What the Pundits Are Missing About New MacBook Air

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In the hours since Apple introduced its revamped MacBook Air, I’ve already heard quite a few pundits smirk about how the Air is Apple’s “answer to the Netbooks,” and calling “gotcha” about how the company has backtracked on its criticisms of netbooks and hypocritically turned around to make one after all. Here’s my reasoned, well-articulated response: Huh?

The MacBook Air is indeed Apple’s answer to the netbook. (One of them, anyway — more on that later.) But the answer they’ve given is “you’re doing it wrong.” Those who think Apple simply released their version of the product they’ve been deriding just aren’t paying attention.

Let’s take a look back at what Apple actually said was wrong with netbooks. In Apple’s January 2009 Earnings Call, COO Tim Cook was asked about what the company thought about netbooks. Here’s how Macworld reported it: “What Cook said then was that netbooks were ‘much less powerful’ than consumers wanted, with cramped keyboards and small displays.

But, Cook added, ‘We’ll see. We are watching the space… We’ve got some ideas here.’” OK, so we’ve got three clear areas where Cook said netbooks were failing: power, cramped keyboards and small displays.

A quick search on Windows netbooks shows that a top-of-the-line Dell netbook comes with an Intel Atom processor running at 1.66GHz with “up to” 1GB of RAM. The MacBook Air sports an Intel Core 2 Duo processor at either 1.4GHz or 1.6Ghz.

Don’t let the processor speeds fool you — the Core 2 Duo is not only a much more powerful chip, it has two processors on it. The Atom is a single-core chip designed to run at lower temperatures — a feat it manages by running at lower power.

The Air also comes with 2GB of RAM standard and can hold up to 4 gigs. The combination of processor and RAM makes the Air a much, much more powerful machine. Compared to other MacBook Pros, the Air is less powerful, but certainly not “underpowered.”

Steve Jobs made a point of mentioning the full keyboard on the MacBook Air. It’s a differentiation that I think is one of the most important. Trying to type on a reduced-size keyboard can be an exercise in futility.

The Dell notebooks we compared carry keyboards at 92% of full size. In other words, about an inch smaller than a standard keyboard. Rest your fingers on a standard keyboard. Now move them an inch closer together. Imagine the individual keys are correspondingly smaller/closer together and you begin to see they’re are going to be a lot of typos in your future, not to mention a lot of cramped fingers.

As far as displays go, there’s not too much to say. Some people like smaller displays; others aren’t comfortable with them. Largely, it’s a matter of personal preference. The Dells we looked at generally sported 10.1” displays at 1024 x 600 pixels. Other netbooks offer even smaller displays at the same pixel density.

The MacBook Air comes in 11.6 and 13.3 displays, with a native resolution of 1336 x 768 and 1440 x 900, respectively. Pixel density has a big impact on the usability of small screens, but if your eyes can handle the small screens and that’s what you like, more power to you.

And although Mr. Cook didn’t mention it in his comments, another frequent criticism of netbooks is build quality: cheap plastic housings, hinges that break easily, etc. With unibody aluminum construction and precise engineering, the MacBook Air line appears to be as well built as its MacBook Pro siblings.

The whole idea of Apple coming out with a product to “answer” the netbook is flawed from the start. Apple doesn’t develop products to combat competitors, it develops products to fill needs and desires. The question Apple decided to answer then, “Wasn’t what to do about netbooks?” but “What to do about highly mobile computing?”

It’s at the core of Tim Cook’s comment above: “we are watching the space…we’ve got some ideas here.” Apple, as usual, was watching the space, not the products. Develop for the customer and the rest will work itself out.

One final point. At the risk of parsing words too finely, consider Mr. Cook’s use of the words “some ideas.” Apple’s entry into the space wasn’t the MacBook Air, it was the iPad before it. The highly mobile computing space — the netbook space, if you will — could accomodate two answers: the tablet at the most extreme end and the MacBook Air for those who still want a traditional keyboard and “full” computing experience.

