MacBook Air: Holding my breath

Like most everyone else, I suspect, I was blown away by the MacBook Air’s reveal Tuesday. As a long-time fan of ultra-small notebooks (we still own and use a 12-inch PowerBook G4 in the Griffiths household), my initial reactions involved reaching for my credit card and loading Apple’s store in my browser. These feelings were reinforced even more by a visit to the Apple booth, where picking up the little machine probably doesn’t even count as exercise. There’s no denying that the design—curves everywhere, with nary a straight corner to be found—and lack of weight in this machine are truly amazing. It makes my 15-inch MacBook Pro look and feel like a lead paperweight by comparison.

But then—rare, for me—reason intervened and started posing questions that I should answer before purchasing the machine. “So what happens, Rob, when the hard drive has an error and you have to reinstall OS X?” OK, that seems easy enough. I’ll just boot off the Leopard DVD…oh wait, no, I won’t do that unless I fork over the extra $99 for the USB-powered SuperDrive. OK, so I’ll use FireWire Target Disk Mode…nope, won’t do that either, as there’s no FireWire port (and I confirmed with an Apple representative that there’s no “USB Target Disk Mode” option.) And I won’t be able to use that cool and oh-so-handy “borrow a drive from another Mac” feature, as the hard drive won’t be bootable. So barring the extra $99 for the SuperDrive, the only solution will be to boot from a USB2 hard drive that’s been prepared with a disk-based version of the OS X installer.

But really, how often does a hard drive get an error like this? Not so often, and $99 is a small price to pay for insurance, so the SuperDrive solves that problem. Time to order! “Not so fast, Griff! What about the hard drive space? 80GB isn’t much by today’s standards.” While that’s true, in a small ultra-mobile Mac, I’m willing to take the tradeoff in drive space. Even on my MacBook Pro, I’m only using 85GB of the 120GB space I have available. So really, this isn’t a major issue—besides, I fully expect that some enterprising soul will demonstrate that Toshiba’s new 160GB 1.8-inch hard drive works just fine in the MacBook Air, and they’ll probably do so within a day or two of the machine’s availability in two weeks.

So it’s time to order, right? I’ve been waiting for years, after all! “Well, just hang on a sec. There’s One More Thing you need to think about. You do realize, don’t you, that the battery isn’t removable?” What? That part got left out of Tuesday’s keynote. While Steve Jobs did point out that ultra-portables from other manufacturers involve tradeoffs (processor speed, disk space, screen size), he very conveniently neglected to mention the single biggest tradeoff with the MacBook Air: like the iPod, iPhone, and iPod touch, the battery in a MacBook Air isn’t user-replaceable.

Hey—how do you replace the battery on this thing?
The MacBook Air has a sleek, thin design, but if you ever want to swap out the battery yourself you’re out of luck.

Even Apple’s tech specs page doesn’t go out of its way to clearly explain this fact. Instead, the battery is merely described as an “integrated 37-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery.” The key word in that sentence would be “integrated,” indicating that the battery is in fact, part of the system.

So with a five-hour battery life, you’ll be resting quietly for the last seven hours of a San Francisco to London flight, or even an hour or so on a cross-country flight. And that’s assuming you get the full five hours out of the battery; it remains to be seen how it will hold up during movie playback or number crunching in Excel, for instance.

With other Mac laptops, this isn’t an issue—just pack a spare battery, and swap it out (thanks, safe sleep!) during the flight. With the MacBook Air, though, you’d best hope you’ve got a power jack at your seat, or you’ll be using your Air as a paperweight for much of longer flights.

The other issue is the battery’s natural degradation over time. According to Wikipedia’s entry on lithium polymer batteries, the life expectancy of such batteries is 24 to 36 months, with a claimed 80-percent capacity retention after 500 full charge/discharge cycles. Again, we won’t know how the MacBook Air’s battery holds up until its been in the field for a while, but it will definitely provide less than a five-hour charge as it ages. With Apple’s other laptops, this isn’t an issue as you can simply purchase a new battery and install it yourself. But what will one do with the MacBook Air? Will you have to send it to Apple to replace the battery? Will it be something that can be done while you wait at the local Genius Bar? Nobody knows, but clearly, it’s not something the consumer will be able to do at home.

And, for me, the battery issue is the one that pushed the “yes” lever over to “no.” I can live with the other tradeoffs. And I can even live with non-replaceable batteries in the iPhone and iPod—but those devices have sufficient battery life to get through even the longest flight or day in the field. The other big difference is the expected “useful life” of such devices. The iPhone is my third or fourth cell phone in the last five or so years, and I’m on my fourth iPod in that timeframe as well. So battery drain over time isn’t a big problem with these things, as the device itself tends to get replaced before it becomes an issue.

As noted earlier, however, I still have my four-year-old PowerBook G4, and my MacBook Pro will still be in service for at least that long. When something costs $2,000 or so, I expect that I’ll be able to use it for a number of years, and that I shouldn’t have to send it back to Apple for the equivalent of routine maintenance a couple times during that period.

I think I understand why Apple made the battery non-replaceable—with the profile of this machine, there simply wasn’t room for a battery case in the frame, so the raw battery pack is directly attached to the innards of the MacBook Air. (The need for a battery in a case, and some way of inserting and removing it, probably explains why some of the competing machines are much thicker than the MacBook Air.)

Unfortunately, this is one time where Apple’s penchant for stunning design has had a really bad impact on the usability of the product. Although I don’t often need more than five hours (ideal) of battery life, I do need the ability to at least be present in the machine. Sadly, that’s not the case with the MacBook Air.

So as much as I love this machine—I think it’s a truly stunning design, and it’s more than fast enough for typical use, and the weight is just…not there—I won’t be buying one, at least not in its first generation form. But if battery technology continues to progress, and we get a 10-hour battery life in generation two, three, or four…well, I’ll probably be the first in line at that point.

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