Apple’s New MacBook Air Underpowered

| Editorial

We waited 16 months for a new MacBook Air. While it’s notable for some significant new technology, such as integrated Flash storage and higher resolution display, the rest of the specs reveal an underpowered notebook by today’s standards. i was disappointed.

Apple knows that its notebook customers value light weight and work day long battery life. That’s especially true of a MacBook Air (MBA) that appeals to business travelers. For example, there’s precious little room these days on an airliner’s tray table for a 15-inch MacBook Pro that can’t get through a 2h40m flight from Denver to D.C. on a single charge.

Regrettably, those design considerations place severe constraints on the speed and heat output of such a small notebook. Looking at the specs, we see that the new 13-inch MBA is limited by: a (max) 2.13* GHz Core 2 Duo (so yesteryear**) processor and 256 MB of shared video memory (VRAM). Shared VRAM is a serious performance killer. Other specs leave one less than drooling. The maximum RAM possible is 4 GB. The 11.6-inch model’s Front Side Bus (FSB) is only 800 MHz. Is this a Mac poised for Lion?

MacBook Air late 2010

MacBook Air Duo, Late 2010

Also, external storage is going to happen at a leisurely pace with just USB 2. I had been hoping for USB 3, but it looks like the standard may not be fully baked in Apple’s eyes. Even so, older USB 2 devices are electrically and plug compatible with USB 3. More disappointment.

This Mac looks to be exactly what Mr. Jobs said, “What happens when a MacBook meets an iPad?” It’s a Mac for those who need a Mac and Mac OS X specific capabilities for travel and low intensity work: Keynote, writing, Twitter, e-mail and Internet browsing.

For those who push their Macs to the limit, I think the new MBA will be a disappointment, even when connected to a larger Cinema display. Don’t even think about Parallels Desktop with shared memory. There’s just no way to cram the horsepower some users need need into a MacBook that small. Some serious study and testing will be required to see if this MacBook Air is up to the tasks users may have in mind.

However, and here’s the important part, for those who can’t do (the lightweight work) that they need to do on travel with an iPad, I’ll relent that this new MBA will be a nifty supplement to, say, an iMac at home or in the office. 

______

*Jumping to the 2.13 GHz C2D (13-inch only) will set you back an additional US$100, raising the base price to almost US$1700.00. As a result “aggressive pricing” also means settling for less.

** The selection of the C2D is likely related to the current lawsuit between NVIDIA and Intel. The short version of that is that if Apple wanted integrated NVIDIA graphics, the only legal option was to stay with the Core 2 Duo. Don’t you hate it when the kids quarrel?

 

Comments

MOSiX Man

Dear John,

Don’t you think it’s a bit two-faced to first call the new MacBook Air ‘Underpowered’, when even you conclude that ‘This Mac looks to be exactly what Mr. Jobs said, ?What happens when a MacBook meets an iPad?? It?s a Mac for those who need a Mac and Mac OS X specific capabilities for travel and low intensity work: Keynote, writing, Twitter, e-mail and Internet browsing.”’ So, it’s underpowered yet fills its intended need to a tee?

Should we be surprised that the MacBook Air doesn’t have a Core i7 CPU or a dedicated video memory and won’t handle 16GB of RAM? If someone thinks a MacBook Air was intended for playing the latest first-person-shooter or editing massive Final Cut Pro projects on, they need to get your head examined. As far as ‘those who push their Macs to the limit’, obviously they are not the target audience for this product. What you’ve written here is like writing that the Mac Pro is too heavy to really be considered a good portable Mac. Maybe Apple could have shoe-horned in USB 3, or bumped up the specs a bit, but they had to make some design choices to keep the price from getting too ridiculous.

You say ‘?aggressive pricing? also means settling for less.’ I say that engineering is always a matter of trade-offs. Apple went with less-expensive parts that are of sufficient power for the jobs that the MacBook Air is intended for, in as small and light a container as possible. In my book, those were the right design choices. If somebody is in the market for a more powerful MacBook, they are other, more appropriate options available to them.