Is the MacBook Air for everyone? Certainly not. But to call it the netbook that Apple has heretofore mocked is to show ignorance about what’s been wrong about the current state of the market, what Apple actually introduced and how the company looks at competition and opportunity.

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Comments

Tiger

I just got back from a faculty meeting with a bunch of chemists. Imagine the amusement at the fact that the Dell Netbook connected to the Dell projector would not output a signal, yet the very moment a MacBook Pro was plugged in, the projector sprang to life. It was not a case of people not knowing what they’re doing with the netbook. Don’t even go there. These were PhD chemists who work with technology every single day.

The Dell Netbook itself was a POJ. The keyboard was smaller than 7” screen on my car’s computer. It was all plastic, and very cheesy.

Compare to that the new MBA. A full size keyboard, a full-size trackpad, and graphics that work! Does it cost more? Up front yes. But TCO is still going to be lower, it can run multiple operating systems, and has a decent processor in it. It’s not like people are going to be editing audio or video on them. They’re portable terminals with the optimal word being PORTABLE. Oh, and durable. And a 10 second boot time? 30 day standby? Windows doesn’t boot in 10 seconds on ANY machine.

So, yeah, MBAs have real value for the road warriors.

waltp

Tiger raises an interesting point.  If you installed Windows 7 onto one of the new MBA laptops and you’re using Boot Camp, how much time would Windows take to boot-up?

Lee Dronick

So, yeah, MBAs have real value for the road warriors.

“My life fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories. I remember a time of chaos. Ruined dreams. This wasted land. But most of all, I remember The Road Warrior. The man we called ?Mac?. To understand who he was, you have to go back to another time. When the PC was powered by the command line.”

mhikl

As Mr Burns would say, “Excellent”. You got it right, bro! To criticize is easy, and so can be praise.

You’ve backed up your points with facts ‘n thought so well. I figured the Air was not an expensive knock off of a Crappenstein netbook but having no experience with them, I wasn’t quite sure why. This is the difference easily overlooked. Apple Inc. does not make a move without reason and plan, so it knows where its missiles are going before entering any game. Had the other players in this field the patience and spectrum of Apple, Apple would have a more challenging time designing the future. Strange how a certain “knowedgeable” just doesn’t get it.

Glad I don’t have to wait 90 days for confirmation.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Cheap netbooks are good for a lot more than just being cheap notebooks. As was mentioned in another thread, you can run Oracle on an MBA, and you can do the same on a $300 netbook running Windows 7 Starter. With many of these netbooks having HDMI ports and running great in “closed” mode, they are wonderful for digital signage applications and HTPCs. Ultimately, it’s the unexpected applications that Apple has priced itself out of by thinking of the netbook as a cheap laptop.

And as to the whole contention about netbooks being cheap plastic, they are easily as rugged and durable as pre-unibody aluminum PowerBooks, iBooks, and MacBooks. Easily.

gslusher

Ultimately, it?s the unexpected applications that Apple has priced itself out of by thinking of the netbook as a cheap laptop.

First, HTPC (Home Theater PC) isn’t an “unexpected application.” There are people using Mac Minis for just that purpose. The Mac Mini also has an HDMI output. It has a faster processor than netbooks, supports 802.11n WiFi (most netbooks support only 802.11b/g), and has a SuperDrive—most netbooks apparently don’t have optical drives, so it can play DVDs (not Blu-Ray, but that’s a legal issue). Add a cheap bluetooth keyboard and trackpad or trackball and you have a much better system than a netbook.

Oh, yeah: Apple has this little $99 (less than 1/3 the price of a netbook) device called “Apple TV” that can stream audio, video, photos, etc, from the Internet and any Mac, PC, iPhone, iPod touch, or (next month) iPad. It not only has an HDMI output but optical audio and supports Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound pass-through. Can any netbook do that?

Side note: Way back when the Apple TV came out, I wrote here that the Apple TV was “an iPod with a REALLY big display.” Apple now includes the Apple TV in the iPod section of their website.

