Toybox: MacBook Air is light as, well, air

If you're looking for supreme portability and more than reasonable performance, definitely get a MacBook Air

The MacBook Air isn't designed to be a desktop replacement system, and it doesn’t have desktop-like specs, unlike the MacBook Pro and other 2.4GHz-plus Core 2 Duo laptops on the market. Could I live without a bevy of ports and a DVD drive? Could I use the Air to do real work?

In order to find out, I bought one and used it to write this review. While it was very tempting to bite the bullet and get the 64GB SSD (solid state-disk), I opted to save US$999 (NZ$1,266) and get the 80GB 4,200-rpm PATA (Parallel ATA) drive, though I did spring for the 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo instead of the base model running at 1.6GHz.

It’s unfair to classify the MacBook Air as a laptop. It’s not, unless you’re Mini Me. It’s an ultraportable, along the lines of the Sony Vaio TZ, though it has a larger screen than the Vaio. It’s also faster and cheaper.

Though the MacBook Air is small and incredibly light, it’s also surprisingly solid. It feels like one piece of metal, and even picking it up by one corner, there’s no flexing at all.

The Air has only one USB2 port, a power connection utilising Apple’s magnificent MagSafe power connector, a headphone jack, and a mini-DVI (Digital Visual Interface) port for connecting to an external monitor or projector. The Air comes with adapters for both a standard 15-pin SVGA connection and a full-size DVI connection.

The Air is obviously designed to be a travelling companion, and as such, it’s geared for wireless communications using the built-in 802.1b/g/draft-n Airport, though the optional USB Ethernet adapter can tie it to a wired network. Somewhat odd is the lack of a 3G interface.

The display is a glossy 13.3-inch LCD similar to that found on the current MacBook line, though it seems brighter — so bright, in fact, that I found myself turning it down a few notches, which is far better than not being able to make it bright enough. At 1,280 by 800, the resolution isn’t as high as I’d like, but I’ve been spoiled by my 17-inch MacBook Pro. In the bezel right above the display is a 640x480 iSight camera, a staple of Apple laptops.

The trackpad is odd. First off, it’s enormous. This has led to more than a few misclicks, as my thumbs hit the trackpad and not the button. But the capabilities of the trackpad are substantial. It’s designed to be used much like the touchscreen on the iPhone and iPod Touch: You can use two fingers to zoom in and out on images, for instance, and use left-to-right swiping to page through iTunes’ album view.

The lack of an optical disk could be a major problem for some users. Apple offers an external DVD drive (US$99) that plugs into the USB port. I didn’t bother ordering one because the MacBook Air also ships with software that allows the Air to use the optical drive on either a Mac or Windows system as a native device.

Although I opted for the 80GB PATA drive and the 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, application launching and overall speed of the MacBook Air is perfectly reasonable. Five hours of battery life might be possible if the screen brightness is kept low, but four to four-and-a-half hours is a more reasonable estimate.

The MacBook Air is not perfect, but it sure is attractive and functional. If you’re looking for a desktop replacement system, get a MacBook Pro. If you’re looking for a basic laptop, get a MacBook. If you’re looking for supreme portability and more than reasonable performance, definitely get a MacBook Air at NZ$2,999 incl GST (1.6GHz version).

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