Living With Apple’s 11.6″ MacBook Air

By  |  Monday, November 1, 2010 at 5:11 pm

I like ridiculously small notebooks. There was a time when I used a truly diminutive Fujitsu subnotebook called the Lifebook B112 as my main mobile machine. I also have a soft spot for netbooks. I’m willing to make compromises to shed weight–such as dealing with cramped keyboards, squinting at small screens, and learning to use abnormal pointing devices.

In recent years. though, I’ve tended to use laptops that were reasonably compact–13″ is my favorite–but not ridiculously small. That’s in part because I’ve used Macs as much as I have Windows laptops, and no Mac notebook has been anywhere near midget-sized. The closest Apple has gotten to tiny has been the MacBook Air, and until last week, the MacBook Air (with its 13.3″ screen) hasn’t been so much small as thin and light. All Airs up until the new models have also pretty basic in terms of specs and kind of pricey–which is why they never tempted me.

But a week and a half ago, Apple announced the first all-new Airs since the original version. The prices are lower, the specs are better, and there’s a new model with an 11.6″ display. It weighs 2.3 pounds and is .11″ at its thinnest point, making Apple’s smallest Mac portable ever–much more so than my late, lamented 12″ PowerBook, the smallest Mac I’d used until now. It also starts at a temptingly low $999. I’ve been living with one (loaned to me by Apple) since the press event.

Back when the new Air was just a rumor, I theorized (halfway jokingly) that it would be Apple’s first netbook. It’s certainly the closest thing to a netbook that Apple has ever released, but it doesn’t reflect any backpedaling on any of the netbook-bashing that the company has indulged in–nor is the Air, strictly speaking, a ridiculously tiny notebook. At 11.6″ and a surprisingly high-resolution 1366 by 768, the widescreen display feels more like a small notebook screen than a cramped netbook one. The processor, a 1.4-GHz Core 2 Duo in the base Air, may not be a barnburner, but it’s an upgrade from the Atom in most netbooks. Maybe most important, the keyboard and touchpad are full-size, super-comfy versions, not shrunken netbook ones. (As with all Macs, “full-sized touchpad” actually means “much larger than most Windows PC touchpads, with a cool built-in button.”)

When the original MacBook Air shipped in 2008, its amazingly thin aluminum case led to compromises that bugged me: It lacked an Ethernet port and had only one USB jack, and the ports were ensconced in a flip-down panel that could interfere with cables. Both the new 11.6″ and 13.3″ Airs, however, have a wedge-shaped aluminum case with enough room at the hinge end for standard ports, no flip-down access required. There are now two USB ports (one on each side–a less elegant but more useful configuration than Apple’s standard approach of lining up all the ports on the left). And the old Air’s mono speaker has been replaced by decent (by small-notebook standards) stereo ones. There’s still no Ethernet, but that’s much less of a sacrifice these days; I can’t remember the last time that I absolutely, positively needed to plug a computer into a wired network connection.

You do give up some features in return for the Air’s waif-like profile: Both models lack backlit keyboards, a feature that’s standard on MacBook Pros. There’s no FireWire, which shouldn’t be a dealbreaker for most people (I’m sure there are some exceptions). And the one feature missing on the 11.6″ model that I know I’d pine for is a slot for SD cards–it’s awfully nice not to have to futz with external card readers. (The 13.3″ model does have a built-in SD reader.)

Of course, the new Airs, like the original version and an increasing percentage of laptops, don’t have an optical drive. I already know how I feel about that: It’s not an big issue 95% of the time, unless you like to watch DVD movies on your computer, install vast amounts of disc-based software, or are a big believer in DVD as a backup medium. I waver back and forth on whether I want an optical drive built into my laptops, which is why I find Toshiba’s Portege R700–a thin 3-pounder that has a DVD burner–rather intriguing. But giving it up in a machine as thin, light, and inexpensive as the 11.6″ Air is an easy tradeoff.

