Traveling With a MacBook Air, Part 1

How good is Jobs' ultrathin notebook on the go?

If you're single and looking for love, here's a tip: Buy an Apple MacBook Air and start hanging out at Internet cafes.

Apple's 3-pound, ultra-thin portable is bound to draw people to your table. Even in some San Francisco Internet cafes I've visited, where Mac laptop devotees outnumber Windows users, the Air I was testing rarely failed to attract longing glances, followed by questions from other cafe denizens.

"How big is the hard drive?"

"How long does the battery last?"

And the most frequent question: "Do you love it?"

But I'm not here to provide dating tips, of course. I'm here to tell you what it's like to use and travel with an Air.

Recently, I used the Air in San Francisco, where I live, and took the laptop on a cross-country trip to Atlanta and back. I used it in-flight, in airport departure lounges and business centers, and in Internet cafes. My goal: to determine if this much-hyped laptop is a worthy computer for business travelers. The answer? I love the Air and I think many other mobile professionals will too, though it's not for everyone.

This week: Some background on the Air, plus my take on the computer's screen and what it's like to use in flight. Next week: a look at its connectivity options, battery, security features, and more.

The back story

In January 2008, Steve Jobs introduced the Air at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco by slipping the "world's thinnest laptop" out of an interoffice envelope.

Despite all the attention, the Mac OS ultraportable has received mixed reviews.

Harry McCracken's "MacBook Air: how incomplete is it?" noted: The list of features missing from Apple's wafer-thin laptop is almost as long as the list of what it's got.

I tested the 80GB hard-drive version, which starts at about $US1600. You can also buy an Air with a 64GB solid-state drive, but it'll cost you at least $US2700.

Love the bright screen

One of the first things I noticed about the Air is its bright, glossy, gorgeous, widescreen, backlit-LED display. The 13.3-inch screen is on par with the backlit-LED display in Sony's Vaio VGN-TXN15P/B, which I used to own. (I've since replaced that ultraportable with Sony's Vaio VGN-TZ295N.)

For comparison, Apple's MacBook Pro 15-inch comes with a backlit-LED screen, and it's a $US100 upgrade on the 17-inch MacBook Pro. Current MacBooks don't offer the backlit-LED screen. If you compare the MacBook Air to a MacBook in a retail store, you'll see the difference. The Air's screen pops, while the MacBook's screen looks a bit washed-out in comparison.

The Air's screen is clearly legible, even in direct sunlight. That's a plus if you want to work outdoors, or with a large window to your back. While waiting to board my flight out of San Francisco, I searched for an available power plug to keep the Air juiced. The only plug not taken at that moment was near a large window, and it was a sunny day. Fortunately, this didn't cause any viewing difficulties whatsoever.

Worth noting: The keyboard is backlit, too, which helped me type more easily during a night flight. You can adjust the keyboard backlighting up or down using dedicated Function keys. Also, the Air features an ambient light sensor that automatically adjusts keyboard and display brightness based on the lighting conditions around you.

Extra points for travelling light

As you might imagine from a laptop measuring 0.76 inches at its thickest point, the Air is a joy to travel with. It's so skinny, I slipped it into a vinyl drawstring bag designed to hold a pair of shoes. Then I packed the shoe bag with the Air inside into my laptop backpack for my travels.

The Air's light weight paid off many times during my trip. Because the Air is so thin and light, I removed it from my bag while waiting in line to enter an airport security checkpoint. In comparison, I usually leave bulkier laptops in my bag until the last possible minute, because their heft makes them more difficult to hold while also juggling bags, slipping off my shoes, and going through all the other checkpoint cha-cha-cha dance moves.

Also, the slender Air handily fit into the airline's seatback pocket. It was ready to go as soon as the flight attendant announced it was okay to use electronic devices.

Tip: After reading a recent Wall Street Journal article about all the nasty things people leave in airline seatback pockets, I highly recommend placing your Air in a protective bag or sleeve before stashing it.

Though the Air weighs just 3 pounds, its actual travelling weight can be a bit more. You may need to pack additional accessories that you wouldn't need with other notebooks.

Example: The Air lacks an internal optical drive. If you want to watch DVDs in-flight, you'll need Apple's external SuperDrive (online prices: $US90 and up), which weighs just over 11 ounces. If your hotel offers in-room wired Internet access only, you'll need to pack Apple's USB Ethernet Adapter (US$29). To plug into an airplane power port, you'll need Apple's 45W MagSafe Airline Power Adapter ($US50).

The combined weight of the Air plus its AC adapter, the SuperDrive, the USB Ethernet Adapter and MagSafe Airline Power Adapter is 4 pounds, 5 ounces. That's still lighter than most laptops, but you have more pieces to pack — and potentially lose.

A bit squeezed on a seatback tray

Even though it's thin and light, the Air has a full-sized keyboard and 13.3-inch screen, so it's roughly the same width as many other laptops.

The Air fit comfortably on my seatback tray in coach — until the person in front of me fully reclined. Luckily, on my San Francisco to Atlanta flight, there were plenty of empty seats, so I moved to a window seat with no one seated in front of me.

My return flight, however, was packed. When the person in front reclined, I could no longer type comfortably on the Air on the seatback tray. I had to place the computer on my lap to continue working.

Worth noting: Some have complained that the Air, like other Apple laptops, grows uncomfortably warm during use. I didn't find this to be a problem, however.

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James A. Martin

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