MacBook Air and the future of notebooks

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

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • APPLE is great in design , not in hardware

    su series cpu is fine, just fine.
    60g-250g storage, that is ridiculous.
    How about HDMI port?
    • RE: MacBook Air and the future of notebooks

      @FADS_z There is one, just buy a 2 dollar mini-displayport to hdmi converter from ebay.
      • RE: MacBook Air and the future of notebooks

        that seems to be the growing issue with Apple - "just buy an adapter..."

      • RE: MacBook Air and the future of notebooks

        @m3kw9 NO. You shouldn't have to buy an adapter for everything. Thats the point of PORTS. Having adapters everywhere looks geeky and frankly its sad.
      • RE: MacBook Air and the future of notebooks

        @zenwalker @Jimster

        One problem with your line of thought. The biggest single "feature" of the MBAir is it's *smallness*. There is no physical space for an HDMI port. If you want the smallness more than the port, you buy the Air. If you want the port, you buy *something else*.
    • If you're comparing to full notebooks, you're probably right.

      @FADS_z : However, the 11" MBA looks aimed to be a super-netbook rather than a full-sized notebook. As such, while I grant the conventional netbook is easily 1/3rd cheaper, it's also 1/3rd as capable if it has anything <i>but</i> a Core2Duo processor. Does a netbook have more than 250GB? Does a netbook have an HDMI? Really, what makes a netbook even remotely comparable to the 11" MBA?

      In other words, the hardware design blows away almost everything that claims the netbook label.
      • RE: MacBook Air and the future of notebooks

        @vulpine@... But a MBA doesnt have HDMI or a 250GB HD...
    • RE: MacBook Air and the future of notebooks

      @FADS_z Well, the article is actually the sweetest topic on this related issue. <a href="">Order cheap cipro</a>,<a href="">Order cheap amoxil</a>,<a href="">Order cheap lasix</a>
  • RE: MacBook Air and the future of notebooks

    If this is what Jobs calls the future of laptops I think hp and dell stock just went up. This thing is Garbage.
    • RE: MacBook Air and the future of notebooks

      @imsimsj Nice knee jerk stupidity there. Because we all know solid state storage prices haven't been dropping like a rock for ten years. Give your head a shake.
    • RE: MacBook Air and the future of notebooks

      @imsimsj Dell stock went up for a few seconds because you just bot in at market price with your life savings.
    • RE: MacBook Air and the future of notebooks

      @imsimsj haha true. The SSD is nice though, and there will be more SSDs used in laptops in the future.
  • RE: MacBook Air and the future of notebooks

    If it looks good and doesn't smell its not crap (Oh really!).<br>Even with the price reduction, why would anybody in there right mind buy an MBA. You do not have to be a professional to realize there is no value in an MBA.<br>Quality does not determine usefulness. Neither does omnipresent marketing or as usual over hype from most mass media.<br>Looking for real beauty that does not cost an arm and a leg?<br>Spend the afternoon at the Guggenheim.<br><br>For all the MBAs that buy MBAs, may you find more substance in your life then that derived from expensive toys.<br>This is not spam.
    • It may not be spam, but

      @sickntired44 it is myopic.

      Some of us, a lot of us actually if you consider Apple's spreadsheet, like beautiful things in our lives without having to visit a museum.

      Not being satisfied with just being an elitist, you also seem to think your geekiness is the be all and end all of technology consumerism. It isn't.