How about a more accurate headline, like “MacBook Air May Be Underpowered for Users Looking for Maximum Performance”?

Bill

You’re absolutely right. Regrettably, the iPad, iPod and iPhone are underpowered as well. I really was hoping to run my creative graphics software on all of those and the MacBook Air. And trust me, if the MacBook Air did have enough performance to handle power computing, I’m sure you of course would never complain about the tripled price or the shortened battery life or the doubled weight and reduced mobility due to all of the above.

Go away.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Here’s what’s frustrating about Apple. They basically built an expensive netbook this time, but they learned nothing from the cheaper models. One easy thing to learn is the replaceable battery, often placed at the rear base of the device. While not as pretty as the specially designed flat batteries that Apple throws in the axe blade of the MBA, the standard issue netbook batteries pack plenty of punch and don’t make the device even slightly awkward or uncomfortable. If you need longer life, buy a bigger, bulkier battery. You’ll never notice it. If Apple is concerned about customers swapping third party batteries and stealing profits from them, they could make a MagSafe battery connector.

With adequate battery power, you can get adequate computing power for cheap. Slap Mac OS X starter (upgradable, maybe only runs apps from the Mac App Store) and make a decent plastic case, and you’ve got a $700 MBA with customary Apple margins.

dhp

It?s a Mac for those who need a Mac and Mac OS X specific capabilities for travel and low intensity work: Keynote, writing, Twitter, e-mail and Internet browsing.

So you’re trying to tell me this MBA can do no more than the 900 MHz iBook G3 in my living room? Somehow I doubt that.

craigf

THis column could have been much more concise and less annoying. My edit…

Apple knows that its notebook customers value light weight and work day long battery life.
This MacBook Air is for those who need Mac OS X specific capabilities for travel and low intensity work: Keynote, writing, Twitter, e-mail and Internet browsing.
Study and testing will be required to see if this is up to the tasks more ambitious users may have in mind.
For travelers who can?t do the lightweight work they require with an iPad, this new MBA will be a nifty supplement to, say, an iMac at home or in the office.

Nonsuch

I doubt a swappable battery is enough to shave $300 off the cost of an MBA. And “OS X starter”? Another fork of OS X? It would be cheaper and easier to just let it run regular OS X, to say nothing of the confusion of adding essentially a new product class with its own OS and capabilities.

I will allow that that strip cartoon was pretty funny.

scott

I agree with the above posters.  Did you somehow think this thing would outshine a 17” MBP with a LOT more room inside for heat dissipation?  A video editor or serious notebook gamer is going for the 17” MBP, they’re not the target audience.  It runs iLife.  It gets email and does presentations and will get them to their VPN for work. That’s about as intense as 90% of the people out there will ever get with a computer.

scott

@dhp:

Try running the new iLife on that 900MHz G3 iBook and see how it fares.  Also, some of the web technologies will start leaving the old PowerPCs behind.  Not to mention the fact that you won’t be updating any software at all anytime soon.

Ion_Quest

Apple didn’t know how to build a $500 netbook so now offers a $1000 netbook—as pretty as it is.  Can it also be used to chop food?

jfbiii

Definitely a vanity netbook. I’d be pleasantly surprised if they sold a lot of them, but I don’t expect that. I think the biggest problem boils down to this: anyone shopping on specs isn’t going to buy this but it’s cool enough to appeal to people that are going to be disappointed with it.

But as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not the target demographic for this machine, either. If I wanted a netbook that wasn’t a piece of crap, I’d at least have an alternative.

daemon

It’s so wonderful that Apple has finally entered the netbook market!

craigf

daemon said on October 21st, 2010 at 11:34 AM:
It?s so wonderful that Apple has finally entered the netbook market!

Ha ha ha.

Except that this doesn’t have a teensy screen or a cramped mini keyboard. And it isn’t flimsy plastic and made to be disposable in one or two years. And it runs OS X without hacks and with Apple power management to give it decent battery life even though it is running a real laptop-class CPU.

