Macbook Air analysis & overview

The Macbook air (dubbed the McAir by moi), aah contraversial topic and I really don’t know why it’s simple. It is by no means a bad machine so people stop complaining it is very limited and no way on earth I would buy myself one (more on that later) but for certain people it is fundamentally perfect. I will explain using a member of my family as a case study. What does she use the computer for?

MS Office, internet browsing, research, email, listening to music rarely or quran and reading digitized stuff (maybe chat as well); also note she needs a backlit keyboard.

Also of note she does not install “anything” and uses the optical drive once every six months (no ODD in the McAir), doesn’t do video work (GPU though adequate not a concern + no firewire), use an external display (though adaptors included), back up large chunks of data at once (again no firewire), does not really run multiple memory hungry applications and does not (unlike me) use multi tabbed browsing to open up to 20 pages at a time (some containing resource hogging interfaces, flash ads, video ads and oh my lord even games -I HATE THAT DRIVEL) and doesn’t use wired internet (wireless all the way), the only thing that is ever attached to the computer is the power cord.

She is a heavy computer user in terms of hours spent, but at the same time does by no means stress the system and has no need for most of what her current system has to offer (macbook pro, main attraction was 1st its a mac, 2nd it has keyboard backlighting). The computer though it will be her primary computer is not the households main computer. Her needs are modest with the only specifics being that I can maintain it, she can use it comfortably, the lighter the better, battery life not critical but highly desirable and keyboard backlight has moved from a nice feature to a must. That is the simple explanation, brace yourself for the rest.

I will try now to asses some of the McAirs shortcomings (some are listed above some are not and some are just absolute gibberish), Im not making excuses Im putting things into a different perspective and how relevant or relevant they might be according to usage:

McAir has 2 options remote disk and external drive. Remote disk is limited; No OS installation or recovery and means you would have another (primary) computer. If you buy an external drive that is an additional cost to take into account. Boo. Well not really a big deal. The McAir is likely to be a companion computer (more than likely) which as far as Im concerned is what laptops are for. I always recommend that people buy an external ODD with there laptop, bus powered or not and always tray loading, reason being laptop optical drives are not durable, reliable or robust as external (especially full sized) drives. They are less susceptible to read and write errors, can read oddly shaped discs and those damn annoying discs with paper labels that keep getting foisted upon me by my company and RPC2 is practically non existent (or not enforceable?) on externals. So practically speaking it is a none issue because you should have an external drive anyway. What annoys me is that mine is firewire and bus powered, no firewire on the McAir.
Writing this article i realize that my disk drive is actually not working.

RAM fixed at 2GB
I don’t get what’s the big deal, 1GB is adequate (ok nowadays its a stretch with integrated graphics), honestly for a light duty system to need more than 1GB means something has gone awry. Offcoarse 2GB becomes more necessary as integrated graphics are used and to make up for lackluster HDD performance provided by a 1.8″ HDD (more on that below). Many (intel chipset limitation) last gen (+6 at the time of writing) and even some currently sold laptops are limited to 2GB (sometimes 3GB), 4gb is the barrier so far for notebooks. I think it is in most cases just the concept of not being able to upgrade and the loss of bragging rights (Im not being nasty Im being realistic).

Integrated graphics: they be like nah so good
They are not so bad either. x3100 is not so bad it is practically equivalent to the 5200go on the old power books, and it supports hardware T&L.

Intel GMA x3100 benchmarks and related:Macworld’s McAir benchmarks

These benchmarks I featured previously (as a point of reference):Macworld’s macbook SR benchmarks

Barefeats Macbook SR benchmarks (published as part 1, part 2 and part 3)

The problem I have with the X3100 is NOT the performance, I don’t mind lowering my systems settings (an art form in it self) to get optimal/acceptable performance. The problem is the lack of compatibility information, intel only has info on the gma950 (thats where you get directed to eventually if you look). If anyone has a resource that can be referenced please enlighten me. If you link to gma950 list I will delete your post cause Im just like that. If it works with the unreal 3 engine it will be a great reference (since a few developers license the engine).

Small Slow Disk (the other SSD :P) OR expensive Solid State Disk (ok thats the “real” SSD)
The 2 gb and adequate chip cache are a good buffer but this is one of the more legitimate arguments, not being able to upgrade the McAirs hard disk is a bigger deal for me than the ram, and other notebooks in this weight class (I mean that literally ignoring form factor). The Solid State Disk drive offcoarse is a much better option in most scenarios (there are benchmarks on barefeats and thg & many other places so I wont bother linking to benchmarks unless they are requested) most obviously besides size. Apple only gave the drive 5mm of breathing room hence 80GB being the maximum. Im using 70GB of a 160GB disk now and I still have quite a bit to move on (I work on a lot of video), Im probably upgrading to a larger HDD even because of my needs (DV video takes up alot of room). 80GB is pushing it but manageable for most people with a conscience and/or self control that are not media junkies or thieves, but also alot of people may legitimately need more space. 64GB is unthinkable for me, i mean i can pull it off but i won’t like it. To me USB storage is not an alternative because USB is so damn slow for mass storage, though most people don’t know the joy of firewire like I do, so you can either manage or you can’t. Get rid of garageband, idvd and their components if you don’t use them, saves oodles of space (4GB at least which is like 5%). On to the next issue.

CPU 1.6Ghz? 1.8Ghz? Aint so fast aye
You can’t complain much about the CPU considering the performance per space provided and comparing it to other laptops in its weight and volume class, the biggest flaw though would be the power consumption, more on that later. It is not impressive but by no means inadequate or disappointing by the large.

