30 Days of Apple’s MacBook Air

Living with the MacBook Air is not only possible, even for a power user, it changes the way you work and play in a positive way.

For the last month I’ve been living with Apple’s diminutive MacBook Air as my sole production computer for all professional and personal use. My previous main Mac was a 2007 2.4GHz 4GB RAM MacBook Pro 17 with the highest resolution Apple offers in a notebook. So I went from one Apple portable extreme (highest resolution, most power, heaviest) to the other (smallest, lightest, least powerful, least memory, weakest video). There are a number of trade-offs, but the positive outweighs the negative.

It happened that late April through May is a slow travel period for me, so while I’ve attended local events offsite, I haven’t hit the road yet. But in a couple of weeks, I’ll be on a tour that includes D.C., NYC, Boston, and Miami. The east coast thang. I’ll give the MacBook Air a thorough travel test then. Once that’s complete, I’ll write a full long-term review of the MacBook Air on Computerworld.com.

My biggest single issue with the MacBook Air is something that you know going in: the size and resolution of the MacBook Air’s display. It measures 13.3-inches diagonally and has a maximum (native) resolution of 1280-by-800 pixels. The smaller size never troubles me on the road, where email and Web surfing are the main applications. I’m similarly unfazed by the MacBook Air’s small displays size because it’s connected to a 24-inch external LCD. But when I’m home, sitting on the sofa — where I sometimes spend hours researching, preparing PowerPoints, developing spreadsheets, juggling loads of documents, and writing — I feel the pinch of the small screen size. Like I said, I knew that going in, but the trade-off it’s not as bad as I expected.

It may be a case of just enough screen real estate. After years of using nothing but large-screen, high-res notebooks, I don’t have the “peering through a keyhole” feeling I sometimes got with pre-widescreen Windows notebooks (usually at 1024-by-768 resolution).

Another aspect that may help is the MBA display’s brightness and high contrast, both of which count a lot with me. What I’ve learned over the years is that display specs don’t matter. What matters is how it feels when you spend hours in front of it. The MacBook Air’s thin-film transistor LED technology creates the best notebook display I’ve spent that kind of time with. Though I haven’t spent the same amount of time with the newer MacBook Pro 15 models, the first to support the TFT LED displays, my guess is that they’re equally impressive.

All in all, I’ve adapted pretty well to the MacBook Air’s small display size. Even so, if Apple ever comes out with larger-screen MacBook Pro (such as a 15-inch or 17-inch) with the same incredible thinness, I’d probably break out the credit card the first week they were offered.

I’m also completely unperturbed by the on-paper lack of overall computing power that shows up clearly in the MacBook Air’s specs. My test unit has the 1.8GHz processor with the 64GB solid-state drive. Were I to spend my own money (or my company’s money), I’d get the 1.6GHz CPU and the 80GB 4,200-rpm conventional hard drive. For the things I use my main production machine 98% of the time, I don’t notice any loss of oomph. The 64GB drive is tight. In my ideal world, the MBA would come with 3GB or RAM and a 120GB hard drive, but so far I haven’t needed either.

The biggest problem I wasn’t expecting in the MacBook Air concerns the USB port. I was surprised that apparently Apple didn’t do the proper testing as part of its design work to ensure that virtually any USB device fits its one USB port. Or perhaps Apple just decided that form was more important than function. Either way, not only did I have to buy a new USB 3G EV-DO device for my company-supplied Verizon broadband wireless service, but when I paid extra for the smallest one (smallest in all three dimensions), it didn’t fit the MacBook Air’s USB port. Apple pointed out to me that the largest one Verizon offers has a fold out USB connector that does fit the MBA. But not only does that mean the darn thing flops around, it’s also massive at 3.6-inches long by 1.5-inches wide by .7-inches thick. It’s roughly half the size of deck of playing cards.

Bottom line, I think it’s a weakness in a computer using the name “Air” to refer to its wireless orientation that most USB air cards don’t fit it and it doesn’t have an ExpressCard port. Apple is quick to point out that every wireless broadband provider in the U.S. offers at least one air card that fits the MacBook Air, but to me, that’s not good enough.

Similarly, I have no issue with the MacBook’s optical SuperDrive being an external device, that’s a reasonable trade-off. But the fact that Apple’s device does not work through a USB hub and must be connected directly to the lone USB port is disappointing.

The biggest advantage I hadn’t fully appreciated — despite acknowledging it to be the killer feature of the MacBook Air from day one — is how freeing the small size and weight is. At work, I frequently just grab it and go to meetings. Since my business is Internet publishing, being able to refer to our Web site or those of competitors is a noticeable advantage to me. I haven’t even gotten to the travel part yet.

Stand by for my final Computerworld review in a month or a little more, which will address my travel experiences and also give details about my workarounds for some of the trade-offs I’ve experienced — as well as my final recommendation on the MacBook Air. In the meantime, I can tell you that I’m very much enjoying the research behind this evaluation.

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