Apple MacBook Air (old) full review

Laptop design has always been about compromise. Though they’ve come a long way in the past few years, laptops have never been able to offer the features available in desktop computers, and certainly not at comparable prices. In order to squeeze an entire computer into a portable shell (and have it be power-efficient enough to run on a battery for hours at a time), computer makers have to throw features overboard. And the smaller and lighter the laptop, the more compromise there needs to be.

The MacBook Air, Apple’s latest Intel-based laptop, is the lightest, thinnest laptop Apple has ever constructed, and according to Apple, it’s the 'thinnest laptop ever made'. And in many ways, the story of this laptop is the story of a series of compromises, all made in order to fit an entire Mac in a three-pound package that’s three-quarters of an inch thick at its thickest point.

Silver machine
The look of the MacBook Air is an interesting hybrid of Apple’s other two laptops. It’s got the shiny aluminium shell of the MacBook Pro, along with a backlit keyboard the likes of which has never been seen before in a small Apple laptop. (However, the MacBook Air is far more attractive than the MacBook Pro, thanks to the curved edges that make it look like the offspring of a MacBook Pro and an iPod nano.)

In all other ways, though, the Air is closest to the MacBook: in two of its three dimensions, it’s almost identical to the MacBook, differing only in thickness. (And it’s a big difference – the MacBook is 2.74cm thick, while the Air is 1.9cm thick at its hinge, tapering to a mere 4mm at its front edge.)

The MacBook Air’s keyboard – backlighting excepted – is the same square-keycapped design featured on the MacBook. And its 13.3in, 1,280-by-800-pixel display is identical in size to the one found on the MacBook. However, the Air’s screen is notably different because of what’s lighting it from behind: a light-emitting diode (LED). The LED backlighting is extremely bright, but what’s more impressive is that it immediately turns on at its full brightness. The MacBook, in contrast, starts out somewhat dim and gradually increases in brightness.

Like the MacBook Pro, the MacBook Air takes advantage of a tiny light sensor, located behind a set of microperforations just to the left of its iSight camera, to automatically adjust the brightness of the display and to control the keyboard’s backlighting. (If you turn off the lights, the screen dims rapidly and the keyboard lights up. Those who prefer to manually control their screen’s brightness can turn off this feature in the Displays preference pane.)

Despite its diminutive size, the MacBook Air doesn’t feel fragile. We wouldn’t recommend trying to break it over your knee; the keyboard feels solid, as does the Air’s entire bottom half. We noticed a bit of flexion on the top of the laptop – the portion behind its screen – but even there the MacBook Air felt sturdy. There’s no way to tell how this laptop will fare in high-stress situations, but it certainly feels durable.

Thin different
It’s clear that Apple’s engineers followed a specific set of design constraints for the MacBook Air. By retaining the dimensions of the regular MacBook, the MacBook Air can offer a full-size keyboard and a generous wide-screen display. (As former users of the 12-inch PowerBook G4, we attest to the fact that Apple’s recent user-interface design decisions – lots of big, wide windows with toolbars, palettes, and slide-out drawers – can make using Mac OS X on a small display a painful experience.)

With the keyboard and display set, then, there are only two other ways for the MacBook Air to distinguish itself from its cousins: thickness and weight.

Let’s start with weight, as this is one measurement where the MacBook Air truly excels. Prior to the Air’s release, Apple’s lightest laptop was the MacBook, which weighs five pounds (2.26kg) a full two pounds heavier than the three-pound (1.36kg) Air. In fact, Apple has never released a laptop lighter than four pounds: the PowerBook 2400, PowerBook Duo series, and even that 12-inch PowerBook G4 all weighed somewhere between four and five pounds.

If your laptop lives most of its life on a desk, weight isn’t an issue. If you carry it with you at all times, weight can be its most important characteristic. Most people’s laptop use falls in between, and depending on the vagaries of your commute, the number of miles in your frequent-flyer account, and the strength and health of your arm and back, weight may or may not matter to you.

