Dr. Mac Reviews MacBook Air

Review: Something in the (MacBook) Air

I love my job. For the past month Iive had the pleasure of using a MacBook Air along with a US$99 MacBook Air USB SuperDrive (more on that shortly) and a $29 USB Ethernet adapter.

The system I tested was a stock, off-the-shelf $1,799 unit with a 1.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB memory, and an 80GB 4200-rpm PATA hard drive. Iive been using it for as much of my daily work as possible, and took it on the road (Spring Break in Florida!) for a week as well.

What I Like About Air

For starters, I used to hate it when technology writers called an electronic device "sexy." But I donit know any other way to describe MacBook Air. It is sexy: Sleek, smooth, curvy, and impossibly thin.

Before I actually laid my grubby hands on one I thought it might feel somewhat flimsy and that Iid be afraid of breaking it. But although itis skinnier than an anorexic supermodel and I could balance it on three fingers as you can see below, it actually felt quite sturdy and substantial in my hand(s). After a month of treating the MacBook Air no differently than my other laptops, Iim happy to report that my fears were unfounded.

I ran all of my bread and butter applications -- including (but not limited to) Word, Mail, Safari, Photoshop, OmniFocus, and more -- every day and felt that its overall performance, while perhaps not quite as zippy as my MacBook Pro, was more than acceptable. The bottom line is that most of the time I liked using the MacBook Air as well as I like using any of my other Macs and found no performance-related issues that made me long for one of my other computers.

I liked the fact that even though itis tiny, it sports a full-size keyboard and I was tickled to find said keyboard was backlit, just like my bigger notebooks.

The LED backlit screen was bright and beautiful at all times and in all situations. I sometimes wished it offered a resolution higher than 1280 x 800, but it wasn?t a deal-breaker--not even close. Plus, when I used it at home I used one of the two included video adapters to connect my 24-inch display, which worked beautifully at its maximum resolution of 1920 x 1200. This made the smaller built-in screen a total non-issue, at least when I worked at home.

Another thing I really liked was the new Remote Disk functionality. Because the MacBook Air has no built-in optical drive, you can "borrow" the optical disc drive of another Mac or PC on your LAN and use it to copy or install software on your MacBook Air.

I loved this. First I installed the disc sharing software on my MacBook Pro. From then on, the SuperDrive in my MacBook Pro showed up as a Remote Disk in the sidebar of Finder windows on the MacBook Air as shown here.

To use a CD or DVD via Remote Disk, I start by clicking the Ask to use button on the MacBook Air. Then, over on the MacBook Pro, I grant myself permission to use the disk as shown here.

Once I click the Accept button, the disk in the MacBook Prois SuperDrive becomes available to the MacBook Air, where I can use it as if it were inserted in the MacBook Prois $99 external USB SuperDrive

Remote Disk worked flawlessly almost every time I used it and I was able to install software wirelessly from my MacBook Prois SuperDrive almost as fast as installing it from the optional external USB SuperDrive.

Finally, the multi-touch trackpad is really cool, letting me perform iPhone-like gestures including pinch and un-pinch to zoom in and out and rotating my fingers to rotate the document onscreen. And the new Trackpad tab in the Keyboard & Mouse System Preference pane, which includes little movies that show you how the gestures work as shown below, is pretty cool, too. I only wished the multi-touch gestures worked in every application, not just Apple apps like iPhoto and Preview.

MacBook Air Rocks, But...

The MacBook Air was kind of like the little girl with the little curl in the middle of her forehead: When it was good it was very, very good but when it was bad, it was horrid. Well, maybe not horrid but occasionally vexing for sure.

Hereis an example: When I attempted to move data from my MacBook Pro to the just-unpacked MacBook Air, the first attempt failed with a cryptic error message.

My network was fine as far as I could tell so I tried it again a few minutes later and it worked perfectly. Go figure.

Another thing that concerned me was the MacBook Air battery. First, I never came close to the Apple claim of "up to five hours of battery life." The best I could do was just under four hours, and that was with wireless networking and Bluetooth both turned off. I was able to watch a 2.5-hour movie, but that used more than 80% of a fully-charged battery. In the end I averaged a little more than 3.25 hours per full charge.

It wouldnit be such a big deal if I could carry a spare battery or two, but the MacBook Air battery is sealed inside the case. That means I had to recharge after every three to four hours of use.

Which brings up the second battery-related issue: It sometimes took as long as 8 hours to recharge the battery fully. It didnit happen every time. So I suspect there are mitigating factors. But, after a lot of testing and reading dozens upon dozens of posts on discussion boards from other MacBook Air users, Iim still not sure how to avoid it or fix it. Sometimes it takes 8 or 9 hours to fully charge; other times itis ready to rock in 4 hours give or take a few minutes. Iid sure like to know what to do to make recharge times consistently short but so far nothing Iive tried has done the trick.

