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Bedding Down with a MacBook Air

I know, there must be a special place in hell for people who use an ultra-portable laptop in bed, but I don’t care: it’s like having Mac OS X served to you on a tray. The MacBook Air has a great feel to it, and its instant power on and sleep makes it easy to use in places where a longer startup or power down would be tedious. The MagSafe power adapter ingeniously mitigates dangers from a wayward blanket or pillow.

The real bonus? The Air could also be useful on the road, not just in bed.

I ordered my MacBook Air almost immediately after watching the Macworld Expo keynote in January. I’d been waiting ages for a lightweight computer that would lighten my backpack. I wasn’t happy with any of the super-portable alternatives I’d toyed with before – including trying to work on business documents using only a Treo and a full-sized Bluetooth keyboard.

I also hated the non-Macintosh sub-notebooks. These computers always seemed to waste cycles carrying out mysterious Windows tasks precisely when battery power was lowest and I most urgently needed to finish my work. And although I could run Linux on those tiny PCs, the operating system remains too rough around the edges for me to depend on. So, on the road, I’d been making do with a 12-inch iBook G4, my last PowerPC-based Mac before I bought my current main computer, a 17-inch MacBook Pro. The MacBook Pro is a fine machine, but I find it just too unwieldy to haul around town or work with in the compressed space of an airplane seat.

When I saw Steve Jobs demo the MacBook Air, my gut told me it would be in heavy demand. So after some furious scrambling to justify the purchase to my soon-to-be-wife (with the main rationale being, it’s mostly for her!), I quickly placed an order on Apple’s Web site, figuring that would be the fastest way to get in line.

It seemingly took ages for the MacBook Air to be delivered, almost as long as for the iPhone. While my fiancee was eager to embrace the sleek aesthetics, I was just as anxious for her to be rid of the previously sleek Sony Vaio so that I could break free of my role as in-house Windows technical support.

While waiting, I signed on to write a review for TidBITS, figuring I could give my early-adopter perspective and hopefully help others figure out if it’s the right machine for them. Eventually the Air came, and after we’d become familiar with it for a few weeks, I found myself faced with another challenge: the glut of reviews already out. I didn’t want to produce yet another MacBook Air review because it would be neither fun to write nor of service to readers who had already pored over the other reviews.

So, instead of trying to replicate what other reviewers have written, I’d suggest that if you’re considering a MacBook Air, it’s worthwhile not only to read the other reviews but also to consider the type of user you are, and whether a particular review addresses the points most salient to your use cases. The coverage I’d most recommend you start with is Gizmodo’s Review Matrix, which summarizes the opinions of Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, Steven Levy of Newsweek, Ed Baig of USA Today, and David Pogue of the New York Times. For more detail, you can read Gizmodo’s own review, as well as Jason Snell’s analysis for Macworld.

Having said that, allow me to present my take on the MacBook Air from the perspective of an owner with several weeks of real-world experience.

Primarily a Secondary — I don’t think the MacBook Air should be your sole Macintosh. If you already have another Mac, especially an Intel-based Mac, the Air can be a good second, a highly portable addition to your computing arsenal. But thanks to its relatively underpowered specifications, the MacBook Air may not deliver a satisfactory Macintosh experience, and even in comparison to Apple’s other laptops, it suffers. The MacBook Pro balances portability and power perfectly, while the MacBook reduces cost and size considerably by giving up some power-user features.

Trying to compose music in GarageBand or edit in iMovie on the MacBook Air could be quite frustrating due to the sluggish CPU speed. Large iPhoto and iTunes libraries will also be problematic, with the largest available internal storage maxing out at 80 GB. External storage options are constrained because of the absence of FireWire. No matter what the marketing folks say about USB 2.0, it is just not as fast as FireWire, and this is especially noticeable when the CPU is under heavy load.

Remote Disc, Apple’s wireless virtual optical disc access technology, is sweet but does not fully replicate the functionality of a true optical drive, making the physical SuperDrive a necessity if the MacBook Air is to be your only Macintosh. Only the SuperDrive can rip CDs and play DVDs on an Air.

If you’re vacillating between a MacBook Air and a non-Apple laptop, however, the MacBook Air is a better choice, even though it will be a constrained Macintosh experience. In terms of productivity, Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard is light-years ahead of any other operating system on the market – so much so that I can get more work done on my aging 1 GHz iBook G4 than on any top-of-the-line Windows or Linux PC. (Of course, that’s just me.) [Editor’s note: Several TidBITS staffers use laptops of similar vintage without complaint, too!]

But if you already have a Mac, even a PowerPC-based one, the MacBook Air could be an ideal second Mac. In my case, my primary work (and play) happens on my MacBook Pro. My fiancee uses the MacBook Air most of the time, largely for her email and a small iPhoto library.

We store our main photographic repository on a 500 GB FireWire drive shared via my MacBook Pro, which is our main home Mac. The MacBook Air views the larger collection via Wi-Fi using iPhoto sharing, and we also centralize our music, videos, and work documents on that computer. This reduces the need for local storage on the MacBook Air. The Air’s speedy 802.11n Wi-Fi combined with Mac OS X’s file sharing makes remote file access a cinch.

Leopard’s Screen Sharing also acts as a powerful enabler for the MacBook Air. Case in point: I am in bed, with the MacBook Air on the bedside table. It being a lazy Sunday, my fiancee and I want to watch a movie without getting up. The movie file is on my MacBook Pro in the other room, and although it’s turned on, iTunes isn’t running. I flip open the MacBook Air. The LED backlit display instantly comes up, and AirPort connects in about three seconds. I open a new Finder window and locate the MacBook Pro. Clicking its icon gives me the option either to share its screen or browse its file structure. I choose Screen Sharing and, after authenticating, see my MacBook Pro interface virtualized on the MacBook Air. I launch iTunes on the
MacBook Pro, make sure it’s sharing media over the network, launch iTunes on the MacBook Air, and start watching the movie. All without leaving bed! Screen sharing on a MacBook Air brings new meaning to the term “thin client.”

