Wednesday, January 16, 2008, 06:00 pm PT (09:00 pm ET)
First Look: Apple's new MacBook Air (with photos and video)
The MacBook Air has a MagSafe connector (below), but it is positioned on the bottom in such a way that you won't really be able to share power supplies between the Air and other MacBooks. The connectors are compatible, but the Air requires an angled plug in order to lie flat. The Air's 37 watt hour battery also sips less power, and only requires a relatively small 45 watt power adapter. MacBooks use a 60 watt adapter and MacBook Pros use a 85 watt unit, so the Air's adapter won't feed other laptops with enough juice to charge them.
Despite the modicum of ports, the Air includes a iSight camera and built-in mic for video conferencing, and even includes the MacBook Pro's illuminated keyboard controlled by ambient light sensors, making it easier to type in dimly lit locations such as on an airplane.
The other hot feature is its large multi-touch trackpad, which includes software support for an expanded set of gestures. Hopefully, Apple will be able to release these features for other modern MacBook models, too. In addition to the existing tap to click, double click to window drag, two finger scrolling, control + two finger zooming, and the two finger tap right click already available on today's MacBooks, the Air can also do:
- a three fingered navigation swipe that works like a swipe on the iPhone
- a two finger object rotation
- a two finger pinch to zoom in and out
The MacBook Air's new Trackpad panel in System Preferences presents a video demo to indicate how the various gestures work. Each gesture can be disabled independently. Apple reps demonstrated some practical applications of the new gestures in a theater presentation (below).
A Sealed Ecosystem
Another factor in delivering the Air as a light, thin unit is the use of sealed components. There's no detachable battery, nor is there a special access door for RAM or a panel that can be removed in order to swap out the hard drive, as is the case with the MacBook. Apple reps on the floor described the unit as having no user serviceable parts. However, the entire back plate of the unit is held on by ten standard phillips screws, just like the original Titanium Powerbook. Remove the cover, and you should be able to drop everything out rather easily if you are so inclined. Apple didn't let us do that at the show, however, even when we asked politely.
That screwed on backplate suggests that the Air is really not so much more closed than other Apple laptops, and is probably easier to pull apart than the MacBook Pro (and certainly far easier than taking apart the old iBooks). As with the iPhone and iPods, users will need to supply power before traveling rather than hope to rely upon an assortment of spare batteries.
Given the increasing prohibition of additional external batteries on aircraft, it's not hard to see why Apple chose to use a thin, custom built Lithium Polymer battery behind a screwed on cover rather than building on weight and thickness to deliver a self contained battery unit and user accessible cover with a locking system like the other MacBook models. In a car or on a plane, a user should have access to power, and the 5 hour run time rating means that the Air should last long enough to be productive in between power sockets.
RAM and Disks
That leaves RAM and disk expansion as the big question marks. The Air ships with 2 GB of RAM, which is soldered onto the main logic board and can't be expanded. That's a reasonable amount for a mobile-centric laptop. It seems smart that Apple is shipping the Air with enough RAM to be very useful, as it has skimped in that area in the past to drive down the entry cost. Being stuck at 2GB of RAM will limit the high end use of the Air, but it's not a high end machine anyway, it's a mobile system.
The only other options available are processor speed and the disk drive. The $1799 base model includes a 1.6 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB RAM, 80 GB 4200 RPM PATA drive (MacBooks use SATA drives), 802.11n WiFi and Bluetooth.
Upgrading to a 1.8 GHz processor costs $300, and swapping in a solid state 64GB Flash RAM drive costs $999. The high cost of Flash will probably go down rapidly over the next two years, but users who want the fastest and most power efficient system have the pricey option of living on the bleeding edge of technology. Apple reps said the machines on display were all using a standard hard drive. It seemed very responsive. Upgrading to the high end SDD option should both increase the overall speed dramatically as well as allowing the system to coast along for longer, just as Flash based iPods long outlast hard drive models with similarly sized batteries.
The Envelope, Please
Apple presented commercials for the MacBook Air which show it being delivered in a manilla office envelope, pulled out seductively, and then opened up to display the familiar Leopard background (below).
Once Apple releases the new MacBook Air in February, AppleInsider will present a closer look at its new features.
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