The MacBook Air is undoubtedly a pretty impressive technical achievement. And speaking as somebody who’s just been holding one; I promise you that you’ll be blown away when you first pick one up.
But for all that, I can’t help but have this nagging feeling that the general public is a tad underwhelmed.
It may be that we saw this one coming. It may be that last year’s keynote speech (the iPhone) really did suggest a revolutionary thought process (you can do things differently), while the MacBook Air isn’t quite a revolution (maybe a small riot out in the sticks). It’s pretty easy to explain – imagine a MacBook less than half a centimetre thick.
Part of the problem may be the economies of scale. When technical things get smaller, they get more expensive.
Earlier in the year I briefly used a Samsung Q30-SSD with a 32GB Flash drive and felt similarly about it. It was tiny, lightweight and generally rather lovely. It also cost $3,700.
So put into perspective, the $3,098 (or £2,028) that Apple is charging for the 65GB Flash-based MacBook Air is, actually, fairly reasonable. The £1,199 that Apple is charging for the 80GB hard drive model even more so.
But when you say that, you sound like an Apple apologist. So let’s make no mistake, the MacBook Air’s biggest problem is going to be price. It simply offers less than the MacBook, but costs more money. You pay £500 more for the privilege of not getting an optical drive, Ethernet port, FireWire socket and a slightly slower hard drive and CPU.
It’s easy to see why many people are scratching their heads at this one.
But for somebody who’s spending a week walking around with a 2.5Kg laptop in his bag, allow me to explain that I (and my shoulder) can see perfect sense in the MacBook Air.
I don’t need an optical drive. Funnily enough some members of the Macworld team feel uncomfortable without one, but I don’t. I’ll install Office, Creative Suite 3 and a few other apps via another Mac's drive and be good to go. The only time I’ll need an optical drive is when the next version of OS X comes out. And then I’ll just hook it up to my iMac for the install.
The lack of Ethernet may be a bigger problem. For security reasons our office still doesn’t use a WiFi network. The hotel room I am currently working from has an intermittent WiFi connection, but the Ethernet socket is working just fine. I’d have to purchase Apple’s $29 USB Ethernet adaptor to go with the MacBook Air.
It’s good to see the new MicroDVI socket, even though it’s another adaptor standard to the Mac range. Without it I don’t think I could ever seriously consider buying a MacBook Air.
But the 4,200 RPM PATA hard drive is a real concern. I’d certainly wait until Macworld Labs puts one of these through its paces before making a decision. In fact, right now I’d recommend prospective purchasers to seriously consider laying down the extra £639 to pick up the model with the solid state drive.
Whether it’s worth £190 to upgrade from the 1.6GHz CPU to a 1.8GHz model is debatable though. Of course, with the MacBook sitting at 2.2GHz you might be thinking that the MacBook Air is underpowered, but it’s not long ago that the MacBook started at 1.6GHz and we felt it powerful enough then. The 2GB of memory should also help it tick along nicely.
For the kind of lightweight work that a MacBook Air would be doing, we think that the slightly slower processor was a wise choice on Apple’s part.
The Multi-touch trackpad is an interesting innovation, although I’m sure I won’t be the only person slightly disappointed not to see a touch-screen on the MacBook Air. Actually, it would probably be a nonsense addition, but it would certainly be a better talking point.
The one feature that I feel is really missing from the MacBook Air is a GPRS mobile phone connection. I think Apple missed a trick in not combining the MacBook Air with your iPhone account to enable users to send emails and surf the net (even over the EDGE network) from anywhere.
Of course, the real problem for most people will be the price. Starting at £1,199 with a limited feature set the MacBook Air offers a lot less than the regular MacBook, for a lot more money. It’s hard to see many people who have to consider their budgets plumping for such a machine, unless they really intend to do a lot of travelling with a laptop on their shoulder. If the furthest your laptop travels is the couch in the front room, a MacBook represents a much better value-for-money proposition than the MacBook Air.
But if – like me – you have to spend weeks running around with a laptop, you’ll seriously look at the MacBook Air as a godsend. All I wanted was a MacBook but smaller, and Apple delivered. It may not be to everybody’s taste, but it certainly is to mine.
And, as a glimpse of the future of the MacBook (and laptops in general) take a good look. This is where we’re all going. It may just take a few more years for the price to become acceptable.