All the new Airs dump hard disks for solid-state flash memory. That’s a compromise in one major respect: Flash provides far less capacity at any price point than a plain ol’ hard drive does. The base $999 11.6 Air has only 64GB of storage, which will likely be tight unless you’re using the machine as a secondary (or tertiary) computer. $200 more gets you 128GB–not exactly roomy, but much better. (The 13.3″ version is available in 128GB and 256GB–hey, that’s almost spacious!–versions.)

Other than the lack of elbow room, the move to flash storage is all good news. It’s helps explain why the Airs are so small and light, and why their battery life is respectable for systems of their class. And although I haven’t done lab tests like the ones my pals at Macworld performed, everything about my experience with the 11.6″ Air tells me that the flash helps performance a lot. This Air has only 2GB of RAM–4GB is a$100 upgrade–yet it’s never felt bogged down, even when I’ve run the notoriously demanding Photoshop. (Actually, Photoshop loads in a few seconds, versus a minute or more in some cases on my 13.3″ MacBook Pro.) For the stuff I do every day, the Air feels at least as snappy as a MacBook Pro with beefier specs.

The Air also comes out of its slumber almost instantly–opening it up and returning to work isn’t quite as effortless as on an iPad, but it compares favorably to most laptops I’ve ever owned, including other MacBooks.

As for battery life, I’m used to buying notebooks (including Apple ones) and getting maybe half the juice out of a charge that I’ve been led to expect. But at last week’s press event, Steve Jobs said that Apple is using more stringent tests to come up with estimates for these new Airs. He seems to have spoken the truth: The 11.6″ Air is supposed to get “up to” five hours of life on a charge, and I’ve been getting…about five hours. That’s respectable for a machine as small, light, and thin as this one. As someone who spends a lot of timeout and about without reliable access to AC outlets, however, I remain attracted to the seven-hour estimated life of the 13.3″ Air–that would be enough to get me through a typical workday or a cross-country flight.

But speaking of airplanes, the 11.6″ Air would be especially well-suited to cramped coach seats–ones in which dealing with even a 13-inch notebook can be a struggle if the person in front of you reclines all the way. The 11.6″ display is short and wide, so it needs very little clearance, and the high resolution provides enough pixels for dense user interfaces such as Photoshop.

Overall, I’ve really liked bopping around town with the 11.6″ MacBook Air in tow. Rather than sticking it in a laptop bag, I’ve usually been clutching it in one hand, usually as part of a stack of papers–and the best testimonial I can give it is that I keep forgetting I have it with me, in the same way I can lose track of the fact I’m carrying an iPad.

The new Air’s starting pricetag of $999–the same as the low-end plastic MacBook–was one noteworthy element of yesterday’s news. But I’m struck by the breadth of the new line. Your $999 gets you an 11.6″ Air with a 1.4-GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM and 64GB of flash storage; the configuration is clearly meant as a second computer for people who don’t plan to tax the machine too much and don’t plan to load it up with vast quantities of software, music, and video. But you can spend as much as $1799–which was the original starting price for the first Air, incidentally–and get a 13.3″ version with a 2.13-GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, 4GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage. That’s within the same ballpark as the 13.3″ MacBook Pro I use most often as my main computer these days.

I’d like to see the 11.6″ Air be enough of a hit to inspire similar Windows PCs, possibly in plastic cases at lower price points; right now, there are a few that are vaguely reminiscent in certain respects (such as Lenovo’s 12″ IdeaPad S12 and Sony Vaio X) without being truly comparable. This Air proves that it’s possible for a personal computer to be a breeze to tote around without any crippling compromises. It’s not for everyone, but I suspect the folks who like it–who haven’t had a Mac aimed at them until now–will really like it.



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10 Comments For This Post

  1. DAvid Says:

    "I can’t remember the last time that I absolutely, positively needed to plug a computer into a wired network connection."

    I can. Last night.
    I had to modify my router settings, and it will NOT let you access the interface via WiFi.

    Other than that, I agree that the small disk size and configuration of this unit is not a problem. It's a huge step up from the EEE PC 701 I currently take on my travels!


  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    Good point. Of course, I suspect that most people who own an Air will have at least one other computer in their household, and that that computer will have ethernet–and there is an external adapter for the Air.


  3. Andrew Says:

    Not a problem guys, for those who absolutely need Ethernet, apple makes a USB to Ethernet adapter. Just picked up one myself, works like a charm.


