Apple’s MacBook Air is easy to love, hard to live with
By Eric Benderoff
I adore Apple’s MacBook Air so much I’m starting to think I can live with its shortcomings. At 3 pounds and about as thick as a weekly magazine, this is the most endearing laptop I’ve ever used.
But if you’ve read anything about this remarkably thin beauty, you know it achieved its fine figure because it lacks an optical disc drive, offers only one USB port and, perhaps its biggest blemish, has a hard drive of only 80 gigabytes.
Those are serious sacrifices, especially when you consider how we use computers and laptops today. We store so many songs, photos and video for personal use that there would be precious little space on the Air for vital work content.
Oh, and at $1,800, the Air is not a cheap date. It costs notably more than new laptops that offer more storage, more USB ports and a DVD-burning disc drive.
But then you pick up the Air and hold it. "Wow. This is awesome," you think. Then you fantasize how you could fit it into your computing life.
Here are two scenarios:
• You already own a Mac with a bigger hard drive, but you need a laptop for business trips or to transport to a client’s office. This scenario is an ideal one for the Air — Mac users needing a secondary computer, not a primary device. A feature that emphasizes this is a "remote disk" lets the Air tap into another computer’s disc drive (Mac or PC) to wirelessly install software.
• You completely rethink how you use a computer. Do you really need a disc drive? Do you need a lot of storage? Maybe you could use an external storage device to hold your growing collection of digital stuff and just tap into it when needed? What can you purge?
I fall into the second scenario because I use a laptop as a primary home computer. Now I’m starting to think that with some discipline and a modest spending spree on auxiliary storage gear, I can change my computing habits.
That’s the magic of the Air. You’re willing to make life-changing sacrifices, like moving across the country for a woman, to have one.
But can I afford to fall in love with a computer?
Besides its remarkable lack of heft, I adore the keyboard. It’s a full-size, "webbed" design — there are spaces between the keys — but the distance from the center of one key to the next is the same as on a standard keypad. The keys are soft and slightly spongy, making it comfortable to use. As a bonus, the keys detect low light levels and automatically illuminate for easy use in darker conditions.
Then there is the track pad, which includes what Apple calls multi-touch gestures. If you’ve used or touched an iPhone, you’re familiar with multi-touch.
In Apple’s Safari Web browser, you use two fingers on the track pad to expand or decrease the font on a Web page. So if you’re of a certain age and need reading glasses, do a reverse pinch by spreading two fingers apart to enlarge the type.
This technique doesn’t work on Firefox, but it does wonders for scrolling through photos on Apple’s iPhoto software. It works similarly to how photos are enlarged on the iPhone, a feature Apple prominently shows on its TV ads.
The Air is a powerful laptop. It has an 13.3-inch LED-lit display (it’s at full brightness the instant you turn it on), has a built-in video camera, an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 2GB of RAM.
Yet the drawbacks, depending on how you want to use a laptop, are just as powerful.
When using the laptop at my office, having just one USB slot is a serious drawback. I don’t have Wi-Fi, so to get online I need to use the Ethernet adapter that’s included with the Air, which inconveniently connects to the USB port.
If I want to attach Apple’s $99 SuperDrive accessory — very elegant, by the way — to burn a CD, I’m out of luck. Sure, I could unplug the Ethernet connection, but then I wouldn’t get the song information, accessed through an online database, for the disc.
When it comes to the hard drive, I can’t imagine having only 80GB of space on my primary computer. Even after a healthy spring-cleaning purge of digital detritus, which might clear a dozen gigabytes, I’m certain I’ll have storage regrets soon.
Apple acknowledges these limitations might turn off some buyers.
"For computer users doing the basics and not building up huge masses of data, the Air could be perfect," said Todd Benjamin, Apple’s director of portables marketing. "But if you’re a heavy user, it might not be right."
I don’t think I’m ready for the commitment the Air wants.