Aside from that, yeah, it’s just another crappy netbook.

wab95

John:

Good points. Your comments related to the MBA being potentially underpowered for Lion gives one ‘paws’ before deciding to purchase (although one could say ‘claws’, given some of the responses above).

I think a missing variable in deciding if this is true or not is Lion itself. Remember that SJ said these are just ‘some’ of the features of Lion he shared at the event. Just as Leopard, and later Snow Leopard had a smaller hard drive foot print than did Tiger, Lion may be smarter in how it uses memory or graphics. The system may be more efficient.

Note too that he talked about the engineering, and cramming more into smaller and smaller spaces, being maximally efficient in design. We have seen this trend over time in hardware, and to a lesser extent in software (I recall being surprised at the reduction in power brick size going from my first gen MBP to my latest). It may be that we are about to see similar engineering improvements in software and its use of CPU/GPU and RAM capacities.

This does not detract from your other observations regarding USB3 and the like, but then again, these are first iteration upgrades. My take on this was that Apple wanted to underscore portability (including battery life) over power with these two devices.

freejak

I disagreed with your statement that this is for “lightweight work”. I have been using a Macbook Air (and the 1.86 Ghz cpu at that) to run Oracle Enterprise Edition 10g and now 11g using VMWare for years.

This is not “lightweight work”. This machine is excellent and the new models are demonstrations of Apple’s usual incremental improvement approach.

I also don’t understand the fascination with nitpicking this machine to death. This is not a desktop substitute. Why is that so hard for some people to get?

TMO, please don’t go Global World News on us with these alleged prognosticators pumping ill-informed spew.

John, buy one. Borrow one. Try some heavyweight work, then make your comments.

John Martellaro

This has been a healthy discussion.  Remember, my article was an editorial where I have the latitude to present an opinion, albeit based on experience. A hands-on review is forthcoming.

craigf

For some refreshing technical sanity, check out the Ars Technica piece, Why Apple saddled the MacBook Air with “gimped” CPUs

http://tinyurl.com/39ez2et

John Martellaro

craigf:  Thanks for that link. It does indeed provide valuable insight and technical sanity.

VaughnSC

For some refreshing technical sanity, check out the Ars Technica piece, Why Apple saddled the MacBook Air with ?gimped? CPUs

Was about to chime in with this same link. Good article.

And @Brad: those ‘extended’ battery packs hanging off the arse of HP netbooks and some smaller VAIOs seem quite awkward, although I never used one on a regular basis. To this day I have yet to swap batteries; from PB160 to MBP5,4 (roughly 20 years) and I’m not a casual user.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

MBA’s battery has the same capacity as a typical 6-cell netbook battery, like the one on my $300 Acer Aspire. It’s not awkward at all. Neither is a 9-cell battery ($40). Look, the point is that MBA isn’t a primary computer for anyone. The 11.6” model is twice the price of better spec’d Windows netbooks, many of which now have HDMI output. In 8 months, what looks like a compromise today will just look plain anemic.

The more I think about the MBA, the less I get it. There is so much innovation going on between $300 and $500. Apple could wrap aluminum around that and make a lot of money. Heck, I’d gladly buy an ASUS t101mt running Mac OS X and able to dual boot to Windows 7.

Ethan

Yet in the marketing on their site Apple says : “That makes a huge difference when you?re firing up graphics-intensive applications or playing 3D games like EVE or Call of Duty 4.”

So does Apple really think that this thing is a Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, or Maya workstation? No, they just advertise that it is and let the user be dissappointed at the performance after the credit card was swiped. I really hate how they play customers that way.

zewazir

Apple is, as they have ben for years, filling what their research determines to be consumer needs.

One thing to keep in mind: portability will always come at the cost of capability. The 13” MacBook has, in general, better capability than the MacBook Air.  It is also not as portable - where relative portability is defined by combination of weight, volume, and battery longevity. From comments made by Apple leadership, Apple is running off the theory that the “typical” netbook has compromised too much on power for too little portability. So ,instead Apple offers the iPad - a product even more portable than the typical netbook; and the MacBook Air, a product somewhat less portable, but with far greater overall capability.

