When Apple's CEO Steve Jobs pulled the MacBook Air out of an interoffice memo envelope — nice touch, that — the crowd at Macworld Conference & Expo oohed and aahed. And applauded. And some even did your basic shout-out.
What got them excited was the thinnest Mac ever, and Apple's first real entry into the so-called subnotebook market. But just what is the MacBook Air?
A bunch of questions popped up almost as soon as Jobs whipped the 3-lb., aluminum-clad MacBook Air out and held it aloft. Here are the answers.
What's the difference between the MacBook Air and the other models in the MacBook Line? This is easy. Price: The Air costs about US$650 more than a faster MacBook when the latter is tricked out with 2GB of third-party RAM. The thickness of the case: The Air is a wood shaving compared to the MacBook. The pieces inside: The Air is missing several — with an optical drive and Ethernet port but two pieces — but it gains others, including a multi-touch trackpad. The weight: The Air tips the scale at 3 lb., while the similarly-sized MacBook weighs 5 lb.
Is the Air really the world's thinnest notebook, as Jobs claimed? It appears so. Just 0.16 inches at its thinnest — which is where, we assume, Apple put the tape measure — the Air beats the minimum thickness of rivals by wide margins. The Sony Vaio TZ, for instance, is 0.8 in. at its thickest, while Dell's Latitude X1 is an even bulkier 1 in. thick. Even the Asus Eee is thicker. In fact, the thickest part of the Air (near the hinge) is thinner at 0.76 in. than the thinnest part of the Sony, Dell or Asus Computer International models. Jenny Craig would be proud.
The MacBook Air is only 0.75 in. thick at the hinge.
What processor powers the Air? That was a bit of a mystery on Tuesday, when Apple and Intel merely hinted at its identity, saying only that the Core 2 Duo inside was 60% smaller than the standard package. Buyers have two choices: The stock 1.6-GHz processor or the slightly faster 1.8-GHz version that costs US$300 more. Jobs and Paul Otellini, Intel's CEO, shared the stage for a few moments, but neither talked chip details. They didn't specify the exact processor, whether it is part of Intel's announced road map or even whether it's one of the new 45-nanometer products or an older 65nm processor.
Several took a stab at unmasking the Air's brains, however. The x86watch.com site, for instance, which is headed by Brooke Crothers, a former IDC analyst (and former InfoWorld editor), claimed that the processors are special "off the road map" chips that won't be getting the usual Intel nomenclature. Another hardware news site, AnandTech.com, seconded the one-off nature of the Air's CPUs and said it appears that the processors are custom Meroms, one of Intel's mobile lines. AnandTech, however, isn't convinced that the chip was of the 45nm Penryn architecture.
Intel spokeswoman Connie Brown spelled it out, confirming that the chip is a customised member of the Merom family and, thus, a 65nm design. And although Intel made the processor for Apple, the company doesn't have an exclusive. "Apple came to us and asked for aggressive packaging solutions," and Intel was happy to oblige, she said. "[But] we'd make [the processor] available to other [resellers] if they wanted it."
Brown also confirmed x86watch.com's speculation that the TDP (Thermal Design Power), which notes the maximum amount of heat in watts that a computer's cooling system can handle, is 20 watts. That's considerably more efficient than the 35 watts of Intel's standard mobile processors.
Can I add more memory? Nope. Next question.
Why not? Apple isn't saying, but it's safe to assume it's for the same reason the battery can't be swapped out by the user: The laptop's design, in particular the thin mandate, precluded any user access to RAM. In fact, the Air's standard — and nonexpandable — 2GB of memory is soldered to the 3-by-6-in. motherboard. Of course, it's only a matter of time before some madman with a soldering iron tries a do-it-yourself upgrade. The usual caveat applies: Don't do this at home (or anywhere else) if you value the warranty.
OK, but what about the battery? Can I replace that myself? Negative there, too. The MacBook Air's power, as Apple cryptically put it on its website, comes from an "integrated 37-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery." Emphasis on the word "integrated."
