Is the New MacBook Air the Best Laptop That Apple Has Ever Made?

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?

Trendsetters

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

screenshot

The New 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.

The Numbers

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.

screenshot

Air vs. Pro

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.

Conclusion

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?


  • Phil

    I think the main opinion to take form it is that for some the air would be all that the average computer use would need. For example wasting lives away on Facebook, listerning to music, and doing word processing, the air would be there perfect choice.

    For the more computer demanding amongst us, the pro would be the logical choice, although if you add to the fact that most people, like myself, have more than one computer, then the air would be an excellent addition, so that i can lose the pro in favour or a iMac and air combo.

    Like most computer purchases it comes down to what you need for it, most will see that it is too expensive and go and buy a plastic windows machine, and say they have a better deal after spending $700.

  • Melwan

    I’m not necessarily with or against the new MBA, but a quote like this makes me want to go for it:

    “The one caveat is that the lack of an optical drive means storing lots of multimedia locally”

    Really? You are telling me u burn yr media to CDs and DVDs??? Wow.

    Not only u can get every kind of OSX app as a simple download, but tossing out the above argument after the Mac App Store has proved itself is beyond me.

    #ProTip people now use external hdds to store their stuff ;)

    • http://www.coroflot.com/joshuajohnson Joshua Johnson

      If I’m on a flight and want to load up on movies, I could drop by Redbox if I owned a MBP. However, with the Air I would need to download movies onto my HD, which I may not have room for given the small capacity.

      The implication was that the Air is intentionally light for traveling, an external HD cuts down on that, but is definitely a solution.

      • dev

        how many movies do you need for a flight? what are you, flying all day long and watching movies or what? an average 720p movie would be 5gb. i’m sure you can delete some of your precious files (usually documents, but the size problem doesn’t exist with .txt, .pages and .pdf.) and get yourself some cool movies. 2-3 movies is more than enough. and carrying dvds around isn’t exactly “light” either. and the quality sucks.

      • Tim

        Well, the iPhone and iPad and iPod Touch have smaller internal space than an Air, and yet people put movies on them all the time. More than one movie, even. As well as music and a ton of apps.

  • http://nationofapps.co.uk Mark Walsh

    I guess the R&D team at Apple really earn their bucks as more often than not they come out with a ‘tomorrows world’ inititive and it just makes so much sense.

  • C@N

    Hi all.

    MBA’s are just great. I was waiting for the new ones.

    Apple finally filed it with missing features like the backlit keyboard or thunderbolt.

    Hopefully, soon I will get one.

  • http://alexpascal.com Alex Pascal

    The “small” SSD is really a non-issue. You can buy a $30 500GB external drive and store all the stuff you will ever find on there rather than cluttering an impressively fast SSD.

  • http://yosho.me Nelson Pecora

    I’m actually debating getting a 13″ macbook air instead of a 13″ macbook pro. Here are the numbers (with student discount):

    MBA: $1,639
    - high-end 13″ version
    - 1.8 Ghz i7 upgrade
    - 4 gig ram, 256 gig SSD (standard)

    MBP: $1,939
    - high-end 13″ version
    - 2.7 Ghz i& (standard)
    - 4 gig ram (could upgrade to 8 gig)
    - 256 gig SSD upgrade

    The only pros of the MBP (for me) are the higher CPU clock and the possibility for 8 gigs of ram. I’m upgrading from a mid-2009 Core2Duo MBP, so I’m not entirely sure if I’ll care about the clock speed difference (the i7 being orders of magnitude faster than a Core2Duo as it is), and I’m not sure I need 8 gigs for general techie stuff (i.e. no heavy-duty video editing, but some photoshop and million-tab-chrome sessions).

    What do people think? Is the new Air good enough for a primary laptop?

    • http://yosho.me Nelson Pecora

      Woops, typo. The MBP I’m looking at is the i7 model.

    • http://yosho.me Nelson Pecora

      Also to be considered is the fact that the 13″ air’s resolution is 1440×900, while the equivalent MBP is only 1280×800.

    • http://about.me/gianpaj Palumbo

      i’m having the same debate at the moment.
      i’m checking at benchmarks as well.

      the problem as well is that i’ll be replaing a MacBook Pro 15-inc (mid 2007)

      i’d like the have something smaller 13-inch instead of 15-inch but i need a lot of storage and ssd speeds… i was thinking to buy a thunderbolt external hd when they come out…

      i use my mac maily for Djing, making music (Ableton, Logic), do computer stuff @ college, play few games, photoshop, browsing, watching movies, tv shows, etc

      so it might be actually ok the Macbook Air.

      what are you going to use it for?

      • http://yosho.me Nelson Pecora

        Mostly coding, iTunes, some Logic, some Photoshop/Aperture. I used to game on my old 13″ macbook pro, but I think I’m actually going to build a windows desktop to do that, since components are so cheap nowadays.

