MacBook Air: A Little Too Pretty?

The new laptop from Apple could make it into any nightclub, but its practicality is limited

It didn't take long for Apple's new laptop, the MacBook Air, to set off an intense struggle between my heart and my head. Without doubt, the Air is the best looking and the sexiest computer ever designed. But a computer is a tool, not an objet d'art, and there are a lot of practical shortcomings forced by Air's minimalist design.

On the plus side, the Air crams far more laptop than seems possible into an incredibly slim package, avoiding many of the compromises users of ultralight laptops have had to accept in the past. It has a 13.3-in. display, a full-size keyboard, and decent processing power in a case that tapers from just over three-quarters of an inch thick to less than a quarter-inch at the front. With an aggressive starting price of $1,799, it seems ideal for the road warrior.

One Is the Loneliest Number

There are some negatives, however. For one, most people who want to use a Mac laptop in a corporate environment will run into heavy opposition from their companies' technology departments. This isn't Apple's fault, but I can't say the same about certain design choices.

The Air's sleek case is an unbroken shell of aluminum with a little door on one side concealing the headphone jack, a connector for a special cable to hook up a projector or external monitor, and a lonely USB port.

That is going to be one busy port. As on most ultralights, there's no built-in CD/DVD drive, but Apple (AAPL) sells a $99 external drive that connects through a USB port. If you want to connect to an Ethernet cable, you'll need a USB adapter. To use a wireless broadband service from Verizon Wireless, Sprint (S), or AT&T (T), you'll need another USB adapter. If you want to use two add-ons at the same time, you'll need something called a USB hub, which may have to be plugged into a power outlet. Even with a single device, you may need a USB extension cable because the port opening is so cramped. And if you are like me, whatever dongle or adapter you need most will go missing at the worst possible moment.

Battery and Connectivity Limitations

Apple made two dubious design decisions that could limit the appeal of the Air to a smallish subset of users who put a high premium on mobility. Sealing the battery inside the case allows a smaller and lighter design but precludes the use of a second battery. Apple claims people will get five hours on a charge. I got about four hours of hard use, which is quite good, but sometimes you really want more.

The second big issue is the exclusive reliance on Wi-Fi for connectivity. Wi-Fi is far from ubiquitous, and it's often unavailable in hotel rooms. Wireless broadband services are becoming a more attractive alternative as their coverage improves. But Apple's external USB modem is a clunky approach compared with the built-in connectivity in many Windows notebooks, or even compared with the ExpressCard modems that can be used with MacBook Pro models.

A Rational Appeal

One nice feature is the ability to use iPhone-like gestures on the touchpad. For example, you can enlarge or shrink an image by spreading or pinching your thumb and index finger on the touchpad. Expect to see this functionality soon on all Mac laptops. Meanwhile, it would be nice if Apple would end its pigheaded insistence on a single mouse button, as it has on desktop mice.

Ultimately, the Air presents potential buyers with a tough choice. It is lovely to look at and delightful to hold. The screen may be the best I've seen, and the keyboard is better than the MacBook Pro's. Even after prolonged use, the case stays fairly cool to the touch. Against that, you need to weigh the inconvenience caused by all the things Apple chose to leave out. The product might not have been quite as smooth and shiny with these elements, but it would have had greater rational, as well as emotional, appeal.

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