One reason to love the old 12-inch PowerBook G4 was that it crossed some hard-to-define weight barrier. The 12-inch PowerBook was so small and light that carrying a laptop around became an afterthought. Instead of lugging a 15-inch PowerBook from place to place, you could idly hold the 12-inch model in one hand.

The MacBook Air takes that easy feeling to an extreme. Though it’s not quite as solid in my hand as the 12-inch PowerBook (owing to the latter’s additional width), it feels as thin and light as a loaded manila folder or a couple of magazines.

That brings us to the MacBook Air’s thinness. This product seems to have been designed specifically to be as thin as possible, with an eye toward making the marketing claim that the MacBook is “the world’s thinnest notebook.”

There is no denying that the MacBook Air’s thinness makes it visually striking. But we're not convinced of the utility of that thinness. Other than allowing Apple to declare the Air the current winner of the race to design the thinnest laptop, it seems that the Air has slimmed down in the least important dimension.

Granted, we can almost slide the MacBook Air under the office door. But we don’t believe the extra thinness is going to give you more working room when wedged in a coach airline seat behind someone whose seat is fully reclined. Or on the daily commute, when we're sitting in a seat so small it makes coach look like business class. In these situations, reduced depth would be more likely to improve the angle of the screen and keep the front of the laptop from pressing against your chest. But in that dimension, the MacBook Air is no different from the MacBook.

Making do with less
In order to make the MacBook Air small and light, Apple had to remove features once considered standard on all Apple laptop models. This model is the first in recent memory to have no built-in CD/DVD drive and no FireWire ports. Its internal storage is limited, and its connection to peripherals has been reduced, too. In order to take advantage of the Air’s light weight and small size, users must be willing to sacrifice some of the features that they previously took for granted.

Let’s start with the optical drive. Yes, you can buy an 8x SuperDrive for £65 as an add-on. (It will add 300g to your bag and doesn’t exactly look elegant when it’s hanging off the side of your tiny MacBook Air.) As someone who uses the optical drive in his laptop so rarely that I sometimes forget whether its slot is on the front or the side, we don’t really consider the lack of an optical drive a major omission. If you’re someone who lives or dies by the ability to burn or play back CDs or DVDs, however, you’ll find this to be a major drawback.

Apple has, to its credit, exerted quite a bit of muscle in an attempt to make the Air’s lack of an optical drive a nonissue. In addition to selling the external SuperDrive, the company has added a feature called Remote Disc that allows the Air to take over the optical drive of another computer (Mac or PC) on your local network. Just install the Remote Disc software (included on the Air’s install disc), and the MacBook Air can use Bonjour to browse your network and read what’s on any data disc. This feature worked well in testing. The MacBook boot software has even been updated for the Air so that it can boot via Remote Disc in the event that you need to reinstall Mac OS X.

Although Remote Disc is a nice addition, it has limitations. It’s meant for installing programs and copying files, and doesn’t work as a remote DVD player or CD ripper. Apple helpfully suggests that the iTunes Store stands to assist you in all your music, movie, and TV show needs, but of course many users may prefer to consume content that originally began its life on optical discs. Using a tool such as HandBrake ( is certainly an option in order to make DVDs watchable on your Mac as well as your iPod or iPhone, but converting a movie can be a time-consuming experience.

One door, three ports
To see more of the MacBook Air’s feature compromises, look no further than the cute flip-down door on the laptop’s right side. Upon lowering the door, you can see the MacBook Air offers only three ports: a headphone jack, a USB port, and a micro-DVI port. (And yes, this means that all of those IT professionals who have to carry a sack of Mac display adapters will need to add two new ones to their stock. However, Apple has graciously included two adapters – micro-DVI-to-VGA and micro-DVI-to-DVI – in the box with the MacBook Air.)

However, Apple hasn’t compromised when it comes to the MacBook Air’s video-out capabilities. They match the MacBook’s, including the ability to drive an external monitor as large as Apple’s 23-inch Cinema Display (1,920 by 1,200 pixels). It also shares the MacBook’s Intel GMA X3100 graphics processor circuitry, which means neither laptop will ever be a gaming powerhouse.