Apple is betting that consumer needs - with respect to balancing between portability and capability - are better met by offering two high quality products toward either end of the spectrum that one product in the middle. For those who want more power, there is always the MacBook/MacBook Pro line, while those wanting greater portability have the iPod Touch/iPhone line. From what I can see, Apple is simply covering all bases in a different manner than the standard netbook market: a hallmark of Apple products.

For the past decade, Apple has been doing a good job of determining what consumers want, often even before the consumers do.

mhikl

Me thinks there will be some backtracking when you get yer paws on one, John.

gslusher

So does Apple really think that this thing is a Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, or Maya workstation? No, they just advertise that it is and let the user be dissappointed at the performance after the credit card was swiped. I really hate how they play customers that way.

Do you really think that anyone who uses Photoshop, Final Cut Pro or Maya is that stupid or naive? Few casual users buy Photoshop ($650-700 unless one qualifies for the education version), much less Final Cut Studio ($800-1000). More of us use Photoshop Elements ($90-100) and iMovie, which will work just fine on the MacBook Air. Besides, “graphics-intensive applications” includes a lot more than Photoshop.

To get some perspective, look at the high-end 13” MacBook Air. It has a 2.13 gHz Core2 Duo. Perhaps you haven’t been using Macs very long or have a short memory. That is faster than the basic mid-2007 20” iMac (2.0 gHz Core2 Duo). The MacBook can have 8 GB RAM vs that iMac’s 4GB max.

Like some others I’ve read, you write as if the MacBook Air is the only laptop that Apple makes. It has a place. Professional photographers and video editors are not likely to get one as their primary laptop, though the light weight and low price of the 11” model could be tempting for use while they’re traveling, as would be the iPad.

daemon

Except that this doesn?t have a teensy screen or a cramped mini keyboard. And it isn?t flimsy plastic and made to be disposable in one or two years. And it runs OS X without hacks and with Apple power management to give it decent battery life even though it is running a real laptop-class CPU.
Aside from that, yeah, it?s just another crappy netbook.

craigf, your characterization of netbooks as being “crappy” is uncalled for. Netbooks are wonderful devices that fit a a function perfectly.

If you feel that spending $1000 - $1600 to browse email while on an airplane is worth it to you, more power to you. Now, if you’re buying this thing to leave sitting around on your kitchen counter at home, may I suggest that you take a look at something a little more sanely priced, say the iMac, you can get it for $1200 you know….

Ethan

“Do you really think that anyone who uses Photoshop, Final Cut Pro or Maya is that stupid or naive? ”

Hell yeah I do. We always talk about how Apple makes life easy for dumb users who don’t know about computers, which is why iPhoto has an email button for example. A LOT of users don’t know how to add an attachment to an email. Yet now suddenly all users are smart and sophisticated when they spec a mac? Please. I know many designers who know very little in regards to HW specs. They’ll walk out of the Apple store thinking they have a great light, mobile workstation/gaming rig ready for “Call of Duty” all for a 1k.

Actually I’ve been on macs since the G3 233 Mhz desktop in 1997. It’s not the only laptop they make but it’s not the gaming/graphics-intensive laptop they present in their marketing. And when users do use it for that the one fan in there will run non-stop trying to cool the cpu down. My MBP w/core 2 duo 2.14 runs both fans full bore when editing video right now in iMovie.

Hell all they need to do is add a slug on the page mentioning that for professional grade apps the user might want to look at the MBP line. Not that hard.

RonMacGuy

I picture millions of students buying these for use in colleges and universities.  As the older generation that most of us are probably in, it is easy to focus on what “we” need and how this may not work well for us except for intense travelers that basically do browsing/email/basic word processing, presentations, and spreadsheets.  But each year millions of new college students want a laptop with huge battery life, portability, and adequate power to allow note-taking in class as well as email and facebook access while relaxing on campus, all in a lightweight and cool looking package.  As always, Apple aims to please to this younger generation that is not running Photoshop or huge spreadsheet analyses.

