The MacBook Air

San Francisco — Clearly, the main appeal of the MacBook Air is its size and weight, and the main trade-off is performance and storage capacity. So it doesn’t seem like a tough decision to choose between a MacBook Air and MacBook Pro — if you value the tech specs, get a Pro.

The tougher comparison is the Air versus the standard MacBook. The two machines are not that different, and the decision might not be easy.

Here’s where the Air comes out ahead:

  • Thinness and weight. The Air’s 2D footprint is actually exactly the same as the MacBook’s (32.5 × 22.7 cm), but, because it’s so much thinner, it should take up at least a little less space when open — a smaller 3D footprint, if you will — making it better for use in coach airplane seats, cramped seats, etc.

    But the big difference is weight: the Air is a full two pounds lighter (5.0 vs. 3.0 lbs.). The Air is almost half the weight of a 15-inch MacBook Pro (5.4 lbs.) For many people, that’s all she wrote, and on this basis alone they’ve already pre-ordered an Air.

  • Slightly better display. The standard MacBook and MacBook Air both have 13.3-inch 1280 × 800 glossy displays. The Air’s, though, uses LED backlighting, and should be brighter. (Neither the MacBook nor MacBook Air can drive an external 30-inch display; only the MacBook Pros can drive displays that large.)

  • Better keyboard. If only for the backlighting.

  • Multi-touch gesture trackpad. We’ll have to wait and see how useful this is in practice, but it might be damn cool, and the Air is the only MacBook that has it (for now).

Here’s where the regular MacBook comes out ahead:

  • CPU performance. The two MacBook configurations are about 25 percent faster, in terms of GHz, than the two Air configurations (2.0/2.2 vs. 1.6/1.8 GHz).

  • Disk performance. The Air’s 1.8-inch hard drives are slower than regular 2.5-inch notebook hard drives. (There is a $999 BTO option to use 64 GB of solid state flash memory in place of a hard drive, and that should be faster than any notebook hard drive. But, it’s a lot more money.1)

  • Disk capacity. A MacBook can be configured with up to a 250 GB hard drive. The Air, curiously, doesn’t even offer an option to use the 160 GB 1.8-inch drive that’s used in the iPod Classic. (I expect this to become an option eventually — perhaps the components are currently constrained?)

  • RAM. The MacBook supports up to 4 GB of RAM; the Air supports only 2 GB. (To Apple’s credit, though, the Air is configured with the full 2 GB of memory by default. I suspect the memory is permanently attached to the motherboard for space reasons.) For many typical users, 2 GB of memory is more than enough. But if it’s not enough, a 4 GB machine will run a lot faster than a 2 GB machine. Swapping sucks.

  • No optical drive. The new Remote Disc feature mitigates this limitation, at least for installing software. (It wasn’t mentioned during the keynote, but Remote Disc supports netbooting, so you’ll be able to boot a MacBook Air from an installer DVD inside another Mac or a PC.) But if you want to watch DVDs, you’re out of luck. Apple is obviously hoping you’ll rent movies from iTunes instead, but, still.

  • No swappable battery. I think this aspect is going to play out exactly as it has with the iPhone: (a) there’s going to be a ton of criticism from the gadget and tech press decrying this as a terrible decision; and (b) the vast majority of users don’t care and won’t mind the sealed battery at all. Seriously, the press is not going to shut up about this — you can’t go 10 feet in the Expo media room without hearing someone complain about it.

    I personally like carrying an extra charged battery with me on long trips, but it wouldn’t keep me from buying an Air if I otherwise wanted one.

  • Lack of ports. No Ethernet, no FireWire, and just one USB port. You can get a USB-Ethernet adapter, but that only supports 10/100 speeds. The real appeal of wired Ethernet connections in our modern Wi-Fi world is the speed of gigabit Ethernet. The thing that strikes me about the lack of FireWire is that you won’t be able to import video from many cameras. Along with numerous other MacBook Air trade-offs, the assumption here is clearly that this is a secondary machine, and your desktop Mac is where you’ll do your iMovie-ing.

What I Think

I’d have rather seen a smaller footprint, a la the old 12-inch PowerBook G4 — something just exactly as wide as a full keyboard. I’d prefer to sacrifice screen size on the notebook in exchange for an even smaller machine — with the assumption that when I’m at my desk, I’d be using a 20-something-inch external display.

The MacBook Air is undeniably beautiful and clever, but clearly designed as a secondary machine, not a main machine. I like using a notebook as my sole machine, which means I’m almost certain to stick with the Pros. (For one thing, 80 GB wouldn’t hold my current boot volume.) I’m not sure that the MacBook Air is going to be a huge hit, but it’s got enough going for it that, at worst, it’ll be a hit of some sort.

  1. Albeit fairly priced. Dell is apparently selling 64 GB SSD storage for over $1,000. Flash memory is expensive. ↩︎