More of a compromise is the pathway by which users can attach peripherals to the MacBook Air: a single USB 2.0 port. First let’s address that port on its own merits: if you want to attach more than a single USB device to the MacBook Air, you’ll need to invest in a USB 2.0 hub. In a desk-bound configuration, this can actually work quite well. We tested the MacBook Air attached to the USB port of the aforementioned 23-inch Apple Cinema Display, and then on to a Belkin-powered four-port USB 2.0 hub. I managed to attach an external hard drive, an iPod, an iPhone, an Apple keyboard, a Kensington trackball, and the MacBook Air’s own USB Ethernet adapter all at once, without any trouble.

However, using USB devices on the road could be more problematic. If you usually count on having two open USB ports on your Mac, you’ll need to carefully consider if your working style will still function with only a single port available, or if you’ll need to invest in (and carry around) a portable hub. Keep in mind, too, that the MacBook Air’s USB port is also the place where you must connect its SuperDrive (if you need to read or write from optical discs). And if you don't have a USB hub, you'll also need this port for connecting any other peripheral, including the Ethernet USB adapter. In other words, that one USB port is going to be awfully popular.

Beyond its sheer… singularity, the MacBook Air’s USB port has other ramifications. It’s also a sign that the MacBook Air is the first Mac in years to eschew FireWire, the once-ubiquitous Apple-created connection technology that now seems to be slowly fading into irrelevance. The disappearance of FireWire brings up several other issues. If you’ve invested in a digital camcorder that connects to your Mac via FireWire and count on being able to pull video off that camcorder while travelling with a laptop, you’ll be out of luck with the MacBook Air. (We wouldn’t be surprised if some clever soul is even now inventing a USB-to-FireWire video bridge, but that will be an extra piece of hardware you’d need to buy and carry, even if it does someday appear.)

What’s more, without FireWire there’s no Target Disk mode, a feature that lets you mount a laptop’s drive on another Mac as if it were an external hard drive. It’s a feature that’s been around for a long time (dating back to a SCSI version on old PowerBooks), and it’s a convenient way to migrate files on and off laptops, but the MacBook Air just won’t do it. (And no, sadly, there’s no USB equivalent.)

Here, too, Apple has built new software to mitigate the loss of functionality. A new edition of the Migration Assistant utility, which used to focus on FireWire as a transport mechanism, now lets you transfer files across an Ethernet or Wi-Fi network directly from within the program. Using a network isn’t quite as fast as FireWire, but it does work.

The third port on the MacBook Air’s door, the headphone jack, is the simplest of the three to comprehend: attach it to a pair of headphones or an external speaker, and you’ll get sound. That’s a key feature, since the MacBook Air’s single internal speaker is small, tinny, and unfortunately located in the general vicinity of the arrow keys, in the bottom right corner of the keyboard. If your hand happens to be over that area – and it will be more often than not, since that’s a natural place your right hand to be – you’ll find that your hand is muffling most of the sounds out of the MacBook Air’s speaker. Even if your hands are off, the asymmetrical placement of the speaker simply doesn’t feel right, since it places all the aural action happening on your Mac to the far right.

As you might expect with a laptop as small as the MacBook Air, it’s a tight fit back there at the port door. And that tight fit leads to some interesting compatibility issues, too. Many devices with integrated USB plugs, such as broadband cards and TV-tuner cards, may not be able to fit in without a short USB extension cable.
Likewise, many large headphone plugs – the same ones that wouldn’t fit in the iPhone’s recessed headphone jack – will not fit completely in the MacBook Air’s headphone jack. The situation isn’t as dire as the iPhone, however – the bulky plug of our Ultimate Ears headphones would plug in far enough to hear music playing clearly and in stereo. However, the plug didn’t seem to be quite well seated enough to fend off numerous high-pitched buzzes and clicks, which were particularly noticeable between tracks. Using an iPhone-style headphone adapter with a small plug seemed to solve those issues.

