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ATPM 17.03
March 2011


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Hardware Review

by Frank H. Wu,

13-inch MacBook Air


Function: Subnotebook computer.

Developer: Apple

Price: $1,599 (256 GB SSD)

Requirements: None

Trial: None

I once worked with an older person who was contemptuous of younger people. In particular, she thought they didn’t understand the concept of choice: life is about compromises, and you cannot have everything. That describes perfectly the issue with the 13-inch MacBook Air. I ended up with one, not entirely intentionally, because my 17-inch MacBook Pro suffered a failure of the disk controller. I bought a new MacBook Air, intending to sell it to my niece after I received my repaired MacBook Pro.

I realized that there is another device I use daily that presents a similar dilemma. I ride a motorcycle, not merely for fun but for regular commuting. I own two bikes: a Honda Hawk GT 650 and a BMW K1200RS. A cult classic, the Honda is a light V-Twin. Superior in every respect except one, the BMW goes faster thanks to three times the horsepower, stops more securely with ABS, and has a full fairing plus heated handgrips. Yet I prefer the Honda in the city. The BMW is just too much: its deficiency is its bulk—I don’t need the benefits it offers, unless I am traveling a long distance, it’s raining, or it’s cold.

So, too, it turns out, the MacBook Air is much better than a skeptic might have thought. I was not tempted by the first generation MacBook Air. It just looked as if lacked the full features I took for granted with my MacBook Pro. I’m glad I waited. The trade-off is simple. You gain speed and portability. You lose storage space and screen size.


MacBook Air and MacBook Pro

The bootup is so ridiculously fast that you don’t even know the computer has restarted. To continue vehicular analogies, it reminds me of the first time I drove a real luxury car (not mine; I was merely a guest). I had started it, but the engine was so quiet that I accidentally turned the ignition again. I was astonished initially, but I become accustomed to how quick the machine is. In reality, it isn’t much of a savings, because with a reliable system you end up not shutting down anyway and I routinely leave my Macs running for a week at a time.


MacBook Air in Leather Portfolio

The slender size allows you to slip the unit into a portfolio. Until you are holding a MacBook Air in your hand, you can’t comprehend the famous Steve Jobs introduction of the product, slipping it out of the inter-office mail envelope. The battery life also is so good that I don’t carry around the charger, unless I am traveling. This cuts down on weight even further, of course.

Social scientists tell us much that is useful, if only we were rational in our decision-making. Their research offers responses to the two problems of the MacBook Air.

First, I was worried about losing my media, or not having access to it: music, movies, very large files for research. But as far as choice is concerned, you can have too much. While it indulges our materialism, carrying around your entire library of CDs you have ripped is not actually worthwhile. I have found I use Pandora most of the time, and then if I turn to iTunes I tend to listen to the same tracks rather predictably.

Thus there is no real-world advantage to having the whole library in my backpack. I also could just buy an external drive if I really wanted the option. I have done just that for the occasional flight or extended time out of the office. I also have started using cloud computing. I keep a Virgin MiFi mobile device to allow me to access the Internet.


MacBook Air and MacBook Pro

Second, I was sure the smaller screen size would disappoint me. Yet just about everyone adjusts to the circumstances. A person who is put into the best of all worlds is happier, but only momentarily. The converse is true as well: a person who is forced into miserable conditions eventually reverts to her baseline emotional profile. When you use a 13-inch screen, it is a luxury to suddenly be in front of a 17-inch screen. Whichever you use day in, day out, it pretty much becomes the norm.

It is true, though, that the smaller screen makes you less productive. You cannot see as much material, so you end up switching back and forth more often between windows. A launcher program (LaunchBar, Butler, Quicksilver) becomes a must.

The other drawbacks are not significant. There is no optical drive, and there are no FireWire ports. So I have the external DVD drive to rip media; it’s not needed for playback, if you plan. Every now and then, somebody hands you physical media you cannot access right away; it’s not a huge loss for me. I do have a tremendous amount of data on external drives, but they all have USB in addition to FireWire.

The real comparison, it seems to me, is not the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, but instead an iPad and the MacBook Air. I find that I use them differently. They are not interchangeable.


MacBook Air and iPad

The main reason is the available software. The word processing and other productivity apps for the iPad are a generation away from becoming full-fledged programs for business usage.

Another reason is the form factor. The iPad is a painting; the MacBook Air a sculpture. If you are standing in line at the airport, out comes the iPad (or an iPhone). Even a light laptop is too precarious to balance, and the keyboard becomes useless. Perhaps there will be convergence: if iOS were just slightly more capable, then you could pair it with a Bluetooth keyboard, and it would compete with the MacBook Air. There is a dedicated iPad keyboard dock. I bought one in the exuberance of wanting every option, and I have used it literally once. It’s too bulky to cart around compared to the flatter Bluetooth keyboard, and once you prop the iPad up on it you’ve built yourself a subnotebook, defeating the advantage of the iPad’s two-dimensionality.

For me there is no doubt now that the MacBook Air can be my main computer, my “daily driver.” It won’t feel like a downgrade, either, unless you are performing the heavy-duty tasks best suited for a desktop. (I have to say, based on spending a few minutes playing with one at the Apple Store, I remain skeptical of the 11-inch MacBook Air. Whatever incremental gain in portability it offers is likely offset by the screen size.)

In conclusion, my opinion is that a reviewer of products should provoke discussion, offer a few insights, and provide a basis for a reader to make up her own mind. The bottom line here is that the MacBook Air is more capable than you might have thought, but it is not perfect. My niece decided she’d rather have my hand-me-down MacBook Pro. I’m keeping the MacBook Air. I’m fine with that.

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