I’ve spent the past couple of weeks testing out Apple’s second take on its ultra-portable laptop concept, the Macbook Air. When Apple launched the first model of the Air, I was somewhat interested by the very thin form factor, but totally taken aback by the price; more than two thousand dollars for a machine that wasn’t, to put it bluntly, even poking at the sides of being cutting edge a couple of years ago.
The Air comfortably fits into the category of what used to be called “ultraportables” right up until the first netbooks hit the scene and radically reinterpreted not only the size of notebook systems but most markedly their pricing. It’s undoubtedly something that’s affected the pricing of the Macbook Air (and many of the competing ultra-thin Windows equivalents), as the new models start at a much more moderate $1,199.
For a system as innately portable as the Air, that’s a pretty good buy, but it’s still not without its catches. The processor still isn’t cutting edge — an ultra-low voltage 1.4GHz or 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo — although the internal storage, which now only comes in solid state drive (SSD) format, is. Solid State Drives contain no moving parts, so they’re rather more durable than traditional hard drives, as well as drawing less power and running much cooler. The catch there is that they’re more costly, and as such, the entry level Macbook Air that I’ve tested comes with a slender 64GB of available storage. An external, older normal USB hard drive would seem like a very sensible choice for any Air purchaser.
The first model of the Air infamously had a single USB port that had to service any external peripherals, including ethernet ports, external drives and adaptors. The new model doubles that number, which at least means you could (for example) use a USB modem and USB storage drive at the same time. Like its predecessor, an optical drive is noticeably absent, although you can install software on a client PC or Mac to share an optical drive to the Air over a network.
I’ve used plenty of netbooks over the past couple of years, and the Air does neatly overpower them in terms of raw processing power. Where it’s technically feasible to, for example, edit a spreadsheet or adjust an image on a netbook, you need plenty of patience, and the Air does manage that a little better. Then again, Netbook prices have continued to tumble over time, so there’s still a fair pricing gap between a standard Netbook and the Air, or for that matter a fatter, more regularly specified PC notebook.
For heavy travellers, the light carrying weight, full sized keyboard and very quiet and relatively cool operation of the Macbook Air make a reasonable buying case. Those on more limited budgets, or who want the even smaller form of a netbook would do well to trawl the online stores, where some of last year’s models can be had for less than $500.