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MacBook Air conditioning may not be so cool

This time last night, I'd just got back from the MacWorld keynote, relayed to a studio at the BBC from the Moscone Centre in San Francisco. In a daring move of almost antique proportions, I had decided not to take along a state-of-the-art laptop, HSDPA dongle, 12 megapixel DSLR camera, HD camcorder or 44kHz 16bit digital audio recorder, and not to blog, podcast, twitter, flickr, IM or stream from the event as it happened.
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Written by Rupert Goodwins on

This time last night, I'd just got back from the MacWorld keynote, relayed to a studio at the BBC from the Moscone Centre in San Francisco. In a daring move of almost antique proportions, I had decided not to take along a state-of-the-art laptop, HSDPA dongle, 12 megapixel DSLR camera, HD camcorder or 44kHz 16bit digital audio recorder, and not to blog, podcast, twitter, flickr, IM or stream from the event as it happened.

Instead, I turned up with nothing, recorded a light TV interview with News 24 beforehand, a breathless straight-from-the-event drivetime update with Radio 5live afterwards, and spent the intervening time sitting quietly in the audience and listening while all around me my fellow hacks tapped, clicked, snapped and swore.

It's all about style, baby. That and knowing that I was up against some serious monster bloggers...

24 hours for reflection later, how has Apple started 2008? The iPhone/iTouch stuff - meh. Time Capsule wireless-attached backup device? Nice idea. It'll sell in barely detectable amounts.

Video rental system with revamped AppleTV? If it works, it'll change the rules. Any product that relies on broadband networks not under its direct control delivering time-critical bandwidth en masse is a hostage to fortune, but would you want to disappoint Mr Jobs? And isn't Apple's bestie Google busy building out a throbbing arterial network of pipeage? (Prediction: this year, we'll hear some rumours about Apple/Google buying/merging with/strongly befriending some infrastructure/wireless operators. They wont come to pass: if they do, they won't work).

Enough of that. The big question. MacBook Air: can it has the pretty? Yes. ma'am, it can has the pretty. But it's a bit fur coat and no knickers.

I wowed with the rest of them as the keynote screen displayed the statistics, the shape and the complete image of the Air - and then I filed back to the aftershow press demo area. (OK, I got trampled in the rush to clear the studio as Jobs played his cleverest trick - putting celebrity defrost Randy Newman on stage. It worked far better than Aphex Twin's end-of-set trick of slapping a sandpaper disc on the decks).

There was a large table with lots of MacBook Airs and even more lots of keen young Apple people keeping the sharpest of eyes on large hacks with capacious pockets.

In the aluminium-clad flesh, the Air is yes, very nice and very thin. But it's not _that_ light - I've had my wonder glands for that calibrated by the Toshiba Portege R200 - and it's all a bit too dull in every other respect. Half the storage of a fat iPod Classic? Video out, a single USB port, a headphone socket and nothing else? Oh, there's the 802.11n - but I'll hold off on the excitement there until the standard's finished, and I can test my doubts about how well it'll work inside an all-metal shell. As for expandability: we're right back at the original Macintosh 128K user-proof box. Thou Shalt Not.

The backlit keyboard - now that, I like a lot. Everyone, steal this at once please.

Yet while the various multi-finger tricks on the touchpad are initially impressive, they really don't matter very much on a machine that also has a full-sized keyboard and a full-sized display. Don't write them off - many such interface ideas seem gimmicky at first, but prove themselves over time - yet their logic is nowhere near as clear as on pocket devices.

Add to that the sealed-in battery, the lack of optical drive ("It doesn't matter", said Steve, and promptly showed off two work-arounds that meant that yes, it does matter.) and the really rather air-raising pricetag, and we have an Apple product that looks good at first but proves a poor fit to the real world. It wouldn't be the first now, would it?

(Oh, and the special super-small packaging that Intel put around the Core 2 Duo chip inside the Air? Jobs made a big thing about how closely the two companies had worked together on this, and wheeled on Intel top dog Otellini who chortled about how challenging it had been, but the Apple people I asked afterwards didn't think that this joyful event conferred any sort of exclusivity on the chip to Apple itself. I don't think so either, and expect to see it inside all manner of competing products real soon now).

Tellingly, the conversation among the hacks at the reception afterwards confirmed another suspicion: that big price tag postively invites value for money comparisons with that goddarn Asus Eee. To see how that works, try a thought experiment where Apple, not Asus, launched a £220 computer with roughly the same spec as the Eee - and Asus launched a MacBook Air-alike. Where would the buzz be then?

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