New generation MacBook Air a netbook and iPad competitor
by Alan Zisman (c) 2011
published in Business in Vancouver January 18-24, 2011 issue #1108 High
Mobility will continue to be an important theme in this year’s
High-Tech Office. For the next few weeks, this column will look at
several new products aiming to make you more productive on the go.
First: Apple’s MacBook Air – the next generation.
The original MacBook Air notebook came out in 2008. Many found its
lightweight, slim design intriguing – remember ads showing it being
slipped inside a manila envelope? But I suspect more potential buyers
were put off by its low power, lack of features (no optical drive, no
network port, only one USB port) and high price, initially ranging from
$1,900 to $3,250!
Instead, the following year, more buyers looking for portability picked
up a netbook – lightweight, low-powered and with a sub-$500 price
point. Apple’s Steve Jobs’ response was that Apple didn’t “know how to
build a sub-$500 computer that is not a piece of junk.”
Late in 2010, the company released a pair of new MacBook Air models,
which Jobs claimed would “change the way we think about notebooks.” He
suggested the company was bringing features from the popular iPad
tablets to more traditional notebook design: lightweight construction,
instant on, strong battery life.
The new models come in two sizes, with a 13.3-inch screen (similar to
the original Air) and a new 11.6-inch screen. Both offer denser screen
resolutions than other Apple notebooks that allow the 11-inch model to
pack 1,366-by-768 pixels – more than most 13-inch notebooks. Apple
loaned me that model for several weeks’ trial.
While built around an old-generation processor running at a fairly slow
speed (1.4 gigahertz on my loaner 11-inch system), I was pleasantly
surprised at how quick and responsive it felt. Boot time and
application startup times were quicker than on my own Mac laptop
(despite its faster CPU). That’s partly because by choosing Intel’s
older Core 2 Duo processor, Apple was able to build in fast nVidia
graphics. And while fast solid-state drives were an expensive option on
the old MacBook Airs, they’re built into all of the new models.
That relatively slow processor is also more energy efficient. And the
solid-state drive takes up less space than a traditional hard drive,
leaving more room for a larger battery. The result: up to five hours of
battery life in the 11-inch model and up to seven in the 13-inch model.
The promised instant startup is true – sort of. The solid-state drive
allows for fast – but not instant – boot up. Close the lid and, like
many other notebooks, it goes to sleep. Unlike many other models, open
the lid and it almost instantly comes back to life. Apple promises that
it can awaken after as long as 30 days’ asleep.
The original MacBook Airs were clearly high-priced luxury items. That’s
no longer as true. Canadian pricing starts at $1,049 for the 11-inch
model, the same price point as Apple’s low-end white, plastic MacBook
model. Unchanged: still no built-in network adaptor or optical drive,
though both can be added as external plug-ins. That’s made easier by
now having two USB ports. (The 13-inch model also adds a slot for a
camera-style SD memory card.)
Is it competition for Apple’s iPad tablet? That depends. iPad pricing
starts at $549, but an iPad with the same size (64 gigabyte)
solid-state storage can cost up to $879.
That model iPad is a bit lighter, smaller and cheaper than the MacBook
Air. It’s also arguably better for reading e-books and watching videos.
And that $879 model has built-in 3G wireless, making it always
connected online, while the MacBook Air’s connectivity is limited to
nearby Wi-Fi hotspots.
On the other hand, the iPad is essentially an over-sized smartphone
running scaled-down apps, while the MacBook Air – though light and
portable – is a full-fledged notebook computer, running standard
productivity applications, connecting to standard peripherals and
printing without any issues.
Just don’t let Apple hear you calling it a netbook!