Friday, March 07, 2008

MacBook Air review

It's just over 3 weeks since I purchased my MBA (that's a MacBook Air, not a Masters in Business Administration - I've not succumbed to the spammers ;) which feels like enough time behind the wheel trackpad to post some early thoughts.

First things first (and the question everyone's been asking me, once they've finished stroking the chrome): why did I decide to shell out almost £1,200 of my hard earned cash (no, work didn't pay for it) when I already have two perfectly good Mactops (a 12" PowerBook and a MacBook)? Good question...

What I've been telling everyone (including myself) is that it was primarily a health consideration - I've been ferrying my MacBook to and from work in a shoulder bag for almost a year now and it's doing my back no good whatsoever - and you can't put a price on your health, right? Right...?

A more likely explanation is that I've fallen victim to the genius of Apple's product release strategy (see Charles Arthur's recent Guardian piece), failing to carefully evaluate the product and being seduced by Steve Jobs and his manila envelope.

And seduction is the right word, because the Air is aesthetically gorgeous. I've not got it out of my bag yet without a flurry of admiring gazes and comments and I still haven't stopped marveling at the design achievement of making a laptop, which is actually almost 2cm deep towards the rear, appear super-model thin. The question is (to paraphrase The Temptations' 1966 hit single) is the MBA's beauty only skin deep?

My first three weeks with the Air certainly haven't been without frustration or disappointment, the first of which was weight. Despite having read the tech spec on the Apple site, which correctly states its weight as 3 pounds (1.36kg), I was surprised by how heavy it felt when I first lifted it out of the box. It just looks so insubstantial that you can't help expecting something feather-light, even though you know there's a fully featured computer inside. Whilst 1.36kg is still relatively light for a laptop, it's only fractionally less than my ancient Toshiba Portege 3110CT (which weighs in at 1.4kg) and significantly more than the ASUS Eee PC (0.92kg).

The paucity of ports and the absence of an optical drive have also been minor frustrations. Pre-purchase, I didn't think only having one USB port would be a big problem but not enough of my peripherals (mouse, printer, scanner, camera etc.) are wireless for there not to be a fair amount of hot-swapping (or the use of an ungainly USB hub). Similarly, the world hasn't quite dispensed with physical media yet and whilst Remote Disc worked fine when installing my printer drivers, it wasn't able to cope with a Parallels' installation of Windows, which required a trip to the Apple Store to purchase an MBA SuperDrive (below).

Mercifully, my fear that my hotel (in Austin for SXSW) would only have a wired internet connection proved unfounded but it reminded me that the Air's lack of an Ethernet port could also potentially be super annoying.

Other disappointments include battery life (which doesn't live up to the claimed 5 hours even when optimised for better energy savings) and the appearance of the kernel panic dialog box on more than one occasion (although I think a Parallels conflict is probably to blame).

It's not all bad, however. The screen is arguably Apple's best laptop display to date and the keyboard is nicely responsive (and glows in the dark!). I'm less sold on the multi-touch trackpad (although I haven't taken the time to properly suss it out yet) and the mouse button feels a bit too skinny and needs a really firm press to register.

Performance wise, the Air's 2GB of RAM ensures it's a fairly smooth ride when using Leopard. I made the mistake of installing Vista using Parallels which runs like an absolute dog, even with the RAM available to the Guest OS jacked up to the max - it'd probably work okay using Boot Camp but I'll personally be steering well clear of Vista for the foreseeable.

Part of the challenge for the MBA is that we're so used to the superlative functionality of the MacBook and MacBook Pro that we're inclined to take all of that stuff for granted and just focus in on the stuff which has been stripped out to lighten the load.

Whilst the MacBook Air is a decent and unquestionably attractive laptop, it's not an iPhone-type game-changer/paradigm shift and I think it ultimately under-delivers on the promise of a fully-featured lightweight laptop. Still, I'm not going to be returning mine to the store anytime soon...

Related fabric of folly posts:
And the winner is... the iPhone
Round-up of best made-for-iPhone web sites/apps
How I learned to stop worrying and love the PSP

(there's also a post in my drafts folder entitled 'Why using Apple products is like a bad relationship' which I wrote in a fit of pique whilst waiting for a slot at the Genius Bar which I may revisit and publish soon).


Anonymous said...

Came across your review. Have been considering MBA, but a lot of work I do is within Parallels (using a MacBook Pro right now). Any comments/thoughts on what the performance of Parallels is on the MBA? Even usable for real-world work (no gaming, just work)?

Dan Taylor said...

General performance of Parallels on MBA is fine although until recently I kept on getting the kernal panic screen (error message: 4 potential args on stack) and having to restart. Fortunately Parallels have now released a hotfix:

I'd say it's definitely usable for real-world work although I'm not sure I'd recommend it above the MacBook Pro.

Hope that helps

writer1 said...

Thanks for sharing this review. I think with the recent price cuts and performance increase since the original it makes a much better machine now.

Particularly with the SSD model being only £200 more than the HDD version, and with a great proc and gfx card. I love the machine, maybe I'll get it some day in the future.

I run a dell mini 9 with OS X installed on it as a portable machine. However, it's less comparable with the MBA which is a full computer really, rather than a scaled down model.

Charlie -