The MacBook Air: What a Laptop Should Be

I mentioned a few weeks ago , after the Macworld Expo in San Francisco, that I was planning to buy a MacBook Air. Well, my Air finally arrived yesterday, and, after unboxing, getting the “oohs” and “aahs” from my son, the fanboy (well, he actually said, “Dude!” several times), I took some time to sit down with the computer and try it out. I’m pretty amazed by this computer, and I can safely say that it’s the most impressive Mac I’ve ever owned (my Mac experience dates back to the PowerBook 100, in 1991). Frankly, the MacBook Air is what a portable computer should be.

First, the weight. You can’t imagine unless you’ve actually held it in your hands, but the Air is really, really light. This Mac is replacing a 14″ iBook, and I’d say that it’s about half the weight of the iBook. (That’s a guesstimate, based on how it feels in my hards.) When picking up the Air, there is no feeling that one could drop it if only holding it in one hand, and there’s no heft to it at all. It’s about as heavy as an average-sized hardcover book; but the size and thickness make it feel even lighter.

As to the thickness – or, as Apple says, the “thinness”, it is impressive, but much less so than the weight. When you do put it on your lap, though, you start to notice just how thin it is. If you put your hand on the edge, you can feel that there is little space between the open part of the Air and your lap. But I don’t think the thickness is as big a revolution as the weight, even though the two go hand in hand.Now, as Apple has said, compromises are always made with laptops, and one that sub-notebooks make is using a small keyboard. The full-size keyboard on the Air is essential, especially because I have large hands. I only fiddled with a 10″ sub-notebook once, and couldn’t type on it with any speed. Since I touch-type, I want a machine that I can use, not one on which I have to hunt and peck. And the touch of this keyboard is brilliant; it reminds me of the early iBooks, which had a keyboard where the keys didn’t move much, and had a good, solid stop to them, not a mushy feeling. This keyboard is very close to Apple’s new full-size keyboards.

So I’m writing this article on my Air, sitting in a comfortable chair next to my office window. I can type as fast and as comfortably as on any full-size keyboard, and do so comfortably (even though I generally prefer ergonomic keyboards, and use one with my Mac Pro). There are some things to get used to: there is no Enter key on this keyboard, so I keep pressing the right Command key when I want to press Enter; I’ll get used to that soon. And you do have to be slightly careful to not rest your thumbs on the large trackpad. That trackpad is, however, brilliant for tracking. Not only does it give a bigger target, but the trackpad gestures are quite intuitive, especially scrolling and using a three-finger “swipe” to go back and forward when browsing. All in all, the usability of the device for typing and tracking is excellent.

Did I say that the Air is light? I just picked it up again, and remain amazed each time I do so…

On to the display. I was a bit hesitant about the glossy screen, not having had any Macs with this type of screen before. (Though my son has a glossy iMac.) It’s actually quite good, as long as you can be in positions here you don’t suffer from reflections. The screen is crisp, very bright (thanks to its LED back-lighting), and the size of the screen is fine. I moved from a 14″ screen in 4:3 ration to this wide screen, and, given the quality of the screen which offsets the size, it’s a good trade-off. I’m not one for tiny pixels, but this screen is so sharp that even my middle-aged eyes are more than content.

Now, I have the MacBook Air with the SSD (solid-state disk). One thing this offers is almost instant wake-from-sleep, and very fast application launching. Tests show that it’s somewhat slower writing data, but when I was setting up my Air, I copied about 30 GB of data from a USB hard disk, and had the impression that the copy went very quickly. This isn’t scientific, but nothing suggested that the SSD is slow. Note that I didn’t use the wireless migration assistant – I had read enough about how slow it was to plan ahead, copying the data from my iBook to an external disk beforehand.

While I can’t judge the quality of the wireless migration assistant, I can talk about using Remote Disk to install software on the Air. I had to install iWork from a CD, so dumped it into my Mac Pro (after turning on CD/DVD sharing in the Sharing preferences), then ran the installer. It was transparent. Relatively fast, painless, and, frankly, brilliant. I truly cannot see when I’d need an optical drive for the Air, since I make backups to an external disk, and, especially, since it’s not my main computer. I can understand that anyone who uses the Air exclusively will need the external SuperDrive, but it’s just so good to have a small, light computer, that I can do without the optical disc drive.

One thing I was concerned about with the Air was its heat level, and, by extension, its noise level. When setting it up, the fan went on after a few minutes, and it’s pretty noisy. But that only lasted as long as I was taxing the processor by copying lots of files. Since then, it’s been totally quiet, and very cool. I’m typing this with the Air on my lap, and I don’t notice its heat. Granted, typing a few thousand words is not processor-intensive, and I haven’t tested it with anything more serious than surfing and writing, but it’s clear that, for such limited activities, the Air won’t heat up much. My guess is that the aluminum dissipates the heat efficiently during light usage, but that the Air is designed to not be hot. Currently – and, remember, I’m not hitting the processor very hard – the CPU sensor is 50° C and the bottom enclosure temperate is 38° C, just a tad higher than skin temperature. Doing some heavy surfing (opening a dozen pages in tabs) gets the CPU temperature up to 60° C almost immediately, so sustained surfing will get the Air much warmer. But in my experience, with non-intensive usage, this is one cool laptop (Tests performed with Marcel Bresink’s Temperature Monitor

Naturally, your usage will be different, especially if this is your main Mac. Gaming – which is probably not very efficient on the Air, given its on-board video RAM – would tax the machine, and serious number crunching or graphic work would certainly get the temperature up.

I mentioned how the GPU would not be sufficient for gaming, and I’m suggesting that based on tests I’ve read. I’m not a gamer (though I play go), so I won’t be able to test that. However, in regular usage, the graphics are snappy and clean – for example, scrolling web pages is very fast and smooth – so that limited VRAM is no hindrance to the Air’s performance.

There’s not a lot of negatives I can say about the Air, other than it’s price: yes, it’s a pricey computer, especially compared to the MacBook, which offers better performance. But it is so well designed that it makes portable computing a joy. Every other laptop is clunky compared to the Air; once you’ve held the Air in your hards, you won’t want to use any other laptop. I discussed this with several friends yesterday, one of whom had already held the Air at the Macworld Expo; he says it’s too big; he wants a real sub-notebook, and doesn’t mind a small keyboard. Another uses spreadsheets a lot, and he wants a bigger screen; he wondered if Apple wouldn’t expand the Air line to include a 15″ model, something that might make sense if the 13″ is popular enough. No, the Air is not for everyone, but it’s exactly what I need: a small, light computer to do the work I do (writing), and to use for general computing activities. I have a Mac Pro for everything else, and the Air is the perfect compliment. As I said above, the MacBook Air is what a portable computer should be.