Second, re: digital signage. Again, that is something that could be done with a Mac Mini, if one wanted to, but you’re probably right that a $300-350 netbook would be cheaper. The real question, though, is how many netbooks are sold for this and other “imbedded” uses? A few hundred? A few thousand?

And as to the whole contention about netbooks being cheap plastic, they are easily as rugged and durable as pre-unibody aluminum PowerBooks, iBooks, and MacBooks. Easily.

Some of my friends have had cheap netbooks break, literally, one (by Samsung, I think) at the hinges. My aluminum 12” PowerBook G4 is still going strong after nearly 6 years. The netbooks I looked at and considered buying (before the iPad came out) have all seemed a bit flimsy to me. However, I’m not an expert on netbook or lapop design, just a guy with 3 degrees in mechanical engineering from MIT.

mhikl

I guses it’s like banging one’s head against a brick wall. The real pain starts when you stop.

Some read but don’t comprehend. I blame it on Evelyn Woodhead’s Sped Reading Course.

John Elberling

just wish the Air had built in 3G. really need that in the “mobile computing space” so that space extends to almost everywhere.

acdc1174

People are acting like this is the first “small” notebook Apple has ever made. My first Apple notebook was a Powerbook G4…a 12” Powerbook G4 to be precise. So was Apple competing in the “netbook space” back then?  I don’t think so. Apple is just re-imagining an old favorite.

JonGl

As an owner of several netbooks, and one who put Leopard on more than one of such things, I think I can speak with some context as to knowing where I’m coming from. Every single netbook I’ve owned has had reliability/solidity issues. Granted, our family tends to abuse them, but so I have also abused every PowerBook I’ve owned. So far, the only one that seems to not be physically damaged is the original eeePC 701. It’s built like a tank, but the solid state memory and the OS are a joke. We have to wipe the whole thing clean and do a restore every six months—or less, due to an error that Asus never bothered to fix, with how the system keeps track of writes to the memory. My MSI Wind, while a champ at running OSX Leopard (and according to what I’ve read, Snow Leopard as well), is a lightweight when it comes to physical build. The keyboard, while comfortable for me, sometimes has problems registering keystrokes, but the rest of the case has cracked around the edges, and all the little rubber components around the screen have disappeared. It creaks and groans, and its power supply didn’t last me a year. We have had a couple 10” eeePCs, and have also seen their build quality not stand up to simple usage (my wife hardly ever moves hers), but the wifi has ceased working properly, and it doesn’t seem to be an OS problem.

In fact, of the various brands I have frequent contact with, the only one that is consistently well-built seems to be Lenovo, but their prices also tend to be closer to that of the new Apple 11” Air.

Back when I first bought my Wind, my thoughts were such: For me, it’s not about the price, it’s about the size and weight. I want a small laptop. I don’t need rip-roaring speed, but I need portable. Something I can toss into my briefcase, backpack or pannier on my bicycle, and go, or even just carry in its sleeve. I need the full OSX, and I need a keyboard. If and when Apple ever makes something like that, I would have been willing to pay over a grand for it!

Sadly, however, Apple waited a bit too long for me! I finally broke down, and while in the States this past summer, I bought a 13” MBP. I’m happy with it, but wish it were smaller. I’m not going to now go out and sell that just to buy the new Air, but my next purchase, I sure hope that I will be able to buy the then-current Air-equivalent. I suspect, however, that by then, _all_ MacBooks will be like this. I just hope they still sell the 11” screen model. wink

-Jon

P.S. I wonder if anybody is planning on doing real-life speed tests. I wonder if that hard-wired solid-state storage will truly speed things up so that the 1.4 and 1.8 processors actually operate as fast as a 2.3 or (dreaming here), my 2.66. wink

Lee Dronick

just wish the Air had built in 3G. really need that in the ?mobile computing space? so that space extends to almost everywhere.

