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Friday, 18 January 2008 06:21

MacBook Air a balanced package

A (non-iTWire) colleague has questioned Apple's wisdom in fitting the MacBook Air with 2G of soldered-in RAM with no upgrade capability.

My iMac has 3G of memory, of which 0.9G is free or  inactive despite running Activity Monitor, Backup, EyeTV, Firefox, Google Desktop, iSync, iTunes, JunkBroom, Entourage 2008, Word 2008, Preview, Safari, Shades, Skype, Sophos AntiVirus and TextEdit.

A typical mobile user would most likely have fewer programs running at once and therefore 2G should be fine. Sure, there are some programs that soak up lots of memory, but are you going to use them on a MacBook Air?

What the critics seem to have overlooked is Apple's gift for achieving balance in its products.

The hard drive is on the small side (and the solid state disk is even smaller), so it's not going to be very practical to run VM software such as Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion - how many gigabytes would you need to devote to its virtual disk? And that's a common reasons for needing more than 2G of RAM. There's always Boot Camp, but again, disk space would be an issue.

The relatively slow processors available in the MacBook Air mean this is an everyday computer (web, email, word processing, presentations, etc), not a platform for applications  such as Photoshop and Final Cut Pro that need a lot of grunt, so there's less need for big disks and lots of RAM. It also helps with battery life.

A lack of FireWire ports also implies no video work, so that removes another reason for a large hard disk. (Yes, I know some video cameras are USB.) While some people prefer FireWire to USB for attaching external drives for performance reasons, we're not talking about a high-performance computer.

Getting back to the battery, the fact that there's only one USB port means you're less likely to attach several power-sapping devices at once, helping each charge to last longer. The absence of an internal DVD drive also helps save power, as you're unlikely to use the external drive during a plane trip, relying instead on content stored on the hard disk or a USB flash drive.

The fact that the hard disk isn't very big means a MacBook Air is unlikely to be your only computer, so many people won't need the optical drive at all thanks to Remote Disk.

Something I think is missing is a system for treating iTunes on the MacBook Air as if it was an iPod or Apple TV - for example, to sync only selected playlists and podcasts. iPhoto syncing would also be useful, so you could transfer your new photos from a camera to the MacBook Air while you're away, then have them slide automagically onto your main Mac when you get back. At the same time, any new photos in specified albums (eg, pics of your kids, grandkids, or significant other) would be copied onto the notebook. Address Book syncing without .Mac would be welcome, and I'm sure you can find some other similar ideas.

The MacBook Air is what it is, and does what it does. I couldn't imagine anyone buying an iPod when it first came out. It was too expensive, for one thing. A lot of other writers thought the same, and boy, were we proved wrong! And how could anyone have even considered buying the first iMac when it didn't have a floppy drive?

As I wrote earlier in the week, just because a product isn't right for you, that doesn't mean the company was wrong to introduce it.

The real question is how many people will buy a MacBook Air. Has Apple put together a package that will resonate with buyers, especially among the general public rather than the more geeky types? Or is it another Cube? No amount of navel gazing or prognostication will answer that. Quite frankly, those of us who comment on Apple don't have an outstanding record when it comes to tipping which products will or won't be big sellers, so let's wait and see.

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Stephen Withers

Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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