Limited options
During the MacBook Air’s introduction at Macworld Expo, Steve Jobs showed a photograph of the MacBook Air’s interior and compared the length of its motherboard to the length of a pencil. All that miniaturisation comes at a price, however – in terms of a lack of options and a limited set of features for many of the MacBook Air’s basic technologies.

Take the hard drive. Its storage capacity is 80GB, the same size as the entry-level MacBook's. But the MacBook and MacBook Pro can be optionally configured with drives as large as 250GB. Those models use standard laptop drives; the MacBook Air uses a smaller 1.8-inch drive more like those found in iPods. And space is at such a premium in the MacBook Air that even the 160GB drive used by the iPod classic is too thick to fit. As a result, 80GB is currently the only size of hard drive available for the Air. And the Air’s drive is slow and small, spinning at 4,200 rpm (compared to the 5,400-rpm and 7,200-rpm drives available in Apple’s other laptops) and connected via parallel ATA (rather than the newer Serial ATA method used in the other MacBooks).

There is another storage option for the Air. For £639, you can have Apple swap in a 64GB SSD (solid-state drive). Though you’ll be paying nearly a thousand bucks for 16GB less storage, the SSD option should use less power and be faster than the hard-drive option. (We weren’t able to acquire an SSD-bearing MacBook Air; we’ll share the results of our tests of that model as soon as we can.) Perhaps more importantly, the SSD – which uses flash memory like that found on digital camera cards, the iPhone, and the iPod nano and touch – has no moving parts, meaning it should be far more resistant to shocks and far more reliable than a traditional hard drive.

In any event, if you’re someone who needs more than 80GB of onboard storage, you’ll need to slim down your data before switching to an Air. I managed to switch from my nearly full 160GB MacBook drive through a judicious program of throwing out ancient applications and preferences, moving my media to other devices, and copying old files to an external hard drive and a networked file server. If your MacBook Air isn’t your primary system, but more of a sidekick to your desktop system, the drive size should be less of an issue.
There are a similar lack of options when it comes to the MacBook Air’s RAM. The MacBook Air comes with a stock 2GB of RAM, an excellent allotment – but Apple has a very practical reason to be so generous with the stock RAM. That’s because the MacBook Air’s RAM is built in to the computer itself, inaccessible and non-upgradeable. Fortunately, 2GB is a good amount. Any less, and Apple would have risked crippling the MacBook Air into irrelevance.

In terms of the onboard Intel Core 2 Duo processor, Apple gives MacBook Air buyers two speed options: the standard 1.6GHz and 1.8GHz, a £190 option. Both speeds fall short of what’s available on the MacBook (2.0GHz, 2.2GHz) and MacBook Pro (2.2GHz, 2.4GHz, 2.6Ghz) lines.

What it all boils down to is that one of the less obvious compromises built into the MacBook Air, at least for now, is a lack of customisability and serviceability.

Speed facts
Macworld Lab tested the MacBook Air’s $1,199 base configuration – a 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo processor with an 80GB hard drive.

As you might expect from the slow clock speeds of its processor and the slow speed of its hard drive, the MacBook Air is quite a bit slower than the other MacBooks. The MacBook Air was also outpaced in our tests by one of its closest desktop cousins, the ultracompact Mac mini 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo. Its Speedmark score of 124 is the lowest score we’ve recorded for any Intel-based Mac laptop, but it does handily beat our PowerPC laptop reference system, the 1.67GHz PowerBook G4. The MacBook Air is also clearly the slowest currently shipping Mac model.

We compared the MacBook Air to a 2.16GHz MacBookand we found its speeds in day-to-day use to be perfectly sufficient. Using writing tools, checking e-mail, and surfing the Web, we generally found the difference in speed between the two systems to be minor. Using Photoshop CS3 to do some minor image tweaking seemed perfectly fine.

However, users who must rely on their portable systems to do processor-intensive tasks as fast as possible should be warned: the MacBook Air is not remotely as fast as the MacBook, let alone the MacBook Pro. But for general use, we rarely noticed that the system was slower than my MacBook.

