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.
A new Remote Disc feature lets you install programs from a DVD in another computer, including a Windows PC. Via Remote Disc, I wirelessly loaded Microsoft Office for the Mac by placing the installation disc on an iMac in my house. I ran into initial snags trying to remotely install software from the DVD drive in a Dell PC, until tweaking settings in Windows. Apple says Remote Disc doesn't currently support all third-party firewall software, but it says it's working with the companies to try to resolve compatibility issues.
You won't necessarily need a DVD drive to watch movies, either. Apple now wirelessly rents flicks directly from iTunes. But The Cooler that I rented occasionally hiccupped as I watched on the Air.
Apple sells an external USB SuperDrive for $99 that plugs in with a cable. The drive is thin and compact in its own right. Still, it'd be kind of awkward to use with Air as you sit in coach on an airplane.
You can run Microsoft Windows on Air through the Boot Camp feature in Leopard. But you'll need the physical DVD drive, since you have to supply your own fresh copy of Windows.
There are other compromises. Air has only three ports or connectors, including just one USB port. A headphone jack lets you connect to stereo speakers (Air's built-in speaker is mono). Another lets you connect to an external display. These are concealed behind a flip-down door on the right side.
But there's no FireWire connector for folks wanting to hook up digital camcorders, or ethernet jack for tapping into the Internet when Wi-Fi is unavailable or poky. Apple sells a $29 ethernet accessory with a short cord that connects to the USB. But that adds another little doohickey to throw in your bag.
Air's battery life is decent. I got about three hours and 40 minutes as I surfed the Web, used Remote Disc and wrote. The battery died an hour sooner when I watched The Cooler, but I made it through the movie. On a long flight, it would be nice to carry a spare, but unfortunately you can't replace a battery yourself. Apple sells and installs batteries for $129.
Given the compromises, I don't expect anyone to use Air as their only computer. But it is a yummy machine for people who spend a lot of time traveling.