FAQ: Everything you need to know about the MacBook Air

What do you get, and give up, if you buy Apple's latest laptop?

Air owners will have to turn their machines over to Apple for a battery swap. (The battery, by the way, spreads across the entire width of the machine under the palm rest and trackpad.) According to this out-of-warranty battery-replacement page on the Apple site, the dirty deed "normally takes five business days." There's nothing on the page about a loaner -- something Apple provides iPhone owners when they bring their phone in for a battery swap -- and the company makes a point to disclaim any responsibility for lost data. "Apple and its AASPs [Apple-authorized service providers] are not responsible for any damage to or loss of any applications, data, or other information stored on your MacBook Air while performing service," the page reads.

Does that mean I can't take a second battery on the plane with me? You can take a second battery. But not one that fits the Air. Apple rates the Air's power supply at five hours, but unlike other laptops -- including the company's own MacBook and MacBook Pro lines -- when those five hours (or whatever the real-world lifespan turns out to be) are over, you might as well put the Air back in its bag. Unless you've ponied up the US$49 for the optional Apple MagSafe Airline Adapter and your seat has a power port.

Where's the FireWire port? And the Ethernet? Missing, obviously. The only ports on the Twiggyesque MacBook Air are a single USB, one of Apple's miniature digital video interface ports and an audio out for headphones or ear buds. Not included: The FireWire, Ethernet and additional USB port found on the MacBook line. (Oh, and it has just one speaker, too. So much for stereo sound.)

Apple touts the Air as "built for a wireless world," so at least it comes with Bluetooth and 802.11n (draft) wireless. And users can pop for the optional USB-based Ethernet adapter (US$29) to add a dangling-off-the-side network port if you really want to be wired.

This is getting repetitive, but where's the DVD drive? Oops. Actually, Apple didn't forget to stick one in the Air, but purposefully ditched the optical drive. Jobs, in fact, simply dismissed the idea of a built-in drive, which must have made current MacBook owners wonder why they're lugging around the extra weight in their machines. "You know what, we don't think most users will miss an optical drive, need an optical drive," Jobs said. He then ticked off alternatives that included an external, optional US$99 drive.

Need to install something from a CD or DVD? You'll be using Remote Disc, the software included with the Air that also must be installed on another Mac or Windows PC. Remote Disc lets the Air "borrow" that box's optical drive -- over a wireless network, presumably -- to, say, install software or load tunes from an audio CD for ripping.

Why no drive, you ask? There's no room in the Air's case, for one. And then there's Jobs' attitude toward internal optical drives for another. Remember what he did for floppy disks back in the late 1990s.

Why are the prices of the two MacBook Air configurations so far apart? I mean, from US$1,799 to US$3,098? You noticed that. We noticed that. Co-workers noticed that. The difference comes from just two changes. The first is that US$300 to bump up the processor from 1.6 GHz to 1.8 GHz, and the second is the US$999 cost of swapping the 80GB platter-based hard drive for a 64GB solid-state drive (SSD) that's built from flash memory. The stock 80GB drive spins at 4,200 rpm, by the way.

The processor price change is in line with what Apple charges for other CPU upgrades. The MacBook Pro, for instance, prices the change from 2.4 GHz to 2.6 GHz at US$250. As for the disk drive? Well, as Jobs said, the SSD is "pricey." Especially at Apple. Dell, for example, sells a 64GB SSD upgrade to XPS M1330 laptop for US$750.

Who is the MacBook Air aimed at? Apple rarely, if ever, pins a particular computer to a particular group; rather, it puts its wares onto shelves and lets buyers do market segmentation for it. But with its lighter weight and price and, frankly, its compromises, it should appeal most to frequent travelers in the air or away from a power outlet for less than five hours, well-heeled students who want the least bulk in their bag, and the Apple faithful who will buy the next shiny thing virtually every time.

Should I buy it? Hey, that's between you and your bank acount, pal. We report; you decide. Besides, since they're not even shipping for two to three weeks, so you've got some time to figure that one out.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld
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