        I’m checking out the benchmarks you emailed, and they look pretty good for the Air. Plus, I don’t think I really need the 8 gigs of ram I have now.

      • http://yosho.me Nelson Pecora

        I think a big thing for me is hard drive space, but I’m looking at the 256 gig SSD either way (plus large external drive(s)). The Air + 256 gig is significantly cheaper than the MBP + 256 gig.

    • Michael Wells

      Either would be a great option. One rule of thumb is to always buy as much RAM as you can at the time of purchase. I would get the pro and upgrade to 8GB. Remember in just a few years ago 1GB of RAM was a lot, then 2GB was standard, now it is 4GB. That is just in the span of a few years. You can’t even run Lion without as least 2GB and most experts recommend 4GB. I am going to be handing down my 15″ MBP 2.93 Core2Duo with 4GB of RAM to my wife, when I do I will be upgrading to 8 for the hope of keeping it relevant for the next several years. I already had to upgrade here 15″ 2.4 Core2Duo (older body style) to 4GB just so she can run Lion efficiently. Lastly look at the programs that you run that are the most intensive and see what the specs for them are now and what you may expect in the future.

  • yatesh

    Between affordable external drive options like Alex mentioned and the plethora of free and cheap cloud-based storage options and streaming music options (Spotify’s arrival to the US seems eerily coincidental?), are larger hard drives really necessary? Sure next gen MBAs will likely have larger HDs because the SSD tech will continue to improve, but I’m not sure that much demand will exist.

  • Benoit Desroches

    Well, the MacBook Air is indeed an awesome machine. The only thing I would say is that the 64 SSD drive on the entry model is not enough. A 128 SSD drive would be appreciated!

  • Bernie

    Looks pretty awesome. Though on a professional level the MBP would still be the best in many cases. One (of several) reasons being that the largest screen you can get for a MBA is 13″

    As a designer and owner of 17″ models for around 5 years, no way I’m going back to a smaller screen any time soon. An exception may be if I eventually get a MP.

    • http://www.chexee.net Chelsea Otakan

      I’m also a designer, but quickly ditched the large model laptops because they were just too heavy. I’m 4′ 11″, 90 lbs, have some back and hip problems and bike/travel quite a bit. I just can’t carry a machine that adds 5+ pounds to my bag.

      I’ve had 13 inch laptops for a few years and am actually pretty comfortable designing on small screens. It actually helps me focus and prevents me from trying to multitask (something I do, but am shouldn’t).

      Some tips for being a designer with a smaller screen:
      - Adobe screen layouts are your friend. I arrange several for Type/Color/Layout that I can toggle between depending on what I’m focusing on
      - Hide application toolbars whenever you can
      - Menubar apps can save you serious screen space

      That said, I do have a larger monitor and desktop machine for when I need to do print or larger scale work that my laptop makes a bit more difficult.

      I just traded in my less-than-a-year-old MacBook Pro (Core 2 Duo model) for the new MacBook Air, and god damn is this thing snappy. The denser screen resolution makes for a much sharper looking screen and, despite my earlier comments, the extra pixels are quite nice.

      Not sure why the MBPs can’t get the same screen treatment?

  • http://alexpascal.com Alex Pascal

    I’m personally a proud owner of a 2011 15″ MacBook Pro, but I can appreciate the beauty of a MacBook Air. In my case, it would be a waste because 99% of the time my MBP is either on my desk, or if I’m feeling tired, on my bed/couch. I don’t lug it around much so the additional “weight” (Macs are light enough as it is, even with the aluminum case) doesn’t really matter to me, and I haven’t used the disc drive not once in 2 years now. What does matter is a decently sized HDD with even more space on an external drive, a blazing fast quad-core processor, and a separate GPU.

    Although I regret not getting the high-resolution screen… I could use those pixels.

  • http://www.webmaster-source.com redwall_hp

    Nope, the MBP is the best laptop Apple has ever made. Considering that I’m close to filling the 250GB drive in my 2008-model MacBook, a tiny and relatively pricy SSD isn’t really an option. It’s certainly an improvement over the previous model, but SSDs still haven’t reached the point where I would consider them to be a good deal for a primary computer. I’d love to have 1TB of storage in a laptop in the future, not pay more for less storage.

  • Dave

    Of course it’s not the best one they’ve ever made. Not by a long shot. My 15 inch MacBook Pro is better simply because it has a bigger screen. No matter what way you look at it, the screen is the most important aspect of a system … it’s what you spend all your time looking at. And 11 and 13 inch is too small.

