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Business in Vancouver

Canadian Freelance Union- CEP

New generation MacBook Air a netbook and iPad competitor

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2011 First published in Business in Vancouver January 18-24, 2011 issue #1108 High Tech Office column

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!

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