Is the 3G different for different carriers, different frequencies? If so there would have to be some way to accommodate that unless Apple sets up an exclusive contract one carrier.

Also in regard the the new MacBook AIr see todays Joy of Tech comic

kevinolive

I’m a little surprised. The way the MBA is advertised it’s as if there were no options for SSD prior to the new model. 
I wonder if reduced CPU speed is noticeable—mine is 2.13ghz. or perhaps they make up for that by utilizing spare cycles on the graphics chip.
Regardless, I still have to fight the urge to sell my MBA and buy a new one.

vpndev

Is the 3G different for different carriers, different frequencies? If so there would have to be some way to accommodate that unless Apple sets up an exclusive contract one carrier.

Yes. It’s the whole AT&T/Verizon/Sprint etc etc thing.

Although it’s a separate thing, the external 3G-to-WiFi thing is probably the right answer for this need, right now. Maybe it gets better with LTE but that’s not here yet.

RonMacGuy

With many of these netbooks having HDMI ports and running great in ?closed? mode, they are wonderful for digital signage applications and HTPCs.

Bosco, digital signage applications and HTPCs?!?!?  Wow, awesome!!  LOL, I guess you are just tons smarter than me but I have no clue what these are, and neither do the millions of teens and 20-somethings that will be buying MBAs.  As usual, you miss the point of the discussion by trying to stand firm by your equipment of choice - netbooks.  And that’s fine.  But you do sound desperate with your “easily as rugged and durable as pre-unibody aluminum PowerBooks, iBooks, and MacBooks” comment.  So what?  We are talking about the unibody MBA…

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@Ron: They won’t sell millions of these. And you don’t have to be a jerk about it either.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Stephen Luczo, CEO of Seagate weighs in on some MBA issues, especially concerning a “trend” to all Flash storage:

Then he slagged off the Air: “I have an Air book with an SSD unit that I?ve had for I guess a year and a half now,” said the Seagate chief. “And [there are] things that are little bit frustrating ? the cost and the lack of capacity. I spend a lot of time cleaning out files so I can make room for not a lot of content to be honest with you. {But} I think there are some users that can operate {in a} net environment and be happy.”

He said there is an SSD response-time issue: “I can tell you that my {Air} SSD drive takes about 25, 30 seconds to boot now versus the 12 seconds when I bought it. And that?s just an issue more related to OS than it is specifically to the technology but ? with the hybrid there is things that you can do it alleviate that so your boot times are actually as compelling one and two, three and four years down the road.”

It will be interesting to know whether he’s making this up, or if RonMacGuy’s millions of kids who drop $1300 on an MBA will be disappointed before they graduate.

MOSiX Man

“1024 x 600 pixels per inch

WOW! That’s got to be one helluvah display to look at. Apple’s Retina Display? has nothing on that!

Chuck La Tournous

?1024 x 600 pixels per inch?

WOW! That?s got to be one helluvah display to look at. Apple?s Retina Display? has nothing on that!


Yikes—I’d want one of those too! The typo police have been alerted—thanks!

MOSiX Man

And as to the whole contention about netbooks being cheap plastic, they are easily as rugged and durable as pre-unibody aluminum PowerBooks, iBooks, and MacBooks. Easily.

Nice blanket statement, that simply isn’t true - at least not in all cases. I’ve handled a number of netbooks in stores, and I’ve also tested software on an HP netbook for periods of weeks. I can tell you that most of the netbooks I’ve seen are definitely made largely of plastic and feel cheaply made. There is no comparison between the netbooks I’m familiar with and the pre-unibody MacBooks. Besides, the main comparison in this thread is between the current MBA and netbooks from other companies.

They won?t sell millions of these

1) How can you say this like it’s a fact? You have no realistic way of knowing how many 2nd gen MBAs that Apple will sell.

2) I think you’re dead wrong. I don’t think that they’ll sell as well as, say, the regular MacBook, but I’m sure that Apple will sell a pretty healthy number of them.

