Apple MacBook Air - First Look

Apple has launched a new line of laptops with the MacBook Air, an ultra-portable model that Apple say will sit in between the MacBook and the MacBook Pro ranges, but while it might be the thinnest laptop in the world, is it any good? We had a brief play at the launch in London.

When Steve Jobs' pulled out the laptop from an envelope on stage the crowd of journalists, commentators, guests and resellers present and watching from London gasped. Up close you can see why.

It's incredibly thin. In fact according to Steve Jobs: "The thickest part of the MacBook Air will be thinner than the thinnest part of the Sony TZ series".

To give you that in real terms the MacBook Air goes from 0.76 inches at its fattest section down to 0.16 inches at the thin end.

Exact dimensions for the new notebook, which is being paraded under the banner of "Thinnovation" by Apple are - height: 0.16-0.76 inch (0.4-1.94cm), width: 12.8 inches (32.5cm), depth: 8.94 inches (22.7cm) and weight: 3.0 pounds (1.36 kg).

But getting that thin has meant sacrifices have had to be made.

You might get a USB 2.0 socket, a micro-DVI socket, a headphones jack and iSight webcam, but there is no optical drive, no FireWire port, no VGA, no DVI, no Ethernet socket, no chance of expanding the RAM memory or the hard drive and strangest of all no replaceable battery.

When Apple say "there is something in the air", they weren't joking and the crux of this laptop is all about wireless connectivity.

So you get 802.11n and Bluetooth 2.0 + ERD connectivity to help you get connected. You also get a new software feature called "Remote Disk" that will work with both PC and Macs that allows you to "borrow" its hard drive or optical drive so you can load software, and share content to your Air.

It's something that will no doubt come in handy when you go to install the next bit of software via a CD. You can buy an external optical drive, but it's an additional outlay.

The MacBook Air might be thin, but that doesn't mean Apple has given you a 7-inch screen as with the Asus Eee or asked users to be cramped using the keyboard. The laptop features a bright 13.3-inch LED screen and a full sized QWERTY keyboard, which is also blacklit.

Below the keyboard is a new larger multi-gesture touchpad that works like the Apple iPhone allowing you to scroll through windows and rotate and view images. Currently only working with Apple products, Apple hasn't yet released the software to third party developers so don't expect to see it in Firefox or Adobe applications in time for launch in 2 weeks time.

In use and the touchpad is 90% easy with it taking a little getting used to. In our brief play we struggled at first with the rotating of images and it's not at intuitive as the iPhone at first glance perhaps because you aren't moving your hand directly on the screen. I'm sure however given time and a longer review test it would become second nature.

Behind the scenes and the tech specs are impressive regardless of size. The laptop will come with an 80GB hard drive as standard with the option of a 64GB Solid State Drive (although this is being touted by Apple as an additional £639 cost in the UK) and it will come with 2GB of memory as standard. It will also feature an Intel Core 2 Duo chip at 1.6GHz as standard with an upgrade option available taking you to 1.8GHz making it no slouch in bed.

We weren't able to fully benchmark or test performance but from our quick play it was fast and as nippy as our MacBook Pro.

As something that fits in the ultra-portable moniker, while it's thin, envelope-thin in fact, it's not handbag size and so those looking for this to be their "internet in the pocket" device will be disappointed. The size isn't going to let you get rid of the laptop bag just yet.

Verdict

As a piece of engineering, the MacBook Air is impressive and Apple should be commended for getting all that tech into a device that is so thin. Up close and personal it's very impressive and makes our 6-month old MacBook Pro look like someone from Fat Camp.

So why aren't we getting all excited about it as much as we should? Well for us it comes down to that non-replaceable battery.

What's the point of having a portable device if you have to be within 5 hours of a power supply. Granted 5 hours is a long time and Apple suggest that if you opt for the SSD option you'll get even longer, but the inability to be able to replace the battery on the fly is a deal breaker for us.

It might be fine when you first get it out of the box, but what happens in 2 years time when you've got to take it back to Apple because the battery is giving you below par performance?

It's one thing being without an iPod while it's sent away to be fixed, but if it's my work machine what then? Perhaps Apple are expecting you to have a second machine?

Apple say that the lack of replaceable battery is because that was one of the only ways of getting the MacBook Air to the thickness that it is, and the company is most likely right, but for us it's just one sacrifice too many.

Will it impress your mates? Of course it will. But for us there are too many sacrifices.

Expect a full review shortly. The Apple MacBook Air will be available in 2 week's time.


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