Battery life
Realistic estimates (mostly mac centric i confess):

Generic laptop 1-1.5 hours

upper middle class laptop 1.5-2 hours with bigger battery

Multimedia centric “upperclass” Wintel notebooks 2.5 hours

McAir 2.5-3 hours

Macbook Pro 3.5 hours

Macbook +4 hours

PC “ultraportable” class 3.5-4 hours

Longest you can hope for 5.5 hours (VAIO TX)

When i have the choice i go for dvd playback is a benchmark, or author assessed battery life with low brightness wifi on, macbook is my own laptops rating which i give 4-5 hours depending on use, almost 4 from dvd benchmarks. There is alot of variance offcoarse depending on usage. Lets say 20% either way when your dealing with more than 2 hours of battery life. When dealing with notebooks in the “ultraportable” class similar/comparable compromises made in performance and optical drive to McAir, super battery class like the VAIO TX, Fuji Lifebook often have notably lower performing but more efficient processors (1.2Ghz). Offcoarse the McAirs battery is not user replaceable so you can’t carry a spare (Im too stingy/price conscious to buy a spare anyway)

Battery life is not bad but it is not as good as it should be

Connectivity: USBx1, FIREWIRE?,ethernet, uDVI, Card Reader, Expresscard etc…
Its Apple so you don’t expect a 13in1 card reader or whatnot, Im personally in favor of not having card readers and legacy ports i will never (i mean never in my case) use, because they drain power and the card reader piggybacks on the USB bus robbing you of bandwidth (I be the kind of guy who goes into a PC bios disabling ports and devices I won’t use, don’t do that unless you know what your doing though).

Lack of expresscard is unfortunate but no big deal, it is more the concept of it not being there rather than the impact (not everyone can afford or is silly enough to spend on mobile broadband and you can get that via USB). An expresscard slot though could have made up for the McAirs other connectivity shortcomings though likely hurting the form factor.

Micro DVI, not much to say. At least it comes with the adaptors i guess. Needless to say not compatible with mini DVI adaptors (my main gripe)

Firewire and Ethernet are the biggest (read stupidest) omissions. FW800 or even FW400 would have meant that fast portable storage would be far more practical and ethernet is just realistically necessary, I would of considered the McAir if it had Firewire and ethernet, without them its useless to meFW800 is superior to e-Sata by virtue of providing bus power so I don’t consider it a desirable addition for most scenarios.

1 USB port is bad but survivable though seriously limiting. Especially considering the lack of firewire the McAir should have 2 USB ports. I use bluetooth for for any external keyboard and mouse so thats not an issue for me.

Also of note is no line in audio and a mono speaker (stereo affect practically irrelevant on small laptops in the first place though).

Screen? Resolution and Gloss
I don’t like glossy screens. They enhance contrast at the expense of colour accuracy, they are also reflective which is a huge negative in well lit or daylight conditions though this is manageable with a suitably bright display. This depends solely on your taste and preference wether you prefer glossy or matte screens. As for the resolution i think it is just about right, I really don’t understand the attraction of unreasonably high resolution screens which offcoarse put more load on the computer to render more pixels for anything scaled according to the screen size (in pixels) and that makes text practically unreadable, I mean more screen real estate (pixels) in the same area is good and all but its pointless when GUI elements and text are crippled, making people glue themselves to the screen to make it usable and for them to appreciate their “HD” experience (curses and profanity onto HD).

Now onto some positives:
The McAir is undeniably an enticing mix of form and (limited) function. It is in the weight class of its own considering its size, which provides it with premium physical screen area. Offcoarse it has Wifi, Bluetooth,a webcam and backlit keyboard with reasonable performance with descent though not great battery life. Basically like all “seduced” reviewers have said if you can live within its restrictions (which more people can than they know or are willing to admit) comfortably with understanding its limitations it is a good buy and reasonably priced ,though not as competitively as it should be, consider the an external USB ODD a necessity and add it to the price (Apple’s drive or otherwise). In my opinion Apple could of made the machine alot more practical and more appealling to a broader demographic. Several avenues were available; simplest and most obviously was adding a second USB port which could double as an ethernet port with the available adaptor while allowing another device to be plugged in, or at least to be able to use the external ODD along with another device at the same time. Another possibility would be adding firewire (the real full size variety not the sissy Wintel PC laptop i.Link junk), though it might strain the battery it makes external storage alot more feasible and the capability to import (a little) dv footage and wired PC to PC networking. Adding both would give you separate ethernet, firewire and USB capability. Those changes would have made the McAir alot more appealing to me and many more people I would wager. Also this device seems incredibly seductive to people who get their hands on it so pricing it around 1500 rather than 1800 $ or bundling the optical drive at least would make it more approachable.

Wow i wrote alot more than i thought I would, just a bit more. I want to close by saying you have to appreciate Apples stupidity/vision, people (not the media offcoarse) would find a 12″ -4lb. Macbook with a backlit keyboard, powerbook 12″ calibre speakers, +2 hours battery and the same or better ports (FW800) alot more practical or appealing to a much broader demographic. Im probably getting my case study (from the begging of the article) one as an overdue gift. Im tired, let it be known Im in the Kuwait airport first class lounge quite tired and in my uniform on a split duty sector.

UPDATE 03June08 This article has proven to be fairly popular, I have purchased a McAir for my mother and she seems very happy (1.6ghz 80gb) fulfills most her needs she has been using it about 2 months now, I think I might do some tinkering with it and write a follow up article. I plan on maybe setting up Time Machine for her as well so I might do a write up on how that works.


One thought on “Macbook Air analysis & overview

  1. Oh! Great job!
    Very interesting and helpful post.
    Thx, your blog in my Google reader now
    We’ll expect many new interesting posts from you đŸ˜‰

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