In addition to the long-awaited launch of OS X Lion, Apple gave us another surprise this week in the form of an update to the MacBook Air. New processors and a Thunderbolt port are just two of the exciting features in the newest models.
However, there are still plenty of doubts to be had about the overall direction Apple has taken for their line of MacBooks. Is the MacBook Air an acceptable replacement for the plain old MacBook? Have the risk-takers at Apple stripped off too much or have they created the best MacBook ever?
Apple has always been a forward-thinking company, even when it makes customers uncomfortable. Years and years ago I remember constantly attempting to explain to PC users why Macs didn’t come with a built-in floppy drive. How could something that’s supposedly better actually contain less features?
The answer was of course that Apple saw the death of the floppy before most other PC manufacturers and was ready to move onto Zip Drives (remember those?), CDs and/or portable hard drives as the future of transferring data. It seemed ludicrous at the time, but looking back it was a perfectly logical move.
Other similar key choices can be seen over the last decade or two. The acceptance of FireWire (even the early iPods had built-in FireWire ports), the abandoning of FireWire 400 in favor of 800 before most PC users had even heard of the old version, the embracing of handheld, touchscreen devices way before their time (Newton anyone?), the list goes on and on. Many of these moves were complete successes, others were embarrassing failures, all speak to the corporate culture and drive of Apple Inc.
Apple is a company completely dedicated to not caring about what you think you want, a bold and almost insane idea. Instead, they focus on the core principles underlying customer demands and combine them with up-and-coming technology. The MacBook Air is a perfect example.
The MacBook Air
When it first arrived on the scene, I remember noting that the MacBook Air was more of a novelty item than a serious choice: much less bang than the MacBook for much more buck. A tiny hard drive, non-user-replaceable battery and no optical drive were enough to make me scoff at the device’s practicality.
Sure, it was thinner than any laptop I’d ever seen but I simply couldn’t imagine myself forsaking important features in favor of a little less weight. Let’s also not forget that the non-SSD models were quite sluggish.
Looking back, I can see that Apple was simply doing what they do best: telling us what we really wanted. After a few major upgrades the MacBook Air now stands as an extremely portable and impressively powerful machine. As we all spend this week downloading the newest version of OS X from the Mac App Store instead of heading to the Apple Store for install DVDs, the lack of an optical drive on the Air seems like a fairly minor offense. For the many that get their music and movies from iTunes, Hulu and Netflix Streaming, it’s almost a complete non-issue.
Further, the now standard solid state drives are a thing of beauty. You really can’t appreciate the speed of these things until you’ve experienced it yourself. If you haven’t, make a trip to the Apple Store and play around with a MacBook Air for a while and try not to smile.
This feeling of insane speed is now seriously helped along by the inclusion of the latest round of Intel wonder-chips (Sandy Bridge), which boast speeds up to two 2.5 times faster than the previous generation.
Even with all this, it’s not exactly easy to call the new MacBook Air the best MacBook ever. Let’s say you have a $1,200 budget for a laptop and compare the MacBook Air at that price point to the MacBook Pro at the same cost. With the Air, you get a 1.6GHz dual-core i5, while the Pro boasts a 2.3GHz dual-core i5. Both give you 4GB of RAM but with the Air you’re getting a 128GB drive as opposed to a 320GB drive on the Pro. However, the Air gives you a solid state drive, which as we just said, is a whole new level of awesome.
As you can see, comparing the two models by numbers alone is a little difficult. The scales tip further in the direction of the Pro if you need an optical drive and a little extra screen space. However, conceptually, the MacBook Air is really starting to feel less like a dream for the future and more like the MacBook of today. In fact, look around on Apple’s website for the white MacBook and you’ll notice that it’s been quietly killed, leaving the MacBook Air as the standard $999 starter MacBook (2GB memory, 64GB SSD).
I would wager that most of your everyday computer owners would be more than satisfied with a MacBook Air. It’s gorgeous, impossibly light and lightning fast. It’s undeniably an amazing machine. The one caveat is that the lack of an optical drive means storing lots of multimedia locally, which eats up hard drive space, something that the Air doesn’t have in abundance.
With the MacBook Air, Apple is once again challenging our notions of what we want in an entry-level computer. To some, it’s an unsettling, confusing and downright crazy move. However, as soon as you try one, the pleasantly surprising reality is that it turns out to be the MacBook of your dreams.
Leave a comment below and let us know what you think of the direction Apple is heading in by dropping the MacBook in favor of the MacBook Air. Is this a good entry level laptop? Would you change anything about it if you could?