Finally, I discovered that having just one USB port was could be kind of a drag. As I mentioned, I took the Air to Florida over Spring Break. My son brought his USB guitar controller, so we thought weid be able to play a little Guitar Hero III in our down time. But it was an either/or situation. The game requires the DVD to be mounted, which means the SuperDrive needs a USB port. But the guitar controller also requires a USB port. No problem, I thought, having had the foresight to pack a powered USB 2 hub and some extra cables. But noooooo! According to Article 307500 in the Apple Support library:

The MacBook Air SuperDrive was designed exclusively for use with MacBook Air. The MacBook Air SuperDrive must be directly plugged into the MacBook Air USB port, and cannot be used when connected to a hub.

I realize the MacBook Air isnit really designed for gaming, but I couldnit help thinking I wouldnit have had this problem on my MacBook Pro (or even a MacBook).

And Now for the Thrilling Conclusion...

So there you have it. I have to say that while there were some aspects of MacBook Air usage that gave me pause, none the above issues would have been a deal breaker for me. I love the size, the screen, the support for my 24-inch external display, the full-sized keyboard, and, of course, the sexiness. If I were going to have two computers, the MacBook Air would almost certainly be the perfect laptop.

Therein lies the rub. Until recently I was a two-Mac-guy. At the office I used a big desktop system (Power Mac or Mac Pro) with gobs of storage and RAM, and two bad-ass video cards powering a two huge flat panel displays. And I had a laptop (most recently an aluminum PowerBook G4) for those times when I was away from the office and needed a Mac.

But I hated having two computers. Before I could leave for a trip I had to synchronize my data files and e-mail to insure I had everything I might need while I was away. Then, when I returned to the office I had to reverse the process. Keeping the data in sync on both machines was a major pain and for many years I moaned about how much Iid LOVE to find a laptop powerful enough to use as my one and only Mac.

Then, the MacBook Pro came along and while I occasionally wish I had an 8-core machine on my desk, I donit wish it very often. Most of the time Iim tickled to be a one-Mac dude, and my dual-core MacBook Pro, with its 3GB RAM and FireWire 400 and 800 ports, is all the Mac I need for home and away.

The point is that if I were still a two-Mac-guy, Iid almost certainly want the MacBook Air to be my second Mac. But with no FireWire or Ethernet ports and only one USB 2 port, it couldnit possibly act as my one and only Mac.

Bottom line: If youive got a decent desktop (or other laptop) Mac already and are looking for a second Mac to use on the run, MacBook Air is certainly worth considering. Youill pay a premium for MacBook Airis incredibly small size, and youill have to do without some creature comforts, but I suspect many people will love MacBook Air.

John Gruber, the proprietor of DaringFireball, hit the nail on the head when he compared MacBook Air to a sporty convertible coupe, saying, "You buy one not for practical reasons, but because it is satisfying to own something beautiful and clever and fun."

I second that emotion.

One Last Thing?

There is one last thing: Iid have rated the MacBook Air three and a half stars but we donit award half stars here at TMO/IPO. Because MacBook Air is way cool and innovative, Iim rounding my rating up and giving it four stars rather than rounding it down to three stars. Capice?

MacBook Air Specifications:

  • 13.3-inch LED-backlit glossy widescreen display with 1280x800 resolution
  • 1.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 4MB L2 cache
  • 800 MHz front-side bus
  • 2GB of 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM
  • 80GB hard disk drive with Sudden Motion Sensor
  • Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100
  • Micro-DVI port (includes Micro-DVI to VGA and Micro-DVI to DVI Adapters)
  • built-in iSight video camera
  • built-in AirPort Extreme 802.11n wireless networking and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
  • one USB 2.0 port
  • one headphone port
  • multi-touch TrackPad with support for advanced multi-touch gestures including tap, scroll, pinch, rotate and swipe
  • 45 Watt MagSafe Power Adapter
  • 0.16 inches at thinnest point; 0.76 inches at thickest and 3.0 pounds

Build-to-order options and accessories include the ability to upgrade to a 1.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor; 64GB solid state drive, MacBook Air SuperDrive, Apple USB Ethernet Adapter, Apple USB Modem, Apple MagSafe Airline Adapter, Apple Remote and the AppleCare Protection Plan. Additional build-to-order options also include pre-installed copies of iWork ?08, Logic? Express 8, Final Cut? Express 4 and Aperture? 1.5.

What it doesnit have: FireWire ports, Ethernet ports, optical disc burner, or audio input jack. Put another way, the only ports it has are a USB 2.0 port, a MicroDVI (video out) port, and a headphone minijack.

It must be noted, however, that many, if not most, of the competing laptops in the ultralight category also lack many of these same features. Just remember what I said above, the MacBook Air is not a good choice for your only computer, but for many it will be a great choice as a second computer.

Product: MacBook Air

Company: Apple

List Price: $1,799

Vendor Price: $1,749


Pros: Thin; light; sexy; bright display; full-sized backlit keyboard; multi-touch trackpad.
Cons: No FireWire or Ethernet ports; no optical disc burner; no audio input jack; occasional long battery recharge times; not possible to carry spare battery.