MacBook Air: The proof's in the packing

In the two-plus months since Steve Jobs first announced the MacBook Air during January’s Macworld Expo keynote, Apple’s most svelte laptop has generated much debate, as well as a good deal of criticism—much of the latter relating to Apple’s decision to focus on weight and thinness at the expense of traditional features.

These criticisms aren’t without merit. As I noted when I first covered the MacBook Air’s tradeoffs, you do lose features compared to the other offerings in Apple’s laptop line: an optical drive, a number of ports and expansion options, a removable battery, and processing power. For some people, the loss of these features is a deal-breaker; the MacBook Air is not for them. But back in January, I wrote that for people who value light weight and are willing to give up other features to get it, the MacBook Air is an interesting machine (yes, “interesting” is the word I chose at the time).

Since writing that article, I’ve had the opportunity to use a MacBook Air first-hand. Specifically, I used Macworld’s review unit as my only laptop for three weeks—a span that included two six-hour plane flights bookending a week’s vacation in Hawaii (and, no, the TSA didn’t make me miss my flight because of the Air). I used the MacBook Air on planes, in a hotel/condo, on tables and desks, on my lap, in coffee shops, on the patio, and around the house. I carried it by itself, in various laptop bags, and packed in carry-ons. During vacation it was our family computer, used for surfing the Web for sights and food, emailing friends and family back home, editing vacation photos, watching movies, doing leisure writing, and even playing a few casual games. Back home, I made an effort to use the Air for many things I’d normally do on my desktop Mac. (And, yes, I did temporarily misplace the Air under a stack of papers and periodicals; luckily, I didn’t accidentally recycle it.)

After that real-world road test, I want to amend my earlier statement: For people who value light weight, and are willing to give up other features to get it, the MacBook Air is a compelling machine. What's more, I think I underestimated the appeal of the Air as a primary computer.

Size matters... really

My post-test impressions: In terms of everyday features, the Air's screen is brighter and better than that of the MacBook—it’s even a major step up from that of my first-generation, 1.83GHz MacBook Pro, despite the latter’s larger screen size. Performance for most tasks isn't noticeably different from that of my MacBook Pro, and the Air's keyboard feels better than the one on my wife’s MacBook. I’ve also come to the conclusion that I never want another laptop that doesn’t have an ambient-light sensor and a backlit keyboard.

But, as you might expect, it’s really the size and weight of the Air that won me over. For travel and carrying, the MacBook Air is considerably lighter and much more compact than both the MacBook Pro and the MacBook, despite the latter's similar footprint. Although 2 or 3 pounds may not seem like much, the lighter weight makes a big difference when carrying a laptop, especially when your bag also holds a bunch of other stuff. (It’s difficult to appreciate how much lighter the Air is until you go back and use a MacBook Pro or MacBook; as Macworld Editorial Director Jason Snell recently said on Twitter, the MacBook feels "like heavy, heavy bricks" in comparison. Twitter-style hyperbole, of course, but the general sentiment is dead-on.)

And while Jason found the Air's thinness to be something of a gimmick, I found it genuinely useful. Because the Air is so thin, I could fit more reading material in my carry-on, and I could fit the Air in pockets and pouches that wouldn’t accept other Mac laptops. I even stuck the Air in my seat pocket during a flight—try that with a MacBook Pro.

Feature presentation

All of which got me thinking about the widespread discussion of “features.” A recent post in the Macworld forums seems representative of the feelings many people have towards the MacBook Air:

The MacBook Air is not practical for the average Mac user. At a higher price point than the MacBook it is less powerful and comes with less features.

Having lived with an Air for a while, I think there are a couple problems with this viewpoint. First, that it takes too narrow a view on what is and isn’t a feature. Second, that it overestimates what the “average Mac user” actually needs.

Features first: If you’re making a spreadsheet of traditional features—the number of ports, the processor speed, and so on—the MacBook and MacBook Pro beat the MacBook Air handily, as do many non-Apple laptops. But as someone who’s owned a PowerBook Duo, a PowerBook 2400, and even an eMate, I contend that the Air’s size and weight are features, as well. And for many people, size and weight are, in fact, more important features than some of the things the Air is missing: Unlike an optical drive or a removable battery, a laptop’s size is in use at all times; if you carry your laptop often, a lighter computer may be more valuable to you than a DVD drive.

Similarly, let’s not forget that a laptop’s screen, keyboard, and trackpad are things you’re using whenever you’re using the computer—and the Air is superior to the MacBook, and comparable to the MacBook Pro, on all three counts.

Given that context, consider the second issue I raised above: Is the Air practical for the average Mac user? Back in January, I would have said “that depends.” And I still say that. But I now contend that it’s practical for more people than I originally thought. Partly because I underestimated the benefits of the Air’s size and weight in everyday use; but also because I think I overestimated the negative impact of the Air’s “missing” features.

A different perspective

What I mean here is that I originally looked at the Air from the point of view of someone who uses many external peripherals and who has obscene amounts of hard-drive space on his desktop Mac. But I’m definitely not the typical Mac user. Consider, instead, my wife. She’s a smart cookie and fairly tech-savvy. Yet she rarely uses an optical disk with her computer (a MacBook), she never connects FireWire devices, and her USB ports are used almost exclusively for transferring photos from her camera or memory cards; I don’t think she’s ever plugged in two USB devices at the same time. (Our printer is served up by an AirPort Base Station.) In terms of performance, her most-demanding computer tasks involve editing photos. Now, given that the number of times she’s ever connected a FireWire device to her MacBook is a fraction of the number of times, in a single week, she picks up her laptop and carries it, which feature do you think is more important to her—weight or ports? In my experience with Mac users, I think there are many people out there just like her.

Similarly, I recently realized that when I’m on vacation, I’m much closer to a typical Mac user in terms of what I need in a computer. During our trip, we never regretted not having an optical drive; I had loaded a few movies on the hard drive. Thinking I might need more than one USB port, I packed Moshi’s Cardette card reader, which includes a two-port hub; we never used the additional port. (Although the card reader did raise one criticism of the Air’s design: its USB port can be a hassle to get to when the computer is sitting on a desk or table.) And performance was never an issue; the Air handled our tasks with ease. Meanwhile, the Air’s battery life was exceptional, the screen was large and bright enough to watch movies, and it was trivial to travel with. It was a near-ideal combination of capability and carry-ability for us.

Or, to put it more simply: Over the three weeks I used the Air, the thing I noticed the most was not a lack of ports or storage, or poor performance. What I noticed the most—overwhelmingly so—was that the Air was a joy to carry and use.

The wider appeal of thin

Now, don’t get me wrong: The Air isn’t for everyone. But as long as lightweight/compact laptops are exercises in compromise, each user must weigh those compromises against his or her own needs and don’t-needs. And when you look at the Air this way—considering features in the context of particular users—I think the Air’s appeal is wider than I had originally estimated. It’s a great computer for hardcore road warriors, and it’s a great second computer. But it also performs—well—the everyday tasks of many computer users. For some of these people, the Air will be more practical than Apple’s other laptops simply because of its smaller size and lighter weight.

To wit: I know a good number of non-techie people who’ve purchased the Air simply because it does everything they need, in a package that’s smaller, lighter, and more convenient for their around-the-house-and-down-to-the-coffee-shop laptop life.

As for me, our family's new MacBook Air arrived last week.

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