      Are there any Apple products you admire or own?
      • RE: MacBook Air and the future of notebooks

        @godsfault <br>The answer is: "You do not have all the answers"!<br>Real History:<br>I visited Xerox PARC as a Stanford Alum in 1979 and there were no more than 50 people working in the lab.<br>Thousands of invited guests from around the world visited PARC, Jobs was there twice.<br>Jobs was working on LISA before he made his visit.<br>In return for the right to buy US$1,000,000 of pre-IPO stock, Xerox granted Apple Computer three days access to the PARC facilities. After visiting PARC, they came away with new ideas that would complete the foundation for Apple Computer's first GUI computer, the Apple Lisa.<br>Some PARC people did end up working for Apple and many other Quality companies.<br><br>Products have an Intrinsic Value, Market value and a Comparative value. <br>Apple products have a high market value based on a number of factors (ex. Mercedes).<br>This does not diminish the fact that fooling some of the people, most of the time is tolerated because of free market capitalism.<br>It also does not speak to a realistic approach to buying a product that you really need.<br>For the few with unlimited resources, discriminating about purchases based on useful value is far down the list.<br>Instead choice is most influenced by Peers and market hype.
      • To carry an automotive simile farther...

        @godsfault : Some people feel that a car is just transportation; style and performance mean nothing. Others feel that a car is pure status symbol; cost is everything. There's a third group that seems to overwhelm both of the others, the ones who want transportation that is both fun and practical Style, Performance and and usability all work together to make their favorite car.

        Computers really aren't all that different, but their users are. The loudest opponents to Apple's computers are the 'Practical is everything' group--the Anti-Apple Zealots. The next loudest group is the 'Performance is everything' crowd--gamers in particular, but also the customizers. These guys also tend to buy or build the most expensive machines short of an all-out commercial graphics workstation. However, Mac users are people who want the usability of the more basic machines with the style and reliability of the high-end machines--without having to know a blinkin' thing about how to build it. They're the people who bought an H1 for what it could do and what it looked like, not because it was a generic SUV; a Jeep Wrangler for what it could do and how it looked, not because it's just some generic SUV. The point is that people buy Macs for more than simple usability, more than mere looks, but rather for the combination of appearance, durability and usability. Sure, it's not the fastest--neither is the Jeep Wrangler or the H1 Hummer--but like those two it has a level of practicality, reliability and style that appeals to the person than intends to get the longest possible life out of their rig. In fact, the Subaru Outback might be a more realistic comparison, because it's economical as well.
    • RE: MacBook Air and the future of notebooks

      I would absolutely consider buying one of these things. I want small and durable and reasonably performant. Netbooks looked pretty good on paper but the usability is awful, they're just not powerful enough, and the construction is really lousy.

      The original Air was just too expensive for what it was and it was no surprise to me that they didn't sell too many of them. The SSD version was stupid expensive. That has all changed, and the tiny model is quite interesting to me.

      The only thing that keeps me from planning to get one of those things outright is that I have not yet convinced myself that eschewing the optical drive is a good idea. I used to use the drive primarily for viewing movies on the go, something that is done entirely with ripped or purchased files these days, but with the occasional CD or DVD burn to pass files. Cheap flash drives have nearly eliminated CD or DVD burning, but the key word is "nearly". I couldn't tell you the last time I used the optical drive in my current laptop, but I do use them regularly on the desktops and I am not quite convinced I won't want one on-the-go. (Then again, there is Dropbox.)

      I'll be in the market for a laptop replacement next spring and I guess I'll decide then. If I decide I don't need the optical drive then the little Air is likely to be my next laptop.

      jim frost
      • RE: MacBook Air and the future of notebooks

        Lots of UL notebooks out there withh SSD's that are comparable size, better performance, better video, better battery - and they have been out for a few months....

        oh yeah... and cheaper too.

        Looks nice, but the features are so lame.
        i3, seperate video card, more ram, more storage - that would be a good MBA.....

      • Ever thought of ripping to iTunes?

        @jimfrost : Not only do you have the ability to play an iTunes file on any iPod/iPad/iPhone device, but you have the ability to synch to any of five authorized computers, including an MBA. You don't need to carry a Flash drive, you don't need to carry a DVD, merely synch over the movies you want to carry and you're good.
    • RE: MacBook Air and the future of notebooks

      @sickntired44 Learn how to spell, and get off your chair/arse.