JonGl

2) I think you?re dead wrong. I don?t think that they?ll sell as well as, say, the regular MacBook, but I?m sure that Apple will sell a pretty healthy number of them.

I dunno. I think that lots of people who had been considering the MacBook will take the Air instead. It may well replace the MB in sales. I think there’s a lot of potential in that 11” model.

-Jon

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

For the safe bet against Apple selling millions of MBAs, see the article from El Reg I linked to above, with Seagate’s CEO’s estimates of the MBA’s percentage of Mac unit sales. Double that, do the math, and assume a lifespan of this model of 12 months. They will not sell millions (plural).

As for build quality… Current Acer and ASUS netbooks that I recommend have proven far more durable than any of my pre-unibody Power/MacBooks. New Dell’s and HPs feel similar to me. Very adequate unless you’re a total spazz. That’s my experience. I’m not saying that the MBA isn’t stunningly beautiful. I am saying that netbook build quality today is good enough for most.

wab95

Chuck,

I think you nailed it with this article. I have felt that Apple, rather than looking at the equipment, and asking could they build something similar and make a profit, looked at how people were using the device, and asked themselves if they could not address that need with something better.

In my opinion, they have; and not with one but with two categories of options: 1) the iPad, and 2) the MBA (now in two configurations). In other words, it’s about addressing a need in the market, and not about hopping on a commercial bandwagon. With the former, they address that niche of users who want something primarily for web-surfing and email - i.e. a communications and consuming device. With the latter, a road-warrior’s peripheral device that gets the job done while travelling.

Among my colleagues, these are the two primary ways in which I have seen netbooks used (and occasionally notebooks by desktop users), with greater and lesser success, but seldom joy. It seems that, once again, Apple studied the market and put out what they felt was a better widget for the job. Given the impact of iPads on netbook and even notebook sales, it would seem that many consumers would agree.

Also in regard the the new MacBook AIr see todays Joy of Tech comic

Many thanks for the link, Sir Harry. Good to see this thread peppered with a little humour.

jpashin

The specs of the 13” unit with max proc & ram are very close to my 2008 Macbook Pro. The prospect of running around with a 3 lb laptop is very appealing - will probably get one next week. A 3G chip would be a nice addition, however.

I have a Dell mini 10 netbook (Ubuntu) that I use as a disposable laptop (great when traveling in Asia). The thing is built like a tank and performs well in most areas, but typing totally sucks. The upside? I’m out only $250 if the thing gets lost or stolen.

jfbiii

He said there is an SSD response-time issue…And that?s just an issue more related to OS than it is specifically to the technology

So, it’s an SSD issue that’s not so much an SSD issue.

mhikl

Bosco wrote:
Bosco (Brad Hutchings)” date=“1287771321”]@Ron: And you don?t have to be a jerk about it either.

Bosco, believe you also wrote on
11:57 PM: 19 Oct 2010 - (Apple: 35,000 iPads Apps Gives iPad the Advantage)
Bosco (Brad Hutchings) It?s good to see on that on the kinder, gentler TMO comment boards, we can all hold different opinions and respect one another.

ctopher

Don’t look now, but Adorama is selling the new ASUS 1015PEM for $380! It’s got a dual-core Atom! It’s got VGA out and Window 7 Starter Express Gate! USB 3.0!

Man, has Apple blown it bigtime. Better sell your stock now!

Macbook Air? Are you kidding me? I getting a Eee PC(tm) Seashell 1015PEM! What?

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Well look at that. The 12 year old called me a hypocrite for asking another commenter not to be a jerk. Blocked!

I’ve heard of the SSD issue and think I’ve experienced it a little with my ASUS t91mt. If what the guy says is true, and it sounds like he’s a little more focussed on the issue since his company is about storage and he’s offering hybrid disk/flash products, it’s something to watch out for and/or ask Apple about before you buy.

