Hands-on: The MacBook Air beyond the hype

Apple Air has a slim and sexy form factor, but we found some function there too.

Like its MacBook brother, the Air uses shared video graphics, meaning it pulls video RAM from the 2GB that comes with laptop. In this case, the X3100 chip set grabs 144MB of RAM, and - just as with the MacBook - the setup works fine for casual use. You're not likely to be editing high-def video in Final Cut Pro on the Air, and if you are, you're using the wrong laptop. But for videos, graphics, photos and the fluid motion used throughout Mac OS X, the lack of discrete video RAM is a nonissue. The Air will also drive an external monitor (including Apple's 23 inch Cinema Display) at a resolution of 1920-by-1200 pixels.

The battery is supposedly good for about five hours with Wi-Fi in use and the screen brightness set at 50 per cent, according to Apple. (In my own testing, under the same parameters surfing the Web, doing text editing and listening to iTunes radio, I got just over four hours.) The battery, by the way, is inaccessible, meaning no swapping out batteries on long flights. When the battery finally needs replacing, you'll need to drop off your Air at the nearest Apple Store for a same-day swap-in. Cost: US$129.

What's missing? A lot. There's no optical drive, though you can buy an external SuperDrive that reads and burns both CDs and DVDs for US$99. (It weighs about 312 grams and works only with the Air.) There's no Ethernet port, so if you want to connect to the office network using Ethernet, you have to buy a USB-to-Ethernet adapter. Cha-ching! Another US$29.

In fact, there are several ways to spend more money on the Air. You can opt for a slightly faster processor (1.8 GHz) for US$300, or go whole hog and get the 64GB solid-state drive. In this case, less is more: You pay US$999 more for the SSD drive but wind up with 16GB less storage space.

Is the SSD worth the expense? Not if you think you're getting a much faster drive. According to Apple officials, the biggest advantage to the SSD hardware is that it has no moving parts, which should translate into durability and longevity. While some functions, like reading large chunks of data, might be faster than the stock 80GB drive, others won't be. The end result: The perceived speed of the Air will be about the same, regardless of which drive you get.

Totally tricked out, an upgraded Air could cost you north of US$3,000. My advice? Don't do it. That's like putting a V8 in a Volkswagen Beetle. The US$1,799 model should suit 95 per cent of its target market just fine.

Booting up

It certainly suited me, and I'm not even in the target audience. Booting up the Air from start-up chime to desktop took longer than the 40 seconds or so my MacBook Pro needs - it took the Air 70 seconds - but that's to be expected given the slower chip and the slower hard drive. Waking it up from sleep mode took about 2 seconds, and the LED backlighting means the screen hit full brightness as soon as it was awake (non-LED screens need a few minutes to warm up to achieve full brightness).

Commonly used programs like Safari, Mail and iPhoto all launched in two or three bounces of the application icon in the dock, and on relaunch opened in about one bounce. (Mac OS X's ability to cache application code makes relaunching much faster.) Using them to surf, check e-mail and manipulate photos was pretty much on par with using them on my MacBook Pro.

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Ken Mingis

Computerworld

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