  4. IcyFog Says:

    I can update my Airport Express wirelessly.

  5. Mitherial Says:

    I heartily agree with this article that the 11"-12" subnotebook is an overlooked size format for secondary or tertiary computers. I tried a netbook because they were so cheap, but hated it and immediately went back.

    I'd like to emphasize how much more you can get done at this size than with a netbook: you can browse websites much more efficiently and have a nearly full-size keyboard. Yes, they cost more, and are slightly less portable than netbooks, but if you want to do any actual work, ever, the ~11"-12" size beats the netbook hands down.

    "right now, there are a few that are vaguely reminiscent in certain respects (such as Lenovo’s 12″ IdeaPad S12 and Sony Vaio X) without being truly comparable"

    Other than not having the aluminum body, I'm not sure why Sony's Vaio X series isn't comparable: it's actually 0.13" thinner and 0.7 lb lighter. For Lenovo, far and away the best comparison is not the IdeaPad S12, but the Thinkpad X201 (which has a magnesium metal or carbon-fiber body) and its predecessors (going back to about 2001 with the X20); while they are not quite as thin, they are built like tanks and you can get a much larger 9-cell battery if that is important to you (my 6-cell battery gets 6-7 hours of actual use, so the 9-cell probably pushes ten hours). And they have the deservedly famous Thinkpad keyboards too. (Lenovo also makes a "Thinkpad Netbook", the X100E, which I don't recommend because it is overpriced for a netbook, and underpowered for a subnotebook.)

  6. Mojanemojan Says:

    Agreed with mitherial view point.

  7. masatoyakushi Says:

    Hmm this nice subnotebook, I think Joe is right this NOT a class A component.

  8. davezatz Says:

    The size is tempting… but instead of a second computer, I'd rather go slightly bigger with the 13" Air, use an external display at home, and carry on with a single "PC". Less is more! Or something.

  9. daftjunk Says:

    This isn't a "laptop". You have to understand that with size and weight reductions come spec reductions. If you want a computer that is this small/thin with top of the line technology in it, expect to pay 5,000.00+. They need to market this to consumers.

  10. Erol Says:

    I disagree. Give credit where it is due; I own both the Vaio X1 and the MBA 11.6. Get your facts straight! Vaio X1 is not made of worse materials. Both machines have the same display resolution, and in my case colours are more vivid on the X1. The case of the Vaio is made from Carbon Fiber, and the keyboard is mounted on a black anodised aluminium. The fit and the finish is of high quality and it looks fine. I have the Black/Bordeaux version but the Gold version looks fine too. X1 has a built in multi card reader (SD & Memory Stick) where the cards can be left in because the cards don't stick out like the one on MacBooks. X1 has a gigabit ethernet port as well. Also, X1 has a user replaceable battery and the machine comes with two batteries. When you run out of one you can swap the batteries and continue to work, whereas on the MBA you are out of luck unless you have a power socket nearby. And yes MBA weighs 35% more than the Vaio X1. Having all this said, I still prefer the MBA over the Vaio. Why? Because MBA is definitely and noticeably faster than the X1, and OS X in my opinion is much better than Windows 7. Air has the definite edge on the keyboard and compared to the exquisite touchpad of the air, Vaio's touchpad is a joke and a cruel torture. Both machines wake up near instantly from sleep but Windows wastes another 15 to 20 seconds to get an IP from its wireless connection and while doing so the CPU is pegged to 100% and the machine is sluggish to user inputs until it settles down. Oh yes, don't ignore the fact that one has to sacrifice precious CPU power to the antivirus software on Windows 7 which is not essential on OS X. Overall my MBA with 1.6 C2D, 128 Gb Flash and 4gb ram appears to me as fast as the 13" MacBook Pro 2.66 that I used to use it as my main computer. Well it took me less than 24 hours after owning the Air to adopt it as my main machine and retire the 13" Macbook Pro. Of course I use both Macs with the Cinema Display and an external keyboard and Magic Pad in order to use it at my office comfortably. So, this is as unbiased as you will get from someone who owns both machines.

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