The Macbook Air – Apple’s self-proclaimed “world’s thinnest notebook” is indeed a slender and visually attractive beast, but you do need to be aware that you’re paying for design over utility, including some features that Apple offers in more capable notebook designs.
Notebooks have clearly reached the point where vendors will attempt to sell them on looks rather than what’s under the hood, and nowhere is this more evident than with the Macbook Air. It’s slim, it’s highly eye-catching and at 1.36 kg it’s remarkably light for a notebook with a 13″ display screen.
The Macbook Air features a backlit LED screen, which instantly “pops” into view – and also consumes less battery power doing so. It also inherits the multi-touch touchpad from an iPod Touch, which lets you perform complex mouse commands, such as resizing and rotating, with just a few finger flicks.
Apple currently sells the Macbook Air in two primary configurations. The cheaper $2,499 model comes with a 1.6Ghz Core 2 Duo Processor, 2GB of onboard memory and an 80GB 4200RPM hard drive. The $4,338 model ups the processor to a 1.8Ghz Core 2 duo, and swaps in a lower capacity 64GB solid state memory drive.
The model submitted to GadgetGuy was the premium 64GB hard disk version, and for the most part it exceeded our performance expectations. The keyboard appears very flat, but is actually quite comfortable to use, and the combination of OS X 10.5 (“Leopard”) and the processor and memory meant that the Air floated through most computing tasks with nary a complaint.
One factor that shouldn’t be omitted when looking at the Air’s performance is what it sacrifices in the name of being slender. There’s only a single USB port, no Ethernet or Modem port – quite vital for some travelling types if WiFi is either absent or not trustworthy – and no optical drive. The Air does attempt to sidestep the optical drive argument both by offering an optional external DVD drive ($139) and remote disc software that lets you mount drives on other networked systems as though they were natively connected. While remote disc does work, it’s highly dependent on network speeds, and of course no use to you if you want to relax with a DVD in your hotel room after a hard day at a conference.
Multi-Touch worked well for us across a variety of applications, but it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s a technology that’s also now offered on newer Macbook Pro models; if you can handle the extra weight of a Pro system, you’ll sidestep all of our performance complaints about the lack of ports and drives.
The Macbook Air is a very niche product with superb design aesthetics but a number of significant computing drawbacks for mobile travellers. If you can either live with a number of dongles to add back multiple USB support, Ethernet networking and an optical drive, it’s a very nice and very portable system.
If you can stand a little more weight in your shoulder bag, the newer Macbook Pro systems outpace it in most regards. Finally, while it’s great to see solid state drives make their appearance in portable notebooks, the whacking great price premium attached to them means we’d suggest you wait for prices on these premium components to drop a little before buying