Review: Apple MacBook Air
April 2nd, 2008
On January 15th, 2008, Apple introduced the MacBook Air, the first of a new notebook line. The MacBook Air is Apple's first true lightweight notebook since the PowerBook G4 12-inch and their first serious entry into this market since 1997's PowerBook 2400c. With its 3.0 pound minimum weight, it has the potential to meet the needs of many of the University's Mac OS-based "road warriors", most especially those that do not use many peripherals.
The MacBook Air is an extremely thin "no-spindle" (with the solid state drive) or single-spindle (with the hard disk drive) 13-inch widescreen notebook designed to run Mac OS 10.5 Leopard. It uses low-voltage (LV) Core 2 Duo processors running at 1.6 GHz or 1.8 GHz.
The 13-inch display is the same general specification as that of the MacBook. For input, the MacBook Air includes an oversized multi-touch trackpad which supports two-finger scrolling, pinch, rotate, swipe, tap, double-tap, and drag capabilities. This gesture-based input resembles that of the iPhone's.
The MacBook Air includes many features of Intel's Santa Rosa chipset, but is the first Mac for many years not to include at least one FireWire port. It is also the only current Mac without an integrated optical drive (an external USB "SuperDrive" is optional). The MacBook Air also displays Apple's sometime predilection for closed design - the RAM is not user-upgradable and the battery is not user replaceable.
Like all other current Apple notebooks, the MacBook Air has received a Silver rating from EPEAT and is Energy Star 4.0-certified.
General Usage Observations
The model reviewed is the base model (1.6 GHz processor and an 80 GB hard disk drive). The packaging itself is quite small yet elegant.
The standard install gives the user approximately 57 GB free with 17 GB or so for the operating system and the standard applications like iPhoto, iTunes, iMovie, and GarageBand. To save space, third-party utilities may be used to strip out unused resources, such as extra installed languages and unwanted applications.
Fit and build quality seem excellent. For something so light-weight, the MacBook Air doesn't feel like it will break in half or come apart. The magnetic latch feels solid as well; one feels the MacBook Air is going to stay closed. The pop-out latch that contains the headphone jack, the USB connector, and the microDVI feels very sturdy as well and one doesn't get the impression that it will break off. The height of the ports is quite small; many current standard connectors won't have enough room to fit properly. Information Systems & Computing (ISC) believes that there will soon be a significant aftermarket in MacBook Air specific cable extenders and powered USB hubs.
The unit tested got warm but not hot under moderate use (browsing the web, downloading and installing software and doing general setup). Running iStat yielded an internal temperature reading of 121 degrees Fahrenheit after a few hours of use. The unit's cooling fans hardly were audible during moderate use. Observed battery life was 3.5 to 4.0 hours with the display set to half brightness and Bluetooth off.
For basic computing needs such as web browsing, email, and word processing, ISC believes the MacBook Air is a good fit.
Configuration & Ordering Notes
Several notes when ordering a MacBook Air:
See ISC's Notebook Purchasing Guide for more configuration hints. As of April 2008, configuring a MacBook Air to the Lightweight Notebook specification can be done for approximately $2,000.
Apple has built somewhat of a "tweener" here, omitting the optical drive but retaining a 13-inch screen from the MacBook. They've also removed much of the connectivity that many professional users need, which is probably one reason this isn't the MacBook Pro 13-inch.
Apple is not the first to bring good and interesting current design to the lightweight notebook market. In particular, Lenovo, Sony, and Toshiba all have competitive offerings in this market and some of them, such as the Lenovo ThinkPad X300 and the Toshiba Portégé R500, do not make nearly as many compromises as the MacBook Air does.
ISC sees the MacBook Air as being an interesting and competitive choice among lightweight notebooks available in early 2008.
MacBook Air graphic courtesy of Apple
--Caroline Couture and John Mulhern III (April 2nd, 2008)
Information Systems and Computing
University of Pennsylvania
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