Air owners will have to turn their machines over to Apple for a battery swap. (The battery, by the way, spreads across the entire width of the machine under the palm rest and trackpad.) According to this out-of-warranty battery-replacement page on the Apple site, the dirty deed "normally takes five business days." There's nothing on the page about a loaner — something Apple provides iPhone owners when they bring their phone in for a battery swap — and the company makes a point to disclaim any responsibility for lost data. "Apple and its AASPs [Apple-authorised service providers] are not responsible for any damage to or loss of any applications, data, or other information stored on your MacBook Air while performing service," the page reads.
Does that mean I can't take a second battery on the plane with me? You can take a second battery. But not one that fits the Air. Apple rates the Air's power supply at five hours, but unlike other laptops — including the company's own MacBook and MacBook Pro lines — when those five hours (or whatever the real-world lifespan turns out to be) are over, you might as well put the Air back in its bag. Unless you've ponied up the US$49 for the optional Apple MagSafe Airline Adapter and your seat has a power port.
Where's the FireWire port? And the Ethernet? Missing, obviously. The only ports on the Twiggyesque MacBook Air are a single USB, one of Apple's miniature digital video interface ports and an audio out for headphones or ear buds. Not included: The FireWire, Ethernet and additional USB port found on the MacBook line. (Oh, and it has just one speaker, too. So much for stereo sound.)
Apple touts the Air as "built for a wireless world," so at least it comes with Bluetooth and 802.11n (draft) wireless. And users can pop for the optional USB-based Ethernet adapter (US$29) to add a dangling-off-the-side network port if you really want to be wired.
This is getting repetitive, but where's the DVD drive? Oops. Actually, Apple didn't forget to stick one in the Air, but purposefully ditched the optical drive. Jobs, in fact, simply dismissed the idea of a built-in drive, which must have made current MacBook owners wonder why they're lugging around the extra weight in their machines. "You know what, we don't think most users will miss an optical drive, need an optical drive," Jobs said. He then ticked off alternatives that included an external, optional US$99 drive.
Need to install something from a CD or DVD? You'll be using Remote Disc, the software included with the Air that also must be installed on another Mac or Windows PC. Remote Disc lets the Air "borrow" that box's optical drive — over a wireless network, presumably — to, say, install software or load tunes from an audio CD for ripping.
Why no drive, you ask? There's no room in the Air's case, for one. And then there's Jobs' attitude toward internal optical drives for another. Remember what he did for floppy disks back in the late 1990s.
Why are the prices of the two MacBook Air configurations so far apart? I mean, from US$1,799 to US$3,098? You noticed that. We noticed that. Co-workers noticed that. The difference comes from just two changes. The first is that US$300 to bump up the processor from 1.6 GHz to 1.8 GHz, and the second is the US$999 cost of swapping the 80GB platter-based hard drive for a 64GB solid-state drive (SSD) that's built from flash memory. The stock 80GB drive spins at 4,200 rpm, by the way.
The processor price change is in line with what Apple charges for other CPU upgrades. The MacBook Pro, for instance, prices the change from 2.4 GHz to 2.6 GHz at US$250. As for the disk drive? Well, as Jobs said, the SSD is "pricey." Especially at Apple. Dell, for example, sells a 64GB SSD upgrade to XPS M1330 laptop for US$750.
Who is the MacBook Air aimed at? Apple rarely, if ever, pins a particular computer to a particular group; rather, it puts its wares onto shelves and lets buyers do market segmentation for it. But with its lighter weight and price and, frankly, its compromises, it should appeal most to frequent travellers in the air or away from a power outlet for less than five hours, well-heeled students who want the least bulk in their bag, and the Apple faithful who will buy the next shiny thing virtually every time.
Should I buy it? Hey, that's between you and your bank account, pal. We report; you decide. Besides, since they're not even shipping for two to three weeks, so you've got some time to figure that one out.