By Avery Penn
Until late last year, the MacBook Air was the black sheep of the MacBook family. It was ultra-portable, but it kicked up a lot of heat, had very little in the way of connectivity or battery life, and was prohibitively expensive. Then, in October 2010, Steve Jobs got on stage in Cupertino and announced the most radical overhaul of the MacBook Air line since its inception - iPad-esque flash storage, a better multi-touch trackpad, a new 11” model (which, according to Macheads, is the closest machine to the old 12” PowerBooks Apple now makes) and a new price point - starting at just £867 ($1199 in Australia – editor).
My old 15” HP machine was on its way out after less than three years of (admittedly heavy) use, and I wanted something ultraportable – seems perfect, right? The big question is this: is it the best laptop I’ve ever owned, or is the new Air DOA? Read on to find out.
The Good: This machine is feather-light - a meagre 1.04kg, a stark comparison to my HP’s near 3-kilo heft. Whilst a 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo may not sound too impressive (especially when the competition’s ultraportables pack the latest Core i3s and i5s), the Solid State storage, sitting comfortably on the Air’s Logic Board, makes up for it - a cold boot takes 18 seconds, and shutting down and restarting are super-fast. The 1366 x 768, true 16:9 widescreen display on the 11” model is the same resolution as the 13” white MacBook and MacBook Pro, and on a screen this size it feels like a Retina Display for a laptop. Text in Pages is crisp, streaming video over iTunes Home Sharing is rich and vibrant - even icons look more beautified. All of this inside Apple’s tried-and-trusted Unibody combination makes for a beautiful piece of kit.
But, as Apple love to say, technology alone is not enough - you need to create a great experience, and the folks in Cupertino did it with software. As a new Mac user, I was pleasantly surprised by Mac OS X, and it’s leaps and bounds ahead of anything the competition is doing. Finder is elegant and simple. Stacks are a genius idea. Quick Look has made looking for files easier than ever before. Exposé - enabled by a four-finger multi-touch gesture on the trackpad - is what Aero Flip 3D should have been in the Vista days. Spaces clears out the clutter of stacks and stacks of windows, and lets me focus on work…or something I’m watching. For the first time on any of my computers, iTunes works and does not crash. Ever.
More importantly, the Mac App Store was needed back when the first MacBook Air was announced, eliminating the need for external SuperDrives or Remote Disc (though, that said, I bought the external SuperDrive for my Air for whenever I want to burn iMovie projects to a disc - something that can’t be done with Remote Disc). I am psyched for the next version of OS X - aka Lion - and its better SSD support, new window management in the form of Mission Control, and Time Machine-like “Versions” feature, where the evolution of a document is recorded. Summer 2011 (Winter 2011 in Australia) can’t come soon enough.
The Bad: A VAT-adjusted £867 ($1199 in Australia – editor) for 64GB of storage isn’t cheap, and Apple’s upgrades are designed to hurt you (I took the plunge, went to PC World, and paid £969 for my 128GB, 11” unit). If you want the bigger 256GB storage option, you’re going to have to head for the 13” models. Two USB ports are enough for me, but not enough for power users. HD video playback at 1080p is possible, but it turns the MacBook Air from a computing Ninja to a grumpy old man, and you have to monotask if you don’t want a jerky, crash-prone mess. Don’t expect this to handle serious gaming (i.e Half-Life 2 or Portal), but do expect it to run casual indie games such as World of Goo or VVVVVV. Despite OS X’s power management awesomeness, a collection of batteries that take up at least half of the unibody enclosure and an iPad-like portability, you’ll be reaching for your MagSafe (or a HyperJuice cell) after 5 hours on the 11” model - which, whilst well-described by Apple, feels a little on the light side. How can something so insignificant be so power-hungry?
Apple describes the new MacBook Air as both “the next generation of MacBooks” and “the advanced technology of iPad, taken to the Air”. Outside of the Orchard’s supposed reality distortion field, Apple’s bang on the mark: I foresee a future where pros relying on Final Cut or Logic will bring out a 17” MacBook Pro, with the I/O of the currently chunky machines and the size and weight of a MacBook Air. For those who seek the portability of an iPad with the power of full-on OS X, the MacBook Air is a must buy - provided you’ve got the cash - so it gets a high rating.
If, however, you don’t seek productivity along with portability, go get yourself an iPad 2 (or, rather, wait in line for one). You’ll have more money left in your wallet (which can, of course, be spent on endless amounts of Apps), you’ll be left alone to consume your content and, should you ever need a keyboard, you can hook one on wirelessly.