Review: Macbook Air 13-inch

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Short Version: There will be no pleasing either side of the Apple fanboy divide with this review so I’ll say it up front: If you’re looking for an alternative to a heavier Apple laptop – a MacBook Pro, say, or an Apple Powerbook 170 – and you travel, the MacBook Air is an excellent choice. If you rarely travel and/or are not a Mac fan, you will probably be better served by a cheaper netbook. Features:

  • 13.3-inch backlit screen
  • Ultra-slim design uses no hard drive, weighs 2.8 lbs
  • Intel Core 2 Duo Processor
  • NVIDIA GeForce 320M graphics processor with 256MB of DDR3 RAM
  • MSRP: $1299 base ($1799 as tested)

Pros:

  • Amazingly thin and light
  • Sharp screen
  • Solid battery life

Cons:

  • Underpowered for some tasks
  • No Optical Drive
  • Only two USB ports, few of the major I/O ports

You Can Never Be Too Thin Or Too Rich

Although we’ve already covered the MacBook Air on our sister site (oops, this is the link), I thought it would be fair to assess its merits in a more objective fashion. As it stands, anyone you show the new Air will agree that it is a handsome piece of kit. It works very well, as we know, and it contains no mechanical storage, which means everything excepting the small internal fan is completely silent. The solid-state drives (SSDs) inside allow this computer to boot in about ten seconds, or thirty on a bad day. Access to the filesystem is almost instantaneous although, in absolute truth, there is little performance difference between a standard laptop and this model especially considering the 1.86GHz processor. What you make up for in access speed makes the lack of processor speed seem less important.

In real terms, a bog standard MacBook Pro 13-inch hits about 3655 on GeekBench while the Air hits 3003. An above average 15-inch MBP with 4GB and 2.66GHz processor can top out at 5695 and a Sony gaming laptop with 4GB memory and a 1.73 GHz processor can hit 4978. One of my favorite laptops, the Envy 14, hits 4463. So we can be absolutely accurate in stating that the MacBook Air is quite low in terms of overall performance.

Battery life is about 4 hours in real terms and six in loosey goosey terms. I used the laptop for about four hours this morning and it hit about 10% before I recharged. Expect this to work on a long NY to LA flight but not on an LA to China flight. The wireless problems that plagued some old MacBook Airs are gone here and I was very impressed with the wireless speed and performance which has as much to do with the cache speed than the actual radio.

The real draw here is size and weight. This is probably the thinnest laptop you have ever seen. I’ve shown it to multiple people and they’re all amazed.

However, that thinness comes with a price. For example, you only have two USB ports, one on each side, which is a slight improvement over the original Air’s single USB port. You also have a Mini DisplayPort Adapter, but there is no Ethernet port — a problem if you end up in a hotel with Ethernet-only connectivity. No FireWire, of course. It has a headphone jack but no line-in. There is a webcam in the bezel and an omnidirectional microphone.

There is, most importantly, no optical drive. This could be an immediate dealbreaker for many people but I would recommend the DVD-lovers out there to start ripping, because optical drives, at least in the thin and light category, have been going the way of the Dodo for some time.

Don’t Call It a Netbook
Think of the MacBook Air as the distillation of everything that makes a MacBook great. It runs OS X, it is very handsome, and it runs almost everything you can throw at it with aplomb. Barring large video editing you’re not going to slow this thing down. However, the $1,199 model of the 11-inch Air comes with 64GB of storage, an amount that is laughably small. Even the 128GB on the $1299 13-inch model is going to be insufficient. If you’re going to be surfing the Internet and maybe watching kitten videos on the Air, than this should be fine. If you’re going to get any work done, then you have a problem.

Therein lies the problem with the Air. On the low end you risk running out of drive space and with 2GB of memory you face a potential shortage when performing larger tasks. Bump things up to usable numbers – 4GB and 250GB – and you’re talking $1,800 out the door. So much for the $999 price point.

So here you see my issue with this laptop. If I’m an average consumer who wants a Mac I’m going to get a MacBook Pro or MacBook with lots of space, ports, and size. If I’m a viewing the Internet on my couch I’m going to get a tablet or netbook. If I’m a pretentious Appletard who has to have the latest and greatest (guilty as charged) I have to spend 2 grand on this thing just to up the specs to acceptable levels.

But Who Is This For
This is for Mac lovers who want to travel with a light notebook. This isn’t a “coffee-table netbook” that should be relegated to browsing while on the can or couch. There are perfectly acceptable netbooks out there for much less than a grand, to say nothing of two grand.

Can it replace a MacBook Pro, as MG suggests? Sure if you use only a few major programs like iPhoto and iMovie. Final Cut is definitely a stretch on this and realtime weather simulations required multiple petaflops of power is right now. Luckily 90% of the audience interested in the Air is probably not running anything more processor intensive than Keynote.

I personally laid out $1,800 for my model with 4GB memory and 256GB of hard drive space. That’s quite a lot. Considering the Sony I mentioned above, the VPCF136FM/B, costs $1,299 and blows the pants off this machine and an EEE PC can be had for about $300, I’m hard-pressed to recommend this as either a full-bore laptop or a netbook. It is a special creature, like one of those plankton that live in the deepest, coldest parts of the ocean. Like the plankton, the MacBook Air serves a very specific purpose in a very specific ecosystem but, also like the plankton, the price of living within that ecosystem is very high.

I have yet to test it on the road but from what I can tell it will be useful. I do quite a bit of image and video editing but I’m not Ansel Scorcese so I don’t need to open huge RAW files or edit HD video for PAL and NTSC.

Bottom Line
Can I whole-heartedly recommend this laptop? No. Here are my caveats:

If you are a MacBook Pro user who is tired of lugging around a 6lb notebook then this is the laptop for you. It offers most of the functionality of an MBP (though only a part of the actual power) without the weight or size. In fact, it could even feasibly replace your MBP if you rarely run anything worse than Microsoft Excel. Unfortunately, you won’t want to pay $1,199 for the lowest-end model. You’ll want to upgrade and that will cost you.

If you’re looking at a netbook, don’t spend $1,199 (or even $999 for the 11-inch) on this. This isn’t an entry-level MacBook, this is a device specifically oriented towards a certain type of consumer.

If you’re looking at a standard notebook, don’t look here. This isn’t for you. Get an original MacBook or a Windows PC of your choosing.

Users are all different and if you have the cash and the impetus to buy a very slim MacBook, then you should look into the Air. Otherwise, steer clear.

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