What’s so “niche” about the MacBook Air?

Since switching to Mac OS X in 2004, I’ve been a fan of Apple’s products. Prior to OS X, I wasn’t completely sold on the performance, interoperability, or “tweakability” of the operating system, with the latter elements being particularly important to individuals who are technically demanding and, not to sugar-coat it, a bit geeky regarding their electronic toys. With the advent of OS X, Apple reinvented itself with a product which accommodates both ends of the user spectrum: an operating system with the stability, performance, and development integrity offered by the open-source community (being UNIX-based) combined with the elegance, simplicity, and user-friendly experience which appeals to non-technical users. Couple this software with the slick industrial design which belies the entire Apple product line, and I was defenseless to Apple’s lure. I purchased the 12″ Powerbook model, appreciating its reasonable amount of power, beautiful simplicity, ergonomic comfort (in the form of a kinesthetically pleasing, full-size keyboard) and relatively compact size.

As newer laptop models began to emerge from the talented team in Cupertino, however, I was a bit disenchanted in not seeing an updated version of my 12″ Powerbook. I began dreaming of an ultra-lightweight, yet fully featured, version of this laptop to come about with greater power in a similar, if not even more portable, version. I knew I certainly wasn’t alone in this desire, as there had been many speculative posts on rumor boards indicating the same desire and/or anticipation of such a product.

Naturally, when I saw the announcement of Apple’s MacBook Air (MBA), I was elated. In watching Steve Jobs’s keynote address introducing the product, it seemed that Apple had been listening to all of my telepathic messages indicating exactly what I wanted in my dream 12″-Powerbook replacement: full-sized keyboard, improved display, reasonable power for the package, good battery life, and very light weight (i.e. backpack friendly–a must for me, as I use a motorcycle as my preferred form of transportation). What has surprised me since I had preordered my machine in January is the number of bloggers/reviewers who have regarded the MacBook Air only to serve a “niche” market and to be unsuitable as a sole or primary computer. While I am fortunate enough to make use of several computers at home, I fail to see why the MacBook Air would not be sufficient for most people even as a primary computer. As such, I’m providing my own hands-on review here, being a very satisfied owner after 3 months of daily usage. Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in promoting the MacBook Air or any other Apple products, but as a self-admitted technophile I derive great pleasure from using tools which increase the fun and efficiency with which I build and operate my businesses.

Why I love the MacBook Air

Before I begin addressing the commonly cited compromises of the computer, it seems appropriate to mention a bit about why I consider this to be my favorite laptop to date (my fourth, in total, and my second Apple laptop). First, it’s obviously thin and lightweight. Who wouldn’t enjoy a lightweight laptop? People buy laptops because they are portable (as opposed to springing for a larger-display wielding desktop models), so making a laptop as lightweight and thin as possible most capably meets this need.


One of my personal favorite uses of the MacBook Air is to enjoy my outdoor home office instead of being relegated to my indoor home office. The beautiful LED-backlit, “instant-on” display is crisp and clear with great visibility outdoors–far superior to that of my old Powerbook. The full-size keyboard is a must, for me, to spend any reasonable amount of time at the keys. Battery life is reasonable (I get 4-5 hours on a charge depending on backlight intensity, radio usage, etc.) and the Wi-fi antenna/radio performance offers great improvement in range and the higher bandwidth of 802.11n. From a mechanical and industrial design perspective, I am thoroughly impressed with the robust hinge and clasp-less closure… as simple and beautiful to view as it is functional. Last but not least is the large multi-touch trackpad, which has me so spoiled that when I transfer to work on either of my desktops I find myself yearning for the 3-finger page-turn or back/forward gesture frequently.

OK, enough with the obvious “coolness” which is expected of the MacBook Air. That alone does not justify the $1,800+ cost of the machine, especially for pragmatic small-business owners and other professionals. Business utility comes first, which is the reason I am still holding onto my Blackberry Curve until the iPhone (v2.0?) incorporates its business and high-end phone functionality, and I’m not referring to “push-email”… but that topic is another post all to itself. So what exactly are all of these compromises or “lacking features” in the MBA which the average person cannot live without?

The MacBook Air’s design trade-offs

No built-in optical drive

For individuals who are considering using a MacBook Air as their sole computer, I advise springing for the $99 USB-based Superdrive to allow for importing CDs into iTunes, installing software, watching DVDs, etc. For those who have at least one other computer with an optical drive, however, I personally see no need for buying MBA’s external Superdrive. I’ve performed remote software installations over a home network prior to the introduction of Apple’s “Remote Disc” feature introduced with the MBA, so that’s really nothing newsworthy. Further, an intelligent way to make legal backup copies of software installers is to make image files of them via Apple’s Disk Utility (included with OS X) with the touch of a button. These image files may then be mounted and installed directly over a network or via an attached USB hard drive.

