It's little secret that I've become a pretty big fan of Mac hardware and software. The prices, as Windows fans will happily tell you, are hard to swallow and even I struggle to recommend universal deployments of Macs in school when Apple's idea of entry-level is a $650 Mac Mini (educational price) to which you need to add your own monitor and input devices and still runs on aging Intel Core processors. And today's Back to the Mac event, unfortunately, did very little to make Macs a more compelling choice for schools.
Kids are destructive. Not all of them, of course, but enough of them are that schools need to consider both costs and durability when they're purchasing computer hardware. Our local school district has too many Classmates badly damaged or destroyed by careless or malicious students. Classmates are designed to withstand the rigors of use in remote villages, deserts, and rain forests, but a bunch of Massachusetts elementary students have managed to break screens, strip keyboards of their keys, and otherwise render them useless.
My point? How wise is it to spend $949 (educational pricing on their base model) on a new MacBook air for students? I won't argue the durability of Macs. They're pretty tough and the unibody aluminum enclosures and SSDs on the MacBook Airs announced today go a long ways towards ruggedization. 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.
The new MacBook Air actually isn't a terrible choice for high school students if a school or school district is looking at a 1:1 program given their easy portability, the tendency of older students to be slightly less destructive than their elementary and middle school counterparts, and the great iLife software that's included. Instant on, long battery life machines that are loaded with good software and fit easily on a tiny desk aren't bad things. Again, as a highly portable machine for the average liberal arts college student, it isn't a terrible choice either. At least the aluminum would ensure that it could survive most backpacks.
However, when the $899 MacBook (again, educational pricing) features much more storage space (those videos students like to create aren't small), a larger screen, great battery life, and hardware that will run that cool new version of iLife much better, the MacBook Air remains a non-starter in education. Notice that I mentioned the average liberal arts student above as a possible user of the Air. As Jason O'Grady pointed out, even with the performance enhancements inherent in the solid state drives on the new MBAs, the machines are not going to cut it for producing any serious content, running the new version of AutoCAD that's coming to OS X, or crunching any numbers.
The one bright spot from today's even was the update to iLife that I've been mentioning. Rachel King details the enhancements, but, long story short, it's a major upgrade. $29 a seat (academic) to upgrade to the latest version is relatively small money if you're only a year or two into the life of Macs you've already deployed. It's also another argument in favor of Macs over PCs if you happen to be on the fence ahead of a tech refresh. Most analysts tagged it as a serious improvement over the tools available natively in Windows 7 Ultimate and the ability to create multimedia content is incredibly important both from a 21st Century learning perspective and from a student motivation point of view.
Is iLife worth the price of entry for new Macs versus PCs in your schools? Alone it's not, but if your curricular needs lean towards creativity and multimedia, then iMovie '11 and Garageband '11 are both quite compelling. Music programs will be begging for these, as will media specialists and progressive teachers who would rather their students create podcasts or videos than yet another PowerPoint. In settings like these, the cost of PC hardware and software capable of doing justice to more serious content creation starts to approach Apple prices. Suddenly the software value-add of OS X and iLife '11 means that Macs should be on your short list.
Today's event was far more interesting to the educational market in terms of iLife than the new, widely rumored MacBook Air. Many of us were hoping for a new Air that was priced much closer to the iPad, making it more realistic for computer carts and 1:1. Maybe next year. Or maybe we just need to wait for some cheap Android tablets to meet most of our 1:1 needs.