Modern mechanical drives with modern file systems don’t have that problem. SSD drives with modern file systems seem to have an issue there. Like someone above whose 3 mechanical engineering degrees from MIT give him special knowledge about netbook hinge theory, my two degrees in computer science, with one focussing on algorithms and data structures tells me that file systems designed for and optimized over time for spinning disks might have some funky edge cases with other physical storage models.

gslusher

Re: Luczo/Seagate CEO’s comments

It depends upon when he bought his MacBook Air. “A year and a half” ago would be April, 2009. A new MacBook Air was released in June, 2009. Given the vagueness of “a year and a half,” his MacBook Air could be that model—or the previous one. He also didn’t say what option he has. Here are the four possibilities:

mid-2009: 1.86 or 2.13 gHz, 128 GB SSD

late 2008: 1.6 or 1.86 gHz, 128 GB SSD

new: 1.86 or 2.13 gHz, 128 or 256 GB SSD

So, he could be using a MacBook Air with a slower CPU.

As for “response time,” boot up probably is not a good way to measure the drive response time. (He even said that it was an OS issue.) What has probably happened is that he’s added a bunch of startup items that weren’t there originally, which slows the boot-up. My old, creaky iMac G4 can boot up with my normal plethora of startup items (Snapz, F10 Launch Studio, CopyPaste, Palm stuff for my TX, etc) or with nothing, using a pristine user. The difference is significant. IOW, he’d have a similar “degradation” in boot up time with a HD.

I’d also suggest taking any comments about SSDs from the CEO of a major hard drive manufacturer with a pound of salt. He has a vested interest in putting down SSD devices. I’m not saying that he is lying—he almost surely isn’t, but his interests can affect his impressions (e.g., remembering the problems more clearly than the advantages)

I compared the new 13” MacBook Air to its immediate predecessor, using MacTracker. Here are the salient differences that I found (MacTracker didn’t have any price information):

CPUs: Same options
SSD: 128GB standard on both; new has option of 256 GB
RAM: 2GB standard on both; new has option of 4GB
Display: Old 1280x800; new 1440x900
Weight: Old 3.0 lbs; new 2.9 lbs
—- This is probably the base configuration; with additional RAM & larger SSD it will probably be a little bit heavier
Thickness: Old 0.16-0.76”; new 0.11-0.68”
Ports: Old 1 USB; New 2 USB, SDHC card reader

RonMacGuy

@Ron: They won?t sell millions of these. And you don?t have to be a jerk about it either.

Sorry Bosco, I didn’t think I was being too much of a jerk!!  I did say you were smarter than me, which is true, at least where computer stuff is concerned - based on what I’ve read from you over the past year (years?).  I thought by now you’d have a pretty think skin!!  grin  I am sorry if I came across too abruptly (and as a sarcastic SOB).  You are of course entitled to your opinions, just like the rest of us!!

Ron

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

I?d also suggest taking any comments about SSDs from the CEO of a major hard drive manufacturer with a pound of salt. He has a vested interest in putting down SSD devices. I?m not saying that he is lying?he almost surely isn?t, but his interests can affect his impressions (e.g., remembering the problems more clearly than the advantages)

His own business is moving to hybrid devices, where disk storage is used for user data and Flash storage intended for “write once, read many” (OS and apps). I’m sure he has all sorts of internal research available to bring to bear on the discussion and inform his thinking. They and every other hard disk manufacturer are completely sunk if the hybrid model offers no advantages. And given that Flash memory degrades with writes, it’s more than conceivable that their approach offers some key advantages. There are some funky remapping algorithms that deal with the physical degradation, and they would necessarily impose some costs on read and write times as the device degrades.

I think this should be on people’s radar screens if fast boot time is desired or claimed. That’s all.

iBagwan

2) I think you?re dead wrong. I don?t think that they?ll sell as well as, say, the regular MacBook, but I?m sure that Apple will sell a pretty healthy number of them.

I just saw the 11” MBA at the Apple store and there was a crowd of 20 somethings clustered around it and they all wanted one. I think the MBA will be a real surprise to everyone. Kind of like another recent product was!

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