No firewire port

Some Apple users are tied to Firewire devices as they have legacy peripherals which only have this interface (instead of USB). Many users, however, do not need Firewire nor would they even know if this feature were missing. It is true that Firewire-400 offers better performance (average throughput) than USB 2.0 due to nature of its protocol, but this difference is not by an order of magnitude. By contrast, most peripheral devices adopt USB as the standard (including Apple, having migrated its iPods away from Firewire-400 interfaces to USB 2.0), and even video cameras have since begun to migrate away from Firewire to USB.

It only has one USB port

One of my preferred methods of reducing cable weight/clutter when traveling is to charge as many devices (e.g. phone, bluetooth headset, iPod, etc.) as possible through a USB hub. Granted, having only one USB port on the MBA requires the use of an external hub to accommodate more than one device concurrently, as well as a power supply for this external hub if it is sourcing current to many peripherals. This requirement is no different with the MBA than with my old Powerbook, however, which only had 2 USB ports. As such, I agree with Apple that if more than 1 USB port is necessary (particularly given the proliferation of Bluetooth-capable external keyboards, mice, remotes, etc.), one may as well plug in one of the widely available ultra-portable USB hubs to support multiple USB peripherals.

“Small” (80 GB) hard drive

As media usage increases, the need for hard drive capacity grows considerably. As such, an 80-GB drive may not sound like much, but neither is a 160- to 300-GB capacity if it is to serve as a primary library for music, photos, and videos. My iPod Classic packs a solid 160 GB (the same size as the internal drive for my dual-G5 Power Mac), so I’ve long ago required the use of external drives for media and backup storage. So what’s the complaint about this capacity on the MacBook Air? I personally use a very portable, USB-bus-powered 320-GB drive to hold media, to serve as an image backup (via Time Machine), and to contain the virtual machine image which allows me run Windows applications via VMware Fusion.

“Slow” performance

I’m one who appreciates high-performance machinery and gadgets, and my expectation of a laptop certainly would not escape this scrutiny. Despite the limited number of configurations available for the highly integrated MBA, however, 2 GB of RAM is far from a “low-end” specification. In fact, it’s 0.5 GB more memory than exists in my dual-G5 desktop. Although the 1.8 GB Intel Core 2 duo processor inarguably renders this platform to be less than ideal for highly compute-intensive tasks (e.g. multimedia editing, encoding/decoding large files), it is very well suited for standard business and productivity tasks (e.g. email, Internet browsing, database design, giving presentations, etc.). As such, I see no reason why it would not provide more than sufficient performance for the average business user. It is certainly a performance upgrade from my 12″ Powerbook G4.

No removable battery

I personally have never carried a spare battery with my old 12″ Powerbook G4, and I only replaced its battery once after ~3 years’ time, which seems reasonable for any battery (having a finite cycle life of charge/discharge). Those who fly frequently and are in the air longer than 4-5 hours at a stretch without sufficient layover time for recharging would legitimately have a valid complaint against the MBA, as it does not offer a swappable, external battery. In my experience, only having flown domestically so far, I have never used an extra, swappable battery so this is not a meaningful requirement to me.

In closing…

To be sure, any given product can never be all things to all people, and the MacBook Air is no exception here. That said, I believe that its stylish, lightweight, robust, and ergonomically friendly design would appeal to most folks who are looking for a portable computer, and given its mid-level price point, it may just literally redefine the “standard” expectation of a laptop for the majority of portable computer users.

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4 thoughts on “What’s so “niche” about the MacBook Air?

  1. Ron Arbel

    Thanks for the blog, very informative. Although initially very impressed with the mba; after reading how bear bone it is I realized it wasn’t for me. If I had to carry it and have to carry an external optical driver, external hard drive, usb hub and who knows what else… my back pack would get pretty full. In a way it makes you want to say Duh! Any one can make a small laptop with out all those components… No offense it just isn’t for me. When I go to the Apple store I will look for a laptop that has features as much as a desktop in a more compact package that can travel occasionally.
    Thanks for the blog again.

  2. admin Post author

    Ron, thanks for your post. Certainly the MBA is not for everyone, though even with my old Powerbook G4 I was still carrying around a portable external hard drive and a USB hub, so there’s really no change for me here (other than having a much lighter Mac). As I have other Macs, the lack of an optical drive is no big deal for me as I make image files of installers or else transfer media over my network. If you’re looking for more of a true desktop replacement which is still quite portable, I recommend the 15″ MacBook Pro. It is loaded with power, has the same LED-backlit screen as the MBA, and has none of the “shortages” mentioned above. Happy shopping!

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