My Turn

The MacBook Air Misses the Mark

- 2008.01.17

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

Apple really missed the mark with the MacBook Air. Yes, it will satisfy the executive class, and the new svelte laptops will sell because they are gorgeous, but there's a huge group of Mac users (of which I'm a member) who are still waiting. We are the millions of faithful users of the marvelous 12" PowerBook G4, the "Little AlBook".

12inch PowerBook G4
12" PowerBook G4

Even today, five years after its introduction, my 12" PowerBook still garners compliments on its cuteness, flexibility, and capabilities. (I upgraded to a 1.33 GHz version with increased memory in 2004.) There's still nothing out there like it - not even the MacBook Air.

MacBook Air
13.3" MacBook Air

Yes, the MacBook Air is beautiful, but it's not what we were waiting for. Maybe I'll come around, but I was very disappointed on Tuesday, as I'm sure were many other Mac users around the world. As one guy on Slashdot said, "There's probably a market niche for this product, but I don't think it's as big as the one for the 12" PowerBook G4. I'm still waiting for a suitable replacement in that category."

Obviously, Wall Street agrees. Apple's stock price is way down. It dropped 20% in two days of trading since the MacBook Air's introduction on Jan 15.

Look how much we have to sacrifice to save 1.6 pounds (the AlBook weighs 4.6 pounds). Here are the MacBook Air's deficiencies.

  • No optical drive: You have to spend an extra $100, and it's another thing to lug around.
  • No stereo speakers: You need to plug in headphones for stereo.
  • No ethernet: Ethernet requires an optional adapter, which uses up the one USB port.
  • No mic input.
  • Only one USB port: Okay, a portable hub is only $10.
  • Small hard drive, only 80 GB, and slow.
  • Screen is only 1280 x 800 pixels.
  • Only a 1.6 GHz processor
  • No separate graphics processor
  • And it's too big!

The footprint of the MacBook Air is large, bigger than a MacBook. If I want a really light, thin, stripped down Mac for traveling, I've already got one: my iPhone.

Other manufacturers, such as Toshiba, have small, light notebooks with optical drives, so why did Apple decide to leave it out? As it happens, a few months ago the combo drive on my 12" PowerBook died, so I've been living without an optical drive for a while. It's not that much fun. It's a moderate pain every time you want to:

  1. install software from a disk
  2. play a CD or DVD someone gives you
  3. burn something quickly to give to someone
  4. listen to a CD
  5. watch a DVD

I admit, these things don't happen that often, but they happen regularly, and it's annoying not being able to do any of them. With video files being hundreds of megabytes or even gigabytes in size, doing everything wirelessly is not a quick and easy option. Sometimes a DVD is the best way to transfer info.

I bought external optical drives for my desks both at home and at work, but it means I have to physically be at those particular spots to do anything requiring a disk. I can't do it in the living room, in a meeting, or on a plane. This is an annoyance.

Yes, the wireless optical drive thing that Jobs demonstrated is pretty cool, but it still means you have to find a machine someplace where you can slip in a CD and you have to get up and walk around to do it. It's a real shame they left out the CD/DVD drive, but maybe I'm just old fashioned. Is the CD already going the way of the floppy?

My 12" PowerBook is my only computer. I got rid of my desktop machine years ago. So my laptop has to serve as a general purpose machine, not just something I take on trips or to meetings. This is why the MacBook Air is so disappointing.

Will Apple ever come out with anything to replace the 12" PowerBook G4? Or is the answer simply that they already did? It's called the 15" MacBook Pro.

If, like me, you are tired of waiting for Apple to replace your 12" wonder, then it would appear the 15" MacBook Pro is the only option. It weighs a little bit more than the PowerBook and it is quite a lot bigger, but not much larger than the MacBook Air. Remember, the 12" PowerBook is the same size as an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. The MacBook Pro at 9.6 x 14 is more like a big legal pad.

For only $200 more than a MacBook Air look at what you get in a 15" MacBook Pro:

  • 2.2 GHz processor instead of 1.6 GHz
  • 1440 x 900 pixels instead of 1280 x 800
  • Up to 4 GB DRAM instead of 2 GB max (both come with 2 GB)
  • 120 GB HD instead of 80 GB (upgradable to 250 GB)
  • A CD/DVD drive
  • Dedicated Nvidia Graphics card instead of Intel integrated which uses onboard DRAM
  • Microphone in
  • Optical mic in and sound out ports
  • ExpressCard slot
  • 2 USB ports
  • An ethernet port
  • 2 FireWire ports
  • 6 hr battery life as opposed to 5 hr

It would appear to be a no brainer. My feeling is the MacBook Air is simply not worth it. It's a fashion statement I don't need to make. I'll have to lay my hands on one in a few weeks when they are in stores to see if there's a physical allure, but on paper it does not look so good.

It will be interesting to see how the MacBook Air tests for performance. With the slow drive, the on-chip graphics, and the "special" (possibly compromised) processor, I have a feeling they will not be stellar. Otherwise Jobs would have shown some performance metrics when he introduced the thing. Those were conspicuously absent.

It's such a huge disappointment. We were all hoping for a truly viable smaller alternative to the 15" MacBook Pro. Now it seems that the 15" is the only reasonable way to go. The sad thing is: I am ready to buy a new Mac . . . like today. But now I am forced to wait again, probably at least six months (hopefully not too much longer) to see what happens. I believe that I am not alone. There must be millions of "pent-up-demand" 12" PowerBook G4 owners like me, and Apple is totally ignoring us.

I'm really torn. Should I buy a 15" MacBook Pro now or wait to see if Apple ever brings out a replacement for the 12" PowerBook?

I have the money budgeted to buy a new laptop today. My aging PowerBook has spots on its screen, dents in its case, a dead optical drive, worn out keys, and a broken latch. Plus I want to run Boot Camp and Windows, etc.

I need a new Mac, but I don't want to take a step backwards, or even sideways, with my next machine. It should be a significant improvement. A 35% weight reduction is not what we've been waiting for. The 12" PowerBook is already really light and pretty darn thin. That is not its problem.

All we want is a better screen, better memory, better performance, and maybe a few bells and whistles, such as the new multitouch trackpad, a backlit keyboard, and a MagSafe power connector. But that's about it.

Come on Steve, when will we get a replacement for the 12" PowerBook? The MacBook Air is not it.

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