RonMacGuy

Ethan, you are so off-base it’s funny.  If a designer buys hardware without researching its capabilities first then they are an idiot.  But, if they walked into an Apple store and tried it out first and asked basic questions they will be directed to something with more power for their needs.

Mike R

Is the new MBA light on processing power? Yup. Will it fill a space in the market? Maybe a big one? I think maybe. Yes there will be some that buy the MBA for the wrong purpose and then cry that it isn’t fast enough.

It all comes down to “the tool for the job”. Is the new MBA suitable to be the only computer a user has if they regularly work it hard and heavy? Nope. If that is the case, there are hotter MBPs for about the same money. If a user’s use is normally light OR there is a definitive reason to swap performance for size and weight… go for it. Besides, while everyone gets focused on the “specs” so they can feel better about other choices, not many speak of the experience. The SLOWEST Mac I have is my older Mini with the 1.83 Core 2 Duo and 667MHz bus. For common usage, it is faster than a quad core Dell doing the same tasks.

Put Windows on this hardware spec and it will be poor. With OS X, it will be nice and snappy. Is it a desktop replacement? Nope. But for those of us that travel quite a lot but still do most of our work on a big desktop in the office and use the laptop for relatively light duty traveling this is stellar.

The FIRST MBA disappointed me mightily. Was it because it was underpowered or expensive? Nope. It was because it was a 13”. Really pretty and thin but didn’t fix the dimensions of concern to myself and many in the same boat as mine; the X and Y dimensions to keep that carryon briefcase as small as possble in ALL dimensions. The new 11” is just what I and many of my colleagues have been waiting for. I’ll be out this weekend to get one to replace the Dell Mini 9 that I travel with currently.

ethan

“Ethan, you are so off-base it?s funny. ”

I’m off base because other people buy the wrong hardware for their needs? I’m off base because they don’t challenge the marketing spin Apple puts out there? My point is if Apple cares about the user so much then be honest with them in their promotion materials. I guess you feel Apple can write whatever they want and buyer beware? Okay well then hopefully someone will google this conversation and think twice before buying. I thought that Apple was always thinking of the customer?

BTW: the garbage I hear at the Apple store that the sales guys tell customers is incredible. I’ve had to step in and redirect them to the better machines as the sales guy was feeding them garbage about the ability of a bottom line macbook. That’s what you get when you have a sales guy who never used Premiere trying to lie his way through a conversation.

In every store? No, but it does happen.

I completely agree that this will smoke in colleges:“huge battery life, portability, and adequate power to allow note-taking in class as well as email and facebook access while relaxing on campus, all in a lightweight and cool looking package.”  I think your right. Yet that does not have anything to do with the upper line performance/ability they present on the site. That is what I’m talking about. I think many students will be disappointed with intensive gaming on the machine.

RonMacGuy

Sorry Ethan, bad choice of wording.  After re-reading you are not off-base.  If you know people who would do that, then I can’t argue with that.  It is strange to me for people not to research before plopping $1K plus on a computer.  And no, I don’t agree that Apple can advertise whatever they want.  But it is up to the consumer to understand what they are getting into.  Most companies stretch the truth in advertising - pretty much a given.  I apologize for my choice of wording.

lovelatte

Apple?s New MacBook Air Underpowered for what? It depends on what you are using it for. I have been waiting for new version of MacAir for months so I don’t have to lug around a “full”  laptop. I need something light,thin and be able to setup within minutes for reading emails,browsing,  on a decent size screen. I also need something slick and boots up fast to show demo’s.

For me fits the bill,

ctopher

Actually, you may be surprised how many designers snap these up for Adobe Suite work.

Anyone doing studio photography will/should have a Mac Pro to handle those 100+ megabyte photos with all the layers etc.

But if I’m a graphic designer designing for web and print, and I have to go see clients, I’m going to want one of these.

It’ll make a great presentation, allow me to make changes on the fly (”... you think you’d prefer the Nosegrind font? let see…”)

I routinely edit 20+ layered Photoshop files on my 1Ghz Pentium. It’s not speed demon, but I can get the job done.

I think graphic professionals that have to travel will love these. They loved the 12” Powerbook too!

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