Almost ready to fly

GCN Lab review: MacBook Air is fast and light, but it's missing a few important features

GCN

WITH SO MANY PC-based laptops covered in this issue, we wanted to make sure Apple was not left out of the mix. Although it's difficult to compare Apples to PCs, we can look at the Apple MacBook Air in terms of ultraportability, power and reliability. Apple's first entry in the ultraportable market is a good attempt that incorporates almost all the features a frequent traveler wants in a mobile workhorse.

The MacBook Air's sleek new design retains creature comforts that a lot of ultraportables give up, including a full-size QWERTY keyboard and 13.3-inch LCD screen.


ALSO IN THIS REPORT: Portability meets performance



Despite one of the thinnest bodies in the laptop industry, a 12.8- by 8.94-inch frame makes the MacBook Air cumbersome in tight spaces, such as on an airplane seat tray. However, the most noticeable difference for me wasn't the height of the laptop, which ranges when closed from 0.16 inches at its thinnest point to 0.76 inches, but its light weight. At 3 pounds, it was easy to extract from a bag in tight spaces with two or three fingers.

The MacBook Air has only one USB port and no extensions for additional ports. If you buy the top-of-the-line version, you spend $3,098 for the laptop and an additional $20 to $80 if you need a USB hub. That's not acceptable when you consider that some of the laptop PCs of equivalent weight have as many as three USB ports.

The $3,000 version of the MacBook Air comes with a 64G solid-state hard drive that functions like a giant flash drive. Having no moving parts means the laptop uses less energy and processes commands a little faster, but I noticed little difference.

The areas in which the MacBook Air excels are battery life, performance and functionality. In our battery testing, we got nearly 5 hours of wireless surfing time on the laptop's built-in 802.11n wireless card.

The 1.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor ' with 4M of on-chip shared L2 cache running at full processor speed and an 800 MHz front-side bus with 2G of 667 MHz DDR2 synchronous dynamic RAM ' makes computations fly on this machine regardless of the task.

If you choose to dual-boot with Windows XP, you won't have a problem with performance, but we recommend an additional external drive, especially if you get the model with solid-state hard drive. Windows XP uses least 7G of additional drive space.

Another great thing about the MacBook Air is the built-in light sensor that activates to illuminate the keyboard in dim light. This well-designed feature is particularly helpful on night flights or during presentations when the overhead lights are off.

Next to the light sensor is a built-in iSight camera, which has become a useful feature with the increase in remote workstations and presentations.

One drawback is the laptop's RAM. Although 2G is a lot of standard RAM, it is also the maximum the MacBook Air can accommodate.

I would have liked the ability to expand the RAM to at least 6G, especially because the MacBook Air runs the memory-intensive Mac OS X Version 10.5, otherwise known as Leopard.

On the plus side, the robust Intel video processor supports full native resolution on the built-in display and 1920 x 1200 on an external display, both at millions of colors. A headphone jack and mini-Digital Video port are next to the one USB port. Included with the laptop is a Digital Visual Interface output using a micro-DVI-to-DVI adapter and VGA output using a micro-DVI-to-VGA adapter.

Another useful feature the Apple MacBook Air lacks is a DVD player. You could spend the extra $99 to get the Mac Book Air Super Drive. This slot-loading 8X DVD and CD burner/player measures 5.5 inches by 5.5 inches by .67 inches and weighs less than a pound, but it requires an available USB 2.0 port, and MacBook Air only comes with one port. That means you would also have to get a USB hub if you need to connect an external mouse or printer without interrupting your optical drive functions.

In future versions, we hope to see more bang for the buck, including standard USB additions and an optical drive. If Apple combines those features with upgradeable RAM, the company will be ready to seriously compete in the ultraportable space. This is a good start, but forcing users to spend more cash to upgrade an already-expensive laptop with features that are standard elsewhere is not a recipe for success.

Apple, (408) 996-1010, www.apple.com

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