    Sure, it’s just my opinion, but since I disagree, it means it’s not the best ever made. Otherwise we’d all agree it was :)

  • Alan Long

    Really needed an 8 Gb ram option and higher resolution screen. With those two it would have replaced my MacBook Pro.

  • Bmuse

    I have a mid-2008 15″ MBP. While the Airs are beautiful, there is still a core of Mac users who need the capabilities of the Pros. I do heavy Photoshop and video work on my MBP with 6GB RAM. FCP7, Motion, and DVDSP all run with PS and AI and a dozen other misc apps. I’ve updated the internal drive to 1TB, and have over 750GB of data on it. I do still create DVDs for clients.

    Creative professionals used to be the niche market that kept the Mac alive. But now they are only a small subset, and it’s worrisome to watch the entire Mac line move toward the level of an iPhone.

    I’m sure the SSDs are amazing. But 128GB would barely hold my OS and apps. So I’d carry around an external drive and be limited to its speeds anyway.

    I certainly see the new MBAs with their astounding specs as a terrific replacement for the MacBooks — a light-year leap forward. But just because they’re fast, I don’t think they’re up to the task of replacing a MacBook Pro.

  • Autoxave

    The current upgrade of MBA is excellent for general purpose use like web surfing, email, chat, Office/iWork and music & movies. It is also sufficient to do basic photo editing in iPhoto or PSE. It´s not intended for professionals in the media field as I see it, but for those we have MBP. The only downside is no future upgrade options regarding RAM and storage if you buy the most expensive one.

  • Alexei Stukov

    Something people miss is how fast a SSD is. The MBA feels much faster than a MPB because of the faster HD. You can have a 5Ghz i7 but its going to feel slow if you have a slow HD.

    The MBA is the future of macbooks. 128GB SSD should be the minimum. 256GB if you NEED more space. And everyone should get an external HD for storing movies and making backups. For video editing, get a fast external one.

  • Devric

    If you don’t play games much nor doing some crazy “heavy” movie editing, the mac air is enough for everything else. I mostly use photoshop, illustrator editing large images while watching a hd movie on my external23″, and a lot of other less intensive programs running all at the same time, and it works fine. no lags, the photoshop filters might take a few second longer but won’t make you impatient and start to dance your fingers on the table.
    by the way i am only using the 2010 model 256gb hd, 2gb ram, 1.8core2dual.
    and it can run assassin creed 2!! yup it is laggy, i mean real laggy, but its working.
    the storage 250gb is kind of a problem, but i run a local linux storage server, so i don’t really put any movies and keeps my musics at minimal. everything goes to the server if I’m at home, and use a 500gb portable drive i took out from my dead tx2500… if i need to bring something that is not important to my work with me on the go.

    The 2011 model has improved and is definitely capable to do more.

  • http://www.mikekey.com Mike Key

    I hear a lot of MBP users who wager that they need the higher end edge of the MBP for what they do. However, it’s mostly hot air from folks who haven’t tried.

    I know because I used a 17inch MBP thinking it was essential to my web design & development business.

    However I’ve discovered that I work just as quickly on my Macbook Air. Which btw is a 2010 model, not the new Core i5 models.

    To give you a little background I was a die hard PC guy with a 3.4ghz Phemon X4 AMD custom built tower with 8gb of memory and 2 TB of hard drive space.

    A year ago I switched by buying a Macbook Pro for my business, a 17 inch unibody 2009 model, with core 2 duo. And I discovered to my disbelief that I worked faster on the Mac then on my over kill PC.

    Switching to the AIR has made me realize even more that most of us are assuming when need a lot more power than we really need.

    The 2011 Models are very impressive, and I’m curious to see if this design is heading for the Pro section as well…..

  • freshface

    Air? BS! Don’t buy it until they put IPS panels there. The current shitty TN ones look like this:

    http://images.anandtech.com/reviews/mac/macbookair2010/washedout.jpg
    http://images.anandtech.com/reviews/mac/macbookair2010/dark.jpg

    You will be constantly annoyed if you buy it now.

    And yeah, the latest 2011 model is still sporting that shitty TN.

    If “cheap” and thin iPad2 can have IPS, then Air will eventually have it as well.

    P.S: If Air seems magically fast to you – that’s only because of that SSD. So Safari browsing may seem like a win, but any other resource hog will kill you (Cinema4d, 3d games, etc). That’s why I think you can’t compare Air to MBP… Both are made for a different purpose, just like an iPad for example.

  • Anon

    the MBA has a much better antiglare coating compared to the MBP. Its not perfect but the difference sold the MBA.

  • http://blai.se joelharrison

    Seriously… Storage backing up to an optical drive?
    That was 10 years ago man. Now you have access to light peak external drives blazing faster than a CD could ever write to. I wouldn’t trust a CD-R with my data either.

