MacBook Air and the future of notebooks

Summary:If there's one Apple product that professionals love to hate, it's the MacBook Air, Apple's super-lightweight notebook that was just refreshed. At the launch event, Steve Jobs said the future of notebooks can be seen today in the new MBA. Whether the sexy Air is right for everyone at this moment is questionable – although it's always chancy to bet against Steve Jobs – but the Air likely heralds the future for the MacBook.

If there's one Apple product that professionals love to hate, it's the MacBook Air, Apple's super-lightweight notebook that was just refreshed. At the launch event, Steve Jobs said the future of notebooks can be seen today in the new MBA. Whether the sexy Air is right for everyone at this moment is questionable – although it's always chancy to bet against Steve Jobs – but the Air likely heralds the future for the MacBook.

At the rollout event, Jobs said: 'We asked ourselves, "What would happen if a MacBook and an iPad hooked up?' Well, this is the result. ... We think it's the future of notebooks."

There is no denying the beauty of the MacBook Air and now it comes in several sizes and price points. The hardware is rock solid and very capable, certainly more capable than the PC netbook concepts that so many keep pointing to as its competition (as well as the competition for the iPad).

However, the refreshed MacBook Air stacks up closely with the plain ol' MacBook line. It brings the benefits of lightweight, aluminum unibody construction to customers who were used to plastic (polycarbonate) enclosures. Its screen resolution is greater and its flash-based memory can handle the abuse of mobility better than the standard hard drive in the MacBook.

Still, many customers of MacBooks may want greater storage in the box. I know several MacBook owners who have used the bundled iMovie application to edit movies and they found they were constrained by the limited storage capacity of the MacBook line. Of course, these customers would do better to simply plug in a USB drive or small array that would give them plenty of storage.

Others complain about the lack of Ethernet. The MBA has two USB 2.0 ports and 802.11n wireless, which Apple has decided is sufficient for mobile users. Those customers who want Ethernet can buy Apple's optional USB-to-Ethernet adapter.

These points aside, I am puzzled by some of the MBA criticism. For example, my colleague Christopher Dawson says that the education market isn't right for the MacBook Air. While he admits that its a better computer than a Windows netbook and its aluminum unibody construction is more solid, Dawson says the cheaper the better in education:

My point? How wise is it to spend $949 (educational pricing on their base model) on a new MacBook air for students? ... But I could buy two or three netbooks for every 11? MBA. And aluminum or not, a student bent on mischief (or one who has succumbed to the nation’s obesity epidemic and manages to sit on the computer, which happens more often than one might think) is going to destroy a thousand dollar computer just about as effectively as they will a $250 netbook. The only difference is that schools won’t have the budget to replace them.

By my reading, his point questions whether any notebook computer is right for education. Netbooks may be less expensive, but we all admit they are crap hardware. Is this the message we want for our kids: Crap? Dawson mostly admits that the MBA with flash and unibody construction (and let's not forget the MagSafe power adapter technology) are likely more rugged than most netbooks.

Perhaps instead of netbooks, schools could pick a combination of iPads for mobility and iMacs for computing power and reliability, which would present the best value as well as have the most chance of surviving the rigors of this market. And the iMac solution offers the best value since it can run Mac OS X and Windows and Linux.

Meanwhile, professional users have kept up the mantra that the MacBook Air is no substitute for a MacBook Pro. And this is the truth.

My Apple Core colleague Jason O'Grady runs down processor issues with the new MBA, which runs a Core 2 Duo processor like the MacBook rather than the more-capable Core i3 processor.

Apple ships the 2010 MacBook Air with a discrete graphics processor (GPU) — an NVIDIA GeForce 320M with 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM — rather than using the integrated graphics that comes on the Intel chips. Perhaps Apple didn’t want to pay more for the newer chip, only to get better graphics that it wasn’t going to use? Again, just a theory.

My problem with Apple’s chip selection it that even though the performance bump from the Core 2 Duo to the Core i3 is marginal, the Core i3 has several other advantages.

Of course, the Air's storage capacity issues will resonate with professional users as well. And don't forget expandability. For example, I need a card slot that supports my investment in eSATA storage, so I have to go with the 17-inch model of the MacBook Pro line, which offers an ExpressCard/34 slot.

Certainly, Steve Jobs didn't say that that the Air was a substitute for the MacBook Pro, he specially said "MacBook." Based upon Steve and the Air's spec sheet, it appears that the Air supplant the MacBook line. Users wanting greater storage and video performance in a notebook computer will be directed to the MacBook Pro line.

As as I wrote at the introduction of the first-generation MacBook Air, there's something about this notebook that riles usually sensible technologists. The MBA is an amazing piece of industrial design and lightweight performance, but it doesn't offer this or that technology. Yes, it can't offer the best performance in its category, if that category is any and all notebook computers. But the Air a very capable machine.

Read: Why does the MacBook Air make so many so dumb?

What is significant is that in the new Air models we continue to see that Apple keeps driving its high-end technology down to the masses.

When the MacBook Air was released in 2008, I wrote that it was aimed at a narrow upscale segment of the market. These customers care about style and what that style says about them. It’s all a part of their personal brand.

These customers want excellent design and will value the drama created by the MacBook Air. When they open this machine at a meeting, it may say more about them than a $300 haircut, or a bespoke suit.

That focus has changed. This exciting and useful industrial design is now offered to a much wider segment. Apple's calculation is that the new Air models provide the necessary storage capacity and performance for most users, especially for enterprise customers.

At the same time, the Air will provide a better, more reliable mobility experience. With flash onboard it will be super reliable and better able than a standard notebook to survive the fall from an overhead storage compartment on the airplane. And it runs Windows.

I guess Jobs is right. For most notebook users, the future is now in the Air.

Topics: Laptops, Apple, Hardware, Mobility, Storage

About

David Morgenstern has covered the Mac market and other technology segments for 20 years. In the recent past, he founded Ziff-Davis' Storage Supersite, served as news editor for Ziff Davis Internet and held several executive editorial positions at eWEEK. In the 1990s, David was editor of Ziff Davis' award-winning MacWEEK news publication a... Full Bio

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