Wednesday, January 16, 2008

What the MacBook Air Is and Is Not

As you have probably heard Apple has a new laptop out and it is really cool. It also has a cool name, MacBook Air.

This is just a quick run-down, by a technology professional who doesn't care what you buy, to help you cut through marketing-speak and puffed up opinions that always follow Apple product announcements.

Here's the straight dope on the MacBook Air.

What the MacBook Air Is:
1) Apple's first real product in the "thin and light" laptop sub-category.
2) Very, very thin and light. The MacBook Air is about half the weight of the average MacBook Pro. Apple claims it is the thinnest laptop on the market and I suspect that is true. I certainly have never worked with anything that thin. It looks like a cracker.
3) A thin-n-light with better than average keyboard, display and battery life.
4) The first mainstream laptop available with a solid state boot drive.
5) Like so many Apple products, the MacBook Air looks cooler than &*%$.
6) Very nearly a full featured laptop. The stuff Apple managed to keep in this machine while whittling it down to three pounds is impressive. You still get a good Intel processor, back-lit keyboard, iSight, 1280 X 800 screen resolution and an acceptable amount of internal storage.

What the MacBook Air Is Not:
1) A replacement for your current primary computer. With no internal CD/DVD drive, only one USB port and a 13" display this is probably not a good main computer for anybody, even someone who has previously worked exclusively on laptops. Any one or two of those things is OK if a machine has other virtues but the three together make this a specialized product.
2) A full featured laptop. No expandability to speak of, external optical drive only, slowest clock speeds in the MacBook family...and did I mention there is no Ethernet port? Apple is happily gabbing about all the things this machine will do over WiFi and I think those things are all great, but really think about it. If you find yourself somewhere you can use the wire but not the WiFi you will not only need to have remembered to bring your $29 USB Ethernet adapter, you will need to plug it into your only USB port...the same one your DVD drive uses. In and of itself there is nothing wrong with that, especially if you do your heavy lifting with a desktop machine back at the office and have other ways of accessing e-mail, etc. For me, it isn't viable.

The "desktop replacement" laptop is a myth. Even if Apple had shrunk the MacBook Pro down to MacBook Air size with no sacrifices it still wouldn't be an all-powerful machine. The industry keeps finding ways to shoe-horn more functionality into laptops, PDAs and phones. It is true, my phone can do several things my first few computers could not. That does not make my phone a suitable replacement form my Mac Pro. My point? It's about the right tool for the job, not about the latest and greatest being what you need.

The point I'm trying to make about the MacBook Air is that it's many virtues should not seduce the dollars out of the wallets of people who need a normal laptop. It's for people who travel a lot or need a laptop with them daily, work in places with good wireless access and have access to other Macs from which they can use the MacBook Air's Remote Disk software. For those people, this machine is a Godsend.

The rest of us need to keep our feet on the ground and remember that this is an incredibly cool machine that we do not need.

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