Battery included
One of the more controversial features of the MacBook Air is its battery. Not its rated battery life – although at five hours, even Apple’s estimate of the MacBook Air’s battery capacity is less than the six hours the company estimates for the MacBook and the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

No, the most controversial issue is that the MacBook Air’s battery is not replaceable. There’s no battery door, no way to swap a dead battery out and replace it with a fresh one – as with all other Apple laptops. Like an iPod or iPhone, the MacBook Air has a battery embedded inside, and there’s no official way to get it out other than giving your laptop back to Apple and asking the company to replace it for a fee. (Online reports suggest that the battery is relatively easy to replace – so long as you’ve got a screwdriver and some patience. In other words, replacing the battery is something to do when the original wears out, not something to do while on a long flight. And something to do if you’re not concerned about voiding your warranty.)

For some users, swapping batteries is a necessity. If you take long plane flights or otherwise travel for long periods of time without access to a power outlet, bringing along a second battery has been a time-tested tradition. With the MacBook Air, that safety net is gone.

Apple’s decision to eliminate the battery swap might not be quite as radical as you might first think, however. Many airlines already offer power outlets for laptops (though some plugs require Apple’s £29 MagSafe Airline Adapter), and in a few years they may very well be common, especially on long-haul flights. But that’s little solace if you fly around Europe via EasyJet.

In the end, the lack of a replacement battery may be a deal-breaker for people who truly need more working time than the MacBook Air’s locked-in battery gives them. In my days using the MacBook Air – web browsing, writing, and using e-mail, all with Wi-Fi turned on – we found that it held a charge for roughly three hours total. It was an acceptable, if not inspiring, amount of time.

Our attempts to recharge the Air's battery took a surprisingly long time though. Apple says that the behaviour we witnessed doesn't really fit with any of its testing; we're working with Apple to get to the bottom of the issue and Macworld Lab will do further battery testing (including both discharge and recharge time) soon to help clarify the issue.

The MacBook Air's power adapter itself is different from the ones sold with the MacBook and MacBook Pro – the Air’s slim design forced Apple to place its power connector on a curved edge on its left side, and the MacBook and MacBook pro adapters – though they’ll fit the connector itself – stick out straight, causing them to pop right off if you lay the MacBook Air flat on a desk or table. The MacBook Air’s connector, in contrast, turns at a right angle and nestles snug in the case’s curve.

Users of laptop stands may feel encouraged that they probably don’t have to invest in extra power adapters for the MacBook Air: my simple Road Tools Podium CoolPad raised the Air high enough up off my desk so that my existing 85-watt MagSafe adapter connected to the MacBook Air with room to spare.

Sidekick or mainstay?
With its reduced hard-drive size and lack of speed, the MacBook Air may be looked upon by users with high standards as a product that’s not worthy of being any user’s primary Mac. But in making the MacBook Air a full-fledged MacBook and marketing it as such, Apple has given no hint that it views this system as anything more than a tiny version of the other MacBooks in its product line. Beyond the necessary release of Remote Disc, there’s a disappointing lack of innovation from Apple in the area of easily syncing any MacBook back to a desktop Mac.

Yes, there are plenty of clever strategies you can use to make this process better, including .Mac synchronization or sync utilities such as Econ Technologies’ Chronosync. But Apple could have chosen to create software that made the MacBook Air as much of an easy-to-use companion piece to a desktop system as an iPod or an iPhone. Instead, MacBook Air users will face the same synchronization issues as every other person who uses a MacBook as a secondary system.

Then there will be those who, small drive and slow processor be damned, will adopt the MacBook Air as their primary Mac – simply because they’re laptop-only users who want that laptop to be as small as possible.

For those users, the biggest issue with the MacBook Air will be the size of its hard drive. Data pack rats will need to change their file-archiving strategy, migrating certain documents to an external hard drive. Media fans might consider packing an iPod rather than storing a copy of their music and video library on the MacBook Air’s drive.


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