real world, figure on three to three and a half—less if you’re processing photos or watching a video, more if you’re word processing.
The bigger issue is that the battery isn’t replaceable. There’s no way you’ll make it from one coast to another with full computer time, unless you switch planes and outlet-jump between flights. To my mind, this is the Air’s biggest weakness. All the other limitations have work-arounds, but a dead battery is a dead battery. Without being an apologist for Apple, I understand that you don’t create the world’s thinnest computer without making compromises—but this should be at the top of the list for changes in Air 2.0.
The Macbook Air is the future, now. We might never have all of our applications and data living online in the “cloud”, but there’s no question that computing is moving rapidly in that direction--wirelessly and internet-based. You can find programs for email, word processing, spreadsheets, and much, much more online (duh). Even Photoshop and Quicken financial software have versions that are used online and only online. Streaming video, iTunes downloads, wi-fi, and borrowed hard drives—all these reduce our dependency on traditional onboard DVD drives. They might be perceived as inconveniences today, but will simply be the way we do things tomorrow, no questions asked. It's the Air's blessing and curse that it's the first to move so boldly in that direction. Mostly blessing.
So, what to make of it, other than as an object of design fetish? I’ve read more than my share of Air reviews. Some are fawning, many are highly critical. Most make valid points, but most also miss what I think is the key point. Of course the Air is sexy and of course the Air is imperfect--but it's far more versatile than most believe. The Air is designed to be a leading edge, attention-getting product. By that measure, it’s a smashing success. The surprise is that the deeper, more fundamental qualities— computing, usability, comfort—also make it a smashing success. You should give it a closer look. Make that "touch".
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