NOVEMBER 1, 2010

MacBook Air Lives! My take

In an article I wrote back in May I asked if the MacBook Air was dead. It had been eleven months since the Air had been updated by Apple and I was considering trading my original 1.6GHz Air with a 128GB solid state drive (SSD) upgrade for the fabulous newly updated 13" MacBook Pro. As a highly mobile person, I love the MacBook Air so I wrote that "A 2.13 GHz Air with 4GB RAM, Nvidia 320M GPU, 128 GB SSD and a true 8 hour battery for $1699 would fit the bill and poach my wallet."

I waited another month and still no updated Air so I finally sprung for the 13" MacBook Pro, including a 240GB SSD upgrade. I still have my original Air since I had added a 128GB SSD and the MacBook Air resale market had fallen such that it made little sense to sell it. It's my backup and I still use it from time to time.

The MacBook Air languished without an update for another five months, 17 months in all. Then at Apple's "Back to the Mac" event on October 20th, Apple unveiled two new MacBook Airs, a traditional 13" model and a new 11" model.

The new MacBook Airs overcome nearly all of the concerns I expressed in my May article. Both have only fast SSDs instead of a woefully slow micro hard disk, modern Nvidia 320M graphics, a 4GB RAM option, two USB 2.0 ports, less weight, increased battery time and a reduced price in the range of $1099-$1699 with the 4GB option. The $1699 dream 13" Air that I mentioned in the May article (and above) is now bracketed by a 1.86GHz model with 4GB RAM and 128GB SSD for $1399, a real bargain, and a 2.13Ghz model with 4GB RAM and 256GB SSD for $1799.

In comparison price-wise, my 13" 2.4GHz MacBook Pro ran $1899 with just the 256GB SSD upgrade and 4GB RAM. Yes, I also got a SuperDrive, a FireWire 800 port, a gigabit Ethernet port, a backlit keyboard, a much longer 10-hr rated battery and 1.6lbs of extra weight.

The new Airs lose the backlit keyboard, sleep light and IR port but the 13" Air gains the SD card port available on the MacBook Pro. Backlit keyboards are really cool but the new tiny LED lights for notebooks are a serviceable alternative. In general, the SD card port on the 13" model is probably a good trade. The loss of the IR port is a big disappointment to me since I give abundant presentations. The new Airs also get higher resolution screens, stereo speakers and the glass trackpad with built-in clicker.

Where the new Airs still fall short, in my opinion based on my usage, is battery life. The 11" model gets a 5-hr rated battery like the previous Air model and the 13" model gets a 7-hr rated battery. I can work through a cross-country flight on my original Air's 4-hr rated battery but not through a day-long meeting or conference. The 10-hr rated battery in my MacBook Pro easily gets me through an all-day meeting or conference so I don't have to lug a ton of paper around. The new 13" MacBook Air probably would not make it and the 11" model certainly wouldn't.

What about the new 11" model? I have found that a 13.3" screen with a resolution of 1200x800 is about as small as my aging eyes can take and really work extensively on a document. The smaller 11.6" screen would not work for me unless I were just reading. (Surprisingly, I've found that I can even comfortably read books with Kindle for Mac on my iPhone 4.) I might even have some difficulty with the new 13" Air's higher resolution screen (equivalent to a 15" MacBook Pro). But those with young eyes should have little difficulty with either new model. I still have my PowerBook 2400C with an 800x600 10.4" screen and had no trouble working on it a decade ago.

Still, the 11" Air is impressive engineering and a marvel of portability with it's mostly full-size keyboard and glass trackpad and weighing in at just 2.3lbs. In my mind, it competes with the iPad especially if one already has a recent 13" MacBook Pro.

The new MacBook Airs are on the cutting edge of notebooks as notebooks are intended to be used.

[Bill Fox]

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