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Wednesday, 16 January 2008 01:26

MacBook Air is one skinny notebook

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There were widespread predictions of a lightweight notebook announcement at Macworld Expo, but did anybody say it was going to be this slim?

The MacBook Air measures just 0.76in/1.94cm near the hinge, tapering to 0.16in/0.4cm at the thinnest point. That makes it the world's slimmest notebook according to Apple.

In terms of features, just about everything you expect from a Mac is there with the exception of an optical drive. With those dimensions, something's got to give, but at least the optional $US99/$A139 MacBook Air SuperDrive is USB powered, so if you do need to take it on the road there's no messing with additional power adaptors.

However, there's only one USB port on the MacBook Air, so if you plan to use more than one peripheral you will need to be prepared for a lot of plugging and unplugging, or to carry a hub. Along with the headphone jack and micro-DVI port, the USB connector is mounted in a small flip-down unit on the right side of the computer.

Before we leave the topic of storage, the 80G hard drive or optional 64G flash drive are on the small side. 320G and even 500G notebook drives are offered by major disk vendors, but the MacBook Air uses a 1.8in drive - the sort previously associated with iPods and other portable media players. Still, Apple's sold a lot of low-end MacBooks, which also start with (admittedly faster) 80G drives.

As expected, the 13.3in, 1280x800 pixel widescreen display uses LED backlighting. This technology consumes less power than traditional fluorescent lighting, and contains no mercury.

That size screen means there's room for a full-size keyboard, and Apple has kept the automatic keyboard illumination originally found on late model Powerbooks and more recently on the MacBook Pro.

The large trackpad incorporates iPhone-style multi-touch technology to support a variety of gestures. Pinch (moving the finger and thumb together or apart) controls zooming in some applications including Safari and iPhoto, swipe (a three-finger drag) is the equivalent of forward and back  commands, and the extremely intuitive rotate (rotating finger and thumb) rotates images in iPhoto. What's not clear at this stage is whether the trackpad software requires specific support in applications, or whether it can be configured to generate keystrokes that correspond to various applications' commands.

CONTINUED


Practically all of the usual Mac experience has been brought to this remarkably slim device. The micro-DVI port supports extended desktop or mirroring. DVI and VGA adaptors are included, while composite and S-video are optional extras.

As I said, almost all of the usual Mac experience can be found in the MacBook Air, including 802.11n and Bluetooth wireless connectivity and a built-in videocamera. There's no FireWire port, though. It remains to be seen whether this is a sign that Apple's turning away from the interface it pioneered, or if it was just something that had to be sacrificed to achieve that slim profile. If you need FireWire on the road, you're probably carrying a lot of gear (eg a videocamera) anyway, so maybe the reasoning was that you won't mind the extra bulk of the MacBook Pro and you will want its greater processing power and storage.

Ethernet is only available via a USB adaptor, but given the widespread use of Wi-Fi that shouldn't be a no big deal for most potential buyers. Most of the travellers I know carry a portable wireless router such as the Airport Express so their computers aren't tethered to in-room wired connections.

Two questions always asked about notebooks are "how much does it weigh?" and "how long does the battery last?" Not only is the MacBook Air slim, it's also light, weighing in at 3lb/1.36kg. That's a full 2lb/0.91kg lighter than the MacBook, and less than half the weight of a 17in MacBook Pro.

While weight is easily measured, battery life is trickier. Apple quotes "up to five hours," but it would be unusual if buyers don't complain that they need to plug in more frequently than that.

So, how much is this going to cost you? The $US1799/$A2499 base model includes a 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo processor (the slowest CPU fitted to any current Mac notebook) and the 80G hard disk.

Opting for the 1.8GHz processor bumps the price by $US300/$A430, but it's he solid state drive that really hurts your pocket. It might boost the computer's performance and be more shock resistant, but can you afford an extra $US999/$A1409? Depending on where and how you plan to use the MacBook Air, you might also throw in the Ethernet adaptor ($US29/$A39), modem ($US49/$A79), MagSafe airline adaptor ($US49/$A69) or the Apple Remote ($US19/$A29, normally included as standard with Macs).

Small and light notebooks always attract a premium, but as long as you steer clear of the solid state drive you're not talking about outlandish prices. The 1.6GHz version sits neatly between the black MacBook and the 15in MacBook Pro.

My PowerBook is showing definite signs of age, and the idea of trimming a few pounds from my hand luggage is very attractive...


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Stephen Withers

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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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