2010-10-27

Notes on the MacBook Air late 2010

I picked up my 13" MacBook Air last Saturday and I’m really happy with it. Notes:
  • SSD is fast, often offsetting the slower processor (compared to my desktop mac). The Air boots in 15 seconds!
  • The higher screen resolution of 1440 x 900 is perfect: I wouldn’t want less and don’t need more. The previous resolution of 1280 x 800 of Apple’s 13" notebooks was not enough.
  • Instant on: wake-up is no virtually immediate, previous MacBooks were already sufficiently fast for me, the new Air is even faster. Apparently, Apple now postpones writing the complete system state to the drive (enabling one to resume one’s work even if the battery is completely empty). Previously, this meant that Macs took quite some time until they were finally asleep. This was not a usability problem, but puts a traditional disk in danger, if you move the notebook too soon. Now, this process happens after one hour of sleep which means that it is avoided if the notebook frequently sleeps and wakes up.
  • Trackpad: I now prefer trackpads to mice. Gestures are just great. Use two fingers for scrolling, no more navigating to the scroll bar. Swipe with three fingers to go backward and forward (e.g. in a web browser). Etc. As the trackpad is just one big multi-touch button, right-clicking can be configured; you either click with two fingers or in one of the bottom corners.
  • Speakers: are surprisingly powerful, similar to the iPad’s impressive speakers.
  • Keyboard: The power button is now part of the keyboard. The Air still has an eject key, to be used when you attach the external DVD drive. The function keys are very useful (volume, brightness, next song, pause, etc.). Curious that the notoriously button-phobe Apple does this.
  • Headset: iPod and iPhone headsets work well with the Air, which is nice for Skype and Face Time. Even the remote control for pause and next/previous song works. Alas, you cannot play music if the Air is closed. There are apps that keep the computer from falling asleep, which is something that I’ll be checking out.
  • USB2 has become a serious bottleneck for the Air. I previously compared the different interface technologies (USB, Firewire, Wi-Fi, etc.) and nothing much has changed. Why doesn’t Apple put in USB3? Maybe they are just biding their time until Light Peak is ready. Transferring your previous data to the new computer is just painful. Most people will probably use USB2 sticks or hard drives. In contrast to Firewire, you cannot directly connect two computers via USB (without an adapter) which does not help here, either.
  • Another sad omission is (an option of) HSPA (=3G). My iPad has 3G and I love that you can go online almost wherever you want.
  • Apparently, Apple went with the slightly older processor (Core 2 Duo), because they wanted to use Nvidia graphics chips (which don’t work with newer Intel chips – it’s all part of an Nvidia-Intel feud). Update 2010-12-15: Details on the decision.
  • 13" versus 11": The 13 is not much larger and heavier than the 11. I thought the 11" would feel smaller, but it is mainly a less deeper version of the 13". Also, the battery of the 11" has less capacity (an average 5 hours as opposed to 7 hours).
  • From what I’ve been told, the 11" sells better than the 13" and the Air does not cannibalize iPad sales. I guess, tech people see the similarities, but for non-tech people, notebooks and iPads are completely different devices.
Summary: The Air has become a serious contender as a primary computer, with its increased speed and screen resolution, even more so if one uses an LCD Cinema Display as a docking station. Apple is now aiming for the masses. To save money, it does not sacrifice build quality, but sometimes stays a bit behind on features (e.g., no faster interface than USB, no 3G, no more keyboard backlighting). Apple uses the experience gained from its mobile devices to make its notebooks compact and it uses its clout as a massive buyer of components to keep prices comparatively low. The most recent example of this is that Samsung cannot make its Galaxy Tab cheaper than the iPad.
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