MacBook Air: The sexy kind of skinny but with some flaws

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Apple has earned a sterling reputation designing beautiful products that usually perform as splendidly as they look.

The MacBook Air laptop that CEO Steve Jobs unveiled last week turns heads. And now that I've used this Twiggy-thin, 3-pound marvel for several days, I can also report that it's a remarkably sturdy-feeling machine, especially given its size and weight.

The skinny — the word can't be emphasized enough — $1,799 (and up) computer will make students and frequent business travelers gush. Encased in aluminum, Air has a comfortable-to-type-on full-size keyboard, widescreen 13.3-inch display and an iSight video camera.

But with too few ports, a sealed battery that you can't replace on your own and no built-in CD/DVD drive, Air is not the ideal laptop for everyone. And while battery power is impressive, it pooped out in my tests well short of the best-case, five-hour scenario Apple has been touting. Here's the skinny:

• Thin is in.

There are other small and slender computers on the market. Only none as sexy. Air measures an astonishing 0.16 inches at its skinniest point and is just three-quarters of an inch at its thickest.

Little things make a big impression. Air opens and closes with a magnetic latch. The wide, backlit LED screen is lovely. The keyboard keys light up the dark — there's a built-in ambient light sensor. Just below the keyboard is a spacious track-pad on which you can "pinch," "swipe" and apply other iPhone-like touch gestures. You can resize pictures, for example, by placing your thumb and forefinger together.

• What's inside.

As with all new Macs, Air has the latest virus-resistant OS X Leopard operating system. (It puts Windows Vista to shame.) The top-notch iLife multimedia suite includes iPhoto (for photo management) and iMovie (video editing).

The basic unit I tested comes with 2 gigabytes of RAM standard and a 1.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor (upgradeable to 1.8 GHz). That's plenty of muscle for conventional computing. You'll want a machine with a more robust processor for doing, say, heavy video editing. You're unlikely to notice, but Air's chip is the weakest Core 2 Duo in the Mac portable lineup; the entry-level $1,099 MacBook has a 2.0 GHz version.

At $1,799, the base configuration is fairly priced, though the 80 GB hard drive isn't generous by today's standards. A version with a faster processor and 64 GB "solid-state" drive — with no moving parts, it's supposed to be more durable — costs $3,098 (ouch).

Air includes Bluetooth and state-of-the-art Wi-Fi, the only path to the Internet without an accessory.

Air does not come with the built-in ability to connect to a speedy wireless data network run by various cellular carriers. Jobs told me last week that Apple considered it but that adding the capability would take up room and restrict consumers to a particular carrier. Through a USB modem, he says, you can still subscribe to wireless broadband with your favorite carrier.

• Making sacrifices.

Air has no internal CD/DVD drive for installing software or watching movies. Some of you can live without an internal drive. Software can often be downloaded from the Web. A wireless migration assistant feature lets you transfer files and programs from an old Mac to the Air.

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