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Review: MacBook Air (first-generation)

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As displayed in a redesigned Keyboard & Mouse preference pane via a series of informative animations, the MacBook Air supports new gestures that go way beyond the two-finger scroll and secondary click. In a move that will be familiar to iPhone users, the MacBook Air’s trackpad understands the same pinch-and-spread finger movement that you use to zoom images and Web pages on the iPhone.

On the MacBook Air, what that gesture does depends on what program you’re currently using. It’ll zoom in or out on an image in Preview or iPhoto, but when your cursor is over a Finder window set to Icon view, it has the odd effect of changing the size of all of the icons.

A similar two-finger gesture, taking two fingers and circling them around one another, cues iPhoto and Preview to rotate the selected image. (Other programs should be able to take advantage of these gestures as well, and presumably other future MacBook models will include this capability.)

A three-finger swipe across the trackpad kicks off another action that will be familiar to iPhone users: it advances (or backs up) within a list of items. In iPhoto, swiping to the right will advance to the next image; in Safari, swiping to the left is akin to clicking the Back button.

But the iPhone’s swipe gesture takes a single finger, while for obvious reasons the MacBook Air’s trackpad reserves single-finger movement for the act of moving your cursor around the screen. I found swiping with the required three fingers to be ungainly at best. While I can see myself adopting these new two-finger gestures just as I have the two-finger scroll and the two-finger right-click, I have my doubts about the three-finger swipe.

Sidekick or mainstay?

With its reduced hard-drive size and lack of speed, the MacBook Air may be looked upon by users with high standards as a product that’s not worthy of being any user’s primary Mac. And I’ve received numerous e-mails on that point, from Mac users who assume that Apple has intended the MacBook Air to be a sidekick to another, more powerful Mac at the true center of one’s life.

But in making the MacBook Air a full-fledged MacBook and marketing it as such, Apple has given no hint that it views this system as anything more than a tiny version of the other MacBooks in its product line. Beyond the necessary release of Remote Disc, there’s a disappointing lack of innovation from Apple in the area of easily syncing any MacBook back to a desktop Mac.

Yes, there are plenty of clever strategies you can use to make this process better, including .Mac synchronization or sync utilities such as Econ Technologies’ Chronosync. But Apple could have chosen to create software that made the MacBook Air as much of an easy-to-use companion piece to a desktop system as an iPod or an iPhone. Instead, MacBook Air users will face the same synchronization issues as every other person who uses a MacBook as a secondary system.

Then there will be those who, small drive and slow processor be damned, will adopt the MacBook Air as their primary Mac—simply because they’re laptop-only users who want that laptop to be as small as possible.

For those users, the biggest issue with the MacBook Air will be the size of its hard drive. Data pack rats will need to change their file-archiving strategy, migrating certain documents to an external hard drive. Media fans might consider packing an iPod rather than storing a copy of their music and video library on the MacBook Air’s drive.

Macworld’s buying advice

If the story of the MacBook Air is a story about compromise, the decision about whether the MacBook Air is a product worth having can be answered by one question: How much are you willing to compromise?

The MacBook Air is the slowest Mac in Apple’s current product line, though its Intel Core 2 Duo processor is fast enough for general use. Its hard drive capacity is limited to 80GB, and on a slow drive at that. It’s got no internal optical drive. It’s got no FireWire port and only a single USB port, limiting its external connectivity. It’s more expensive than the MacBook, which bests it on almost every tech-spec measurement.

That’s one side of the equation. On the other side are two features that many computer users would never think of as reasonable ways to judge a computer, features measured in pounds and inches instead of gigahertz and gigabytes: The MacBook Air weighs three pounds and is three-quarters of an inch thick at its thickest point.

Judged merely on the cold technological specifications, the MacBook Air can’t measure up to Apple’s other laptops. For those to whom the tech specs matter above all else, the MacBook Air can’t be seen as much more than an overpriced, underpowered toy.

But for those who factor size, weight, and—yes, I’ll admit it—style into the equation, the MacBook Air begins to make more sense. Up until now, Mac users who craved the smallest Mac laptop possible have made their own compromise, using the lower-powered MacBook (or clinging desperately to the even lower-powered 12-inch PowerBook G4).

Is losing several hundred megahertz, dozens of gigabytes of hard-drive space, an internal optical drive, and FireWire connectivity worth losing two pounds? (Those are the differences between the MacBook Air and the MacBook—if you’re considering a switch from the MacBook Pro, the differences are even starker in both directions.) Each laptop user will have to answer that question for themselves.

As a longtime fan of small laptops, I embraced the MacBook Air with some trepidation. But once I slipped that three-pound laptop into my backpack and threw the bag over my shoulders, I realized that sacrificing some storage space and some processor power was ultimately worth it for me.

[Jason Snell is Macworld’s editorial director.] (Updated 1/30 at 3:20 p.m. PT with some minor copy editing changes. Updated at 3:57 p.m. based on discussions with Apple about strange battery-charge test results.)

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