  • Michael Wells

    Well, I maybe in the minority here; but I think there was room for the White MacBook in the lineup. That is the problem I see with Apple’s continued strategy of innovation over practicality. First the loss of the optical drive is not a big deal, at all. The problem I see here is the lack of storage. While the Air is definitely the future, the future does not arrive with at 64GB or 128GB HD; no matter how fast it is. Let us look at the target audience, entry level consumers. The majority are going to be young people and students and lets be honest, those hard drive sizes are not large enough to hold teen or twenty something’s iTunes library; and that is a fact that we all recognize. Just not enough room for music and videos. I know that they are launching iCloud next month, but most people are a little worried about storing all of their content in the cloud. I am not a cloud person at all. As the ill fated Chromebooks has already proven; you are dead in the water if there is a server or network problem. If you look at Apple’s own website, in the store on the right hand side of the main page you will see where Apple lists their top sellers by category. The Air is not even in the top five, the sorry Mac Mini is ahead of it. I own three Macs, two MacBook Pros and one of the last releases of the White MacBook. The White MacBook is my travel computer for a couple of reasons. First I hate dragging a close to $3,000 dollar laptop on the road just because I am afraid of what could happen to it, and since Apple does not offer accidental damage (huge mistake Apple) in their Apple Care, like every major PC vendor does; if I damage it, I am going back to the Apple online store and custom building another. Second, I like the smaller size for travel. Is the Air smaller, well sure; but look at the specs, is that 1/3 of an inch and one pound that much of a difference? In my opinion while Apple is doing great innovation, the problem lies in the timing. Apple should continue to debut great products, like the Air, that are ahead of the curve and keep us scratching our head. But at the same time would not make much more sense to keep the good old White MacBook around until the price of flash storage hit a realistic point for an entry level laptop. When Apple can ship a 256GB Air at $999, then kill the White MacBook. Or an even better idea would be to keep the White MacBook after that point for two reasons. One, you can sell it for the $750 price point and start to get serious in price with the PC market while not getting into the budget market and still maintaining your luxury branding. Lastly, lets be honest, the White MacBook is and iconic design. At $750 Apple could still make some money and sell a whole lot of Macs just by cutting the price a bit and retaining the iconic look that a lot of people associate with Apple and Mac. Last point that I found a rather repugnant move by Apple, was Apple’s shipping two different SSDs in the Air. One a faster Samsung and the other a slower Toshiba. Shame on Apple. No way of knowing which one you are buying and no acknowledgement of it either. If a PC maker had done this, the press would be calling for their heads.

  • Nelson

    I’m mesmerized by why people buy those Air pcs. If you just wanna to surf the web any regular pc will do.

  • darren

    if i wanted to waste over £1000 on a medium speced laptop with no optical drive and few usb ports that arent even usb3.0 and a low grade SSD with crappy storage space ,id get the samsung 9 series ofwhich is faster than macbook air and looks cooler and made out of better materials ,otherwise id pay £400 for a laptop that does more and is 10mm thicker

  • http://www.secita.co.za Mike

    I am a worn out PC notebook user and I like the idea of using an aesthetically pleasing, lightweight, high quality, good performance, reliable, fit-for-purpose device like the MBA with the 256GB SSD and 13inch high-resolution screen. Even at the premium price we’re talking a few 100 dollars extra for a tool that is used 6 to 12 hours a day – every day! Compare this paltry amount to the price of a top brand wrist watch. I’m getting one real soon. And, hey, I never use the DVD and consider the HDD to be ancient technology – sort of like the combustion engine vs electric. External HD’s and the cloud take care of the rest. Well done Apple!

  • Webster Phreaky

    Hate to pop your DELUSIONAL Bubble, but Apple DOESN’T MAKE ANYTHING!!
    Apple DOESN’T OWN ANY FACTORIES!
    Apple has Outsourced American Manufacturing Jobs Since 1979 starting with the Apple IIe.
    All of Apple’s gadgets and computers are made in CHINA on the same assembly lines as Dell and Gateway!

    As a writer, you are pretty Clueless for not even knowing this ….. EVERYONE ELSE does!

  • MACUSER

    I really believe this is the best macbook I have ever owned. I sold my Macbook Pro and picked this up. I am so glad I made the choice. Thanks to Apple!

  • jchastn

    I bought the new I7/256g MacBook Air for its speed and portability. It doesn’t disappoint in those areas. Great battery life, beautiful display/case, backlit and functional keyboard are all icing on the cake. I am a photographer and the intensive apps that I use are regularly running simultaneously and this machine barely gets warm and I rarely hear the quiet fan. As for necessary storage, an 8 terabyte NAS that is accessible by wifi or online solves that problem for me. This machine is my portable but hooked up to the Thunderbolt display it is a potent desktop machine too. Apple hit this one out of the park.

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