Scot Finnie

Eating My Words on the MacBook Air

April 20, 2008 1:40 PM EDT

For those of you who take joy in such things (and I would if I were you), it looks like I'm going to have to eat a good many of my words from my initial analysis of the MacBook Air back in January.

I finally got around to requesting an evaluation unit of the MacBook Air from Apple. It hasn't even been a full week since my MBA arrived with the 64GB solid-state drive and the 1.8GHz CPU, and I'm already having a change of heart. While I continue to believe that Apple may have misfired on one or two important aspects, it's clear that I misjudged the appeal of the MacBook's finer points. In other words, the "undeniably sexy form factor" I described in my earlier blog post as not being enough to offset the loss of utility ... well, let's just say it is enough.

Before I gush some more about what I expected would bother me about the MacBook Air that doesn't -- and what I truly love about it -- let's get the caveats out of the way.

I still don't believe that the world is jam-packed with Wi-Fi and 3G wireless everywhere, and that we're ready to live in an untethered nirvana. That may be true in Japan and Europe, specifically Greece, but live for a while in the wide open spaces of the U.S., and you'll realize pretty darn fast that we're not there yet. There's a reason why 3G networks haven't been built out fully in North America.

So, while the MacBook Air is equipped for Wi-Fi, that's not enough. To be truly untethered, it needs a provision for 3G and whatever else that comes along. The single USB port is again the only option. 3G USB products work fine, but they're not elegant. Some of these USB 3G air "cards" are huge and protrude nearly four inches from the USB port. This isn't Apple's fault, mind you, but an ExpressCard port (which, admittedly, is a fairly large component) would have been a worthy addition to the MacBook Air.

I'm also sticking with my criticism that in many enterprise environments, the MacBook Air will not be readily embraced. Why? The MacBook Air is not ideally suited to being your only business computer. It does work for employees who are on the road at least 40% of the time. But much less than that, and you'd be better off with a more realistically equipped MacBook Pro or iMac (or an equivalent Windows machine) on your desktop. At the very least, your MacBook Pro is going to need a fat USB hub in the office to support your peripherals habit.

I'm still skeptical about the lack of a removable battery and what the battery-charge life is likely to be in the real world on a long, coast-to-coast flight across the U.S. And, finally, I'm not happy about the fact that the MBA's lack of a firewire port eliminates the Mac's convenient target disk mode function.

What's to Like

Now that I've gotten the stern stuff out of the way, let's get to my confessional:

I thought the MacBook-style keyboard, which uses chiclet-style keys, was going to drive me nuts. It doesn't. I can type just fine on it. In fact, it's pretty fast.

This is purely subjective, and many of you might not get it intuitively, but as a guy who's used to the highest-res MBP 17, I thought the MBA's 13.3-inch display was going to feel like I was looking through a keyhole. But it doesn't, and what's more, the MacBook Air display is extremely bright and easy on the eyes. It may give you a "Spinal Tap" moment (a reference to the joke in the movie of that name about Marshall guitar amps, whose volume controls go up to 11). The MacBook Air's brightness controls should probably have an 11 and a 12.

The MacBook Air has several minor industrial design improvements over other Apple notebooks that I hadn't noticed before. My favorite is the new MagSafe (AC adapter) magnetic connection, which offers built-in strain relief with a stiff rubber sleeve and the cable is mounted on the side, making it less likely that you'll pull the connector out accidentally. With the older design, whenever I'm sitting with the notebook on my lap, I accidentally knock off the connector once or twice an hour. The new design is much more forgiving, but it continues to prevent the computer from being yanked off a table by its AC-cord tether.

But let's get to the bare nub of my about-face. Back in January I wrote "I think the MacBook Air, as is, ... is fatally flawed for enterprise executives, the class of user that similar Windows-based machines target." It probably doesn't seem like a great deal to many IT pros, including the guys who sign off on the bottom line for new end-user hardware. So, yes, I continue to believe that the MacBook Air may not be that attractive to many enterprises. But I forgot the cardinal rule, that phenomenon that underpins what used to be called the entire deskop PC revolution: It's about what users want, stupid.

In other words, any business executive (including, of course, yours truly) who walks into an Apple Store and picks up a MacBook Air is going to want one instantly. Suddenly I'm finding ways to dump my ExpressCard EV-DO 3G card in favor of an annoying USB model. Suddenly, I'm willing to connect to everything through the pesky USB port. Suddenly I don't even care that I'm about to give up all my precious screen real estate. Did I mention that I spent more time in March and April on the road than I did in the office? Poetic justice, that.

What You Need, Don't Need, and Wish For

For all those who would or will buy the MacBook Air (you know who you are, even if you haven't found a way yet):

Unless you don't work in an office somewhere, and don't have a broadband connection at home (and every minute of your work is done at your local Starbucks) -- buy the $29 USB Ethernet dongle.

Folks, I'm down with the idea that the optical drive was left out of the MacBook Air. There's no way you get this incredible lightness of being (the sleek form factor) without leaving that big piece out of it. But that doesn't mean you don't need the external jobbie. Yes, I know, you can reinstall OS X over a network, blah, blah, blah -- get the external optical drive.

I hope to give you some real-world information in a future update to this story about possible power savings with the 64GB solid-state drive, which has no moving parts. But no matter what, I'd have a hard time justifying the current $999 delta in price between the 64GB solid-state drive and the 4200-rpm 80GB conventional hard drive. It's just not worth it. Based on my initial experience, I'm not sure it would be worth it at $500. What's more, I could use the extra 16GB of storage capacity and I suspect you will too. (Note: MacBook Air models that have the solid-state drive ship with about 55GB of free disk space.)

I also don't think the 1.8GHz Core 2 CPU is worth its $300 price of admission over the 1.6GHz Core 2 processor. You can't upgrade the MacBook Air's 2GB of RAM, but that's where I'd spend my money if I could. For those of you who are still holding out on buying a MacBook Air (like me, temporarily), it's a virtual certainty that the next update to Apple's diminutive laptop will bring increased hard disk capacity. I'd like to see a 120GB conventional hard drive, if possible.

In case you're wondering, despite its lesser specs, the MacBook Air doesn't seem slow at all for typical chores, like Web browsing and e-mail. The Mac folks here at Computerworld, who include Managing Editor, News, Ken Mingis (who is also our Macintosh Editor), have reached that the conclusion that the 80GB 4200-rpm Parallel ATA hard drive doesn't seem any slower than your average notebook hard drive. By the same token, the solid state drive doesn't seem faster. We also haven't been able to discern a difference between the 1.6GHz and 1.8GHz processors.

That's why, when my MBA eval unit goes back to Apple, I hope to get my own MacBook Air. It will be a complement to my 17-inch MacBook Pro with 1920-by-1200-pixel screen resolution, which is both my work and personal computer. The new MBA will be my travel computer, but I will probably use it as my main machine four to five months of the year -- my peak travel times.

Unless Apple issues a surprise MacBook Air upgrade this summer, I'll most likely get the 1.6GHz model with the 80GB drive ($1,799) and I'll grab the USB Ethernet dongle, the external optical disk, and a good quality USB hub.

It feels good to get this all off my chest. I'll follow up when the evaluation period is up and pass along anything else I may have learned.