Leave it to Steve Jobs to figure out how to charge $1,000 for a netbook.
Granted, calling the new baby MacBook Air a netbook is probably punishable by flogging at Apple Inc.’s corporate HQ. Indeed, the entire category of netbooks -- shrunken laptops that usually weigh 2 to 3 pounds and lack such accoutrements as a DVD drive -- is under growing pressure from, among other things, the new wave of even lighter tablet computers spearheaded by Apple’s own iPad.
Still, by any recognizable definition, a netbook is exactly what the entry-level Air is. Except, of course, that those devices are cheap, often uncomfortably cramped and underpowered, with slow hard drives that take forever to boot and batteries that require a tradeoff between bulk and performance. The MacBook Air isn’t any of those things.
It is, unquestionably, the sexiest laptop going. The wedge- shaped case is machined aluminum; at its thinnest point, along the front edge where it opens, it’s only 0.11 of an inch -- considerably thinner than an iPad. It comes in two sizes: the one I’ve mostly been using, which has an 11.6-inch screen and costs $999 with 64 gigabytes of storage or $1,199 with 128 GB; and a 13.3-inch model with a more powerful processor that sells for $1,299 with 128 GB, or $1,599 for 256 GB.
Both models come with two gigabytes of memory standard. The smaller one weighs in at 2.3 pounds (1 kilogram); Big Brother is 2.9 pounds. There’s a spacious keyboard and generously sized trackpad that makes it easy to use even in tight spaces, such as on an airline tray table.
The Air blurs the line between laptop and tablet computing: Some of its key features are borrowed directly from the iPad. Its secret sauce is the hard disk -- or rather, the lack of one. With the new models, Apple has eliminated mechanical drives from the Air line in favor of the same sort of flash-memory chips it uses in the iPad, and the benefits ripple throughout the experience of using the machine.
For one thing, the solid-state memory responds so quickly that it makes the MacBook Air feel faster and more powerful than it really is. Both Airs are powered by Intel Corp.’s Core 2 Duo microprocessors, which -- while more potent than the Intel Atom chips found in many Microsoft Windows-based netbooks -- are still previous-generation technology.
In addition, the flash memory speeds boot-up time: A cold start takes less than 15 seconds -- about as close to instant-on performance as we’re likely to see in anything this side of an Amazon Kindle. (My Windows 7-powered Toshiba NB 305 netbook takes two minutes, give or take.) Moreover, the combination of solid-state memory and the Mac’s power-management features means you aren’t as likely to turn it off in the first place, making the experience of using it that much more iPad-like -- just lift the lid and you’re ready to go.
Using the computer for basic tasks, including word processing and surfing the Web over a Wi-Fi connection, I was able to easily exceed Apple’s claims of five-hour battery life for the smaller Air; the 13.3-inch model, which has a beefier battery, promises seven hours of operation. Apple claims up to 30 days of standby time for both models, and while I haven’t had the Air long enough to test that statement, my experience with the device so far leads me to believe it.
The principal compromises imposed by the Air are storage and the inconvenience of adding software or watching a movie. While flash-memory chips have come down in price, spending four figures on a computer that doesn’t store much more than a typical smartphone may rub you the wrong way.
The other drawback -- the absence of a DVD slot -- isn’t as big a hindrance as you might think, and is growing less so by the day. The MacBook Air’s emergency recovery disk, for instance, isn’t a disk at all -- it’s a USB thumb drive. (The Air now has two USB ports, one more than the previous model, though not the new, high-speed 3.0 version.)
More and more video content is arriving online, via streaming services like Netflix and Apple’s own iTunes Store. Also, Apple is promising to bring the iPhone’s App Store concept to the Mac within the next three months, which will make it easier to download software directly onto the Air.
In the meantime, if you want to install, say, Microsoft Corp.’s new Office 2011 for Mac from a disk, you’ll either have to bear the hassle of configuring an optical drive on some other nearby computer to allow the Air to borrow it, or pay $79 for Apple’s external read-write DVD drive.
Two years ago, Apple’s Jobs dismissed the idea of making an ultra-small Mac because “we don’t know how to make a $500 computer that’s not a piece of junk.” With its sleek looks, swift performance, Nvidia Corp. graphics processor and other premium features, the MacBook Air is most certainly not a piece of junk. Then again, it doesn’t cost $500 either. Just don’t let Apple catch you calling it a netbook.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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