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Sunday, 20 January 2008 10:17

MacBook Air: It's the iPod of Macs

A lot of hot air has been generated over the past few days since Steve Jobs announced the MacBook Air in the Macworld 2008 keynote, and while part of me still wishes it had a smaller screen, Apple has re-invented something yet again: this time, it’s the way we think about ultraportable computing.
When you think of an ultraportable computer, you normally think high price tag, small footprint, small screen, small keyboard and not much grunt in terms of power.

Apple have flipped this notion on its head, producing the thinnest notebook among its peers, while still preserving a large screen, a full size keyboard and a new Core2 Duo processor that, while not as fast as some of its full-sized brethren, still manages to outclass every other mobile processor that Intel currently makes.

Given the amount of work we do on our computers these days, and all the windows we have open, having extra screen space (and especially a widescreen), just makes life easier when working.

The complaints people have aren’t usually about a screen being too big – it’s normally about the screen being too small. And anything less than full-size keys is certainly something that you can get used to, as people are finding with the ASUS Eee PC.

But there’s nothing like having a keyboard with regular sized keys – there’s that much less for you to have to ‘get used to’, and more time that you can spend just getting on doing whatever it is you do on your computer.

Of course, the MacBook Air’s processor isn’t as fast as the processors used in other Macs, but it’s as fast as or faster than plenty of competing notebooks, especially those in the ultraportable category. That means it will have more than enough power for all the everyday computing tasks you can throw at it - instead of lumbering you with a Core Solo processor or an Ultra Low Voltage Core 2 Duo running at 1.2Ghz.

Yes, the 1.8-inch hard drive only spins at 4200 RPM, and while the optional 64GB SSD promises much faster speed, it’s also more than $1000 more expensive. SSD drives will get cheaper over the next couple of years, so at least this price differential will drop, but if you can easily afford it, you'll be in early adopter heaven.

The smaller surface area of a 1.8-inch drive platter means that it should be faster than a 2.5-inch hard drive running at 4200 RPM, and in reality it should only mean waiting an extra second or two.

And, at least compared with other ultraportable notebooks, once the MacBook Air gets its data off the hard drive, its faster processor means it will get to work with that data faster than competitors.

So, is the MacBook Air the iPod of Macs? Please read onto page 2 for the conclusion...

There’s been a lot of complaint that Apple have left too much out of the MacBook Air. But similar complaints were made about the iPod Shuffle, the Mini and the Nano – and look how popular these ‘cut down’ versions have been.

The Apple TV went it the other direction, taking an iPod and making it larger and only able to connect to your TV, your home hi-fi setup and a broadband connection.

Now that the Apple TV can download movies in HD – and can do it (and more) without needing a PC to get in the way – perhaps the Apple TV might start becoming much more popular.

But the MacBook Air has gone the way of the smaller sized iPods before it, sizing down and even removing features. That strategy hasn’t hurt the iPod, and given the MacBook Air is a full computer, offering essentially the full computing experience (unlike most ultraportable competitors which are underpowered) in a smaller package, it will clearly be very tempting to anyone considering the purchase of a new notebook.

I’ve had mixed feelings about the MacBook Air. I’ve watched the keynote a couple of times, and it is easy to get excited about such a small, svelte and still powerful computer.

Clearly the MacBook Air is far more capable than something like the ASUS Eee PC, especially when coupled with Apple’s top-notch iLife suite, and there can be no doubt that working with a MacBook Air would also be much more comfortable than the Eee, but at five times the price.

The regular MacBook delivers a faster experience with more hardware options. Granted, it’s heavier, but it’s cheaper, and does everything the MacBook Air does, but better and faster.

The only truly unique hardware feature of the MacBook Air is the multi-touch glidepad, and if there are no software updates coming for existing MacBook models to gain the same functionality, the ‘other 50 weeks’ in 2008 that Steve Jobs alluded to will very likely see MacBook and MacBook Pro refreshes that will, at the very least, include the new touchpad features, amongst whatever other hardware updates are simply standard by that time.

There's also been criticism of the MacBook Air's non-removable battery, and how this will stop people from swapping batteries out in-flight or whenever they've run out of power and need to plug in a spare. With no removable battery, you'll need to carry an external slim battery pack around with you that connects to the MacBook Air via the Magsafe adapter socket.

That battery will in turn be charged by its own adapter, or better still, by the Magsafe adapter charger for the MacBook Air. Extra battery packs could be slim, but either smaller or larger in surface area depending on how many hours of life you want your spare battery to store - expect a range of external, rechargeable battery packs to emerge for the MacBook Air in short order!

While the MacBook Air isn’t necessarily a ‘must have’ product, it is very much a ‘like to have’ product, but when I think about it, it’s one that will simply offer me all that my existing PC based notebook already lets me do, albeit in a much thinner package.

And it’s obvious that the MacBook Air is just ‘version one’ of a new thin range from Apple. How much better will the MacBook Air 2 be, and when will it come out?

Will there also be a MacBook Pro Air that gives you the larger screen sizes in the same thin packaging?

There’s also the question of a device that sits in between the iPhone and the MacBook Air, the so-called Mac Tablet or iPhone Pro.

Is it worth replacing what I already have – which meets my current needs perfectly – just to go a bit thinner?

That’s the US $1799 question. If only it cost the same as the most expensive iPod!

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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