More and more, I find myself using the MacBook Air as a remote control panel to my MacBook Pro to manage tasks like ripping DVDs and downloading new podcasts that are processor-intensive, lengthy, or require significant amounts of disk space. And when I’m not using the MacBook Air, it is the perfect computer for my fiancee, who does not need to run Final Cut Studio.

Of course, any portable Mac could act as this sort of remote control (and you can share screens using free VNC tools if you don’t have Leopard), but the MacBook Air is super portable and great-looking, and those are in fact the primary reasons I would recommend one. The portability factor goes beyond just the 3.0 pound (1.36 kg) weight, encompassing the incredibly thin and sleek profile and, for those who order it, a 64 GB solid state drive. Although the solid state drive adds $999 to the price for a drive that is 16 GB smaller than the standard 80 GB drive, it offers at least somewhat better performance, possibly slightly lower power consumption, and most importantly, less susceptibility to knocks that could crash a hard drive head
against the disc platter. (No, I didn’t spring for the solid state drive; it may be a sign of the future, but it’s just not worth an extra grand.)

As for the MacBook Air’s appearance, spec-driven gear aficionados might scoff at such seemingly superficial factors, but many people are happy with any computer able to run standard applications and don’t mind paying more (or getting less) in exchange for a more aesthetically pleasing design. I’d go further – the MacBook Air’s design is a key aspect of the machine’s ergonomics, which you experience every moment you use it. It’s lightweight, making it easy to pick up and put down. It fits nicely on top of a stack of books, or inside a backpack, the way a small stack of paper does, and it’s easily stowed or relocated (so much so that Newsweek writer Steven Levy believes his lost MacBook Air may
have been recycled
with the Sunday New York Times). The MagSafe connector makes recharging as easy as or even easier than recharging a cell phone or iPod. In fact, that’s exactly how we use the MacBook Air at home. We recharge it when we need to but otherwise bring it around wherever we happen to be so we can check email or read news in the living room, kitchen, or bathroom, on the dining table, or in bed.

Outside of the home, the story’s a tad less positive from me. The MacBook Air is still a highly portable device, but I am unhappy with the battery life, especially because it’s impossible to swap in another battery when one runs low. On average, I get about 3.5 hours of use between recharges, which is somewhat better than some reviewers have reported, but well less than the 5 hours Apple claims. With Wi-Fi off, I can watch two feature-length movies on the Air. With Wi-Fi on, I can rely on about 2 to 3 hours of computing time for important business tasks before I need to start thinking about rationing power consumption and recharging. As a result, I use the MacBook Air on the road as I did any other previous laptop. Consider the MacBook
Air a transportable computer that you can take between home, office, and hotel, with a couple of hours of usability between electrical outlets at the airport or on an airplane (unless you buy the MagSafe airline adapter and happen to get a seat with power). Plus, if you can’t fit all the files you need on the internal hard disk while traveling, you’ll need to bring a couple of flash drives or an external hard disk (or enable disk use on your iPod). Of course, there’s always just rolling the dice and betting you’ll be able to get remote broadband access to your files.

Here are a few other nits:

  • I miss not having an Enter key on the right side of the Air’s spacebar.
  • I have been told, but cannot confirm, that the built-in iSight is less than 1.3 megapixel. However, I’ve found it more than adequate for video conferencing.
  • Physical access to the USB port is hit-and-miss. Some plugs might not fit into the tiny gap between the computer frame and the lip of the flip-out cover. You can solve this with a USB extension cord or a portable USB hub, but then you have to remember to carry it with you at all times.
  • I strongly recommend that you get the wired Ethernet dongle for hotel use, in case Wi-Fi is not offered or badly received in your room. Plus, if you’re using the Remote Disc software, you’ll want the best network speeds possible.

One feature I’ve not yet talked about is the wonderful multi-touch trackpad. The Air has the biggest and best trackpad I’ve yet had the pleasure to use. While the multi-touch functions are cool, on a pragmatic level the only gestures I find myself using constantly are the two-fingered scrolling and two-fingered right-clicking. The three-fingered back/forward swipes seem to work only with Safari (I usually use Firefox because I need certain add-ons, such as those for Google Notebook and and the pinch zooming is, for me, a bit hard to get hold of. I use the two-fingered rotate function occasionally, but our digital cameras seem to do well at advising iPhoto of the proper orientation for photos. But I don’t mean to
detract from the Air’s trackpad. It is absolutely a delight to use and the two-fingered scrolling feels even easier and smoother than on my pre-multi-touch MacBook Pro. I hope Apple makes this trackpad standard on the MacBook models going forward as well.

To wrap up, the MacBook Air is, like this review of it, not for everyone. If what I’ve written strikes a chord with you, and you can see yourself using the MacBook Air in similar ways, it may be the ideal machine for you. If my domestic antics with the new Mac seem frivolous, or if you’re not sold on paying extra for less storage, less processing power, and less connectivity, then you should stick with a MacBook or MacBook Pro, either of which offer more bang for the buck. In other words, the MacBook Air is a bit like a finely tailored suit – elegant, perfectly form-fitting, and even exotic, but by no means a cost-effective way to dress for all seasons or all eventualities.

As for my fiancee, she likes the new Mac. She enjoys using it and told me she hasn’t found it any different from her old Sony Vaio.

Being free of Windows headaches has never looked so good.

[Angus Wong is a long-time Apple user and technology business professional. To read more of his offbeat industry ramblings, please drop by his blog.]

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