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Thursday, January 24, 2008, 07:00 am PT (10:00 am ET)

First HDD-based MacBook Air reviews hit the wires

Apple has seeded journalists at three of the nation's most widespread publications — The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Newsweek — with early MacBook Air review units. The first reviews from these publications began cropping up earlier this morning. A detailed summary of each review, and some observations, follow.

On average, the reviews are vague and offer little substance that couldn't be garnered from a press release or quick stroll by Apple's booth at last week's Macworld Expo. In addition, it appears that all three reviews pertain to the bare-bones entry level MacBook Air configuration with a 1.6GHz processor and 80GB hard drive. The high-end model with a solid-state drive was not reviewed.

Of the three, AppleInsider found Ed Baig's review for USA Today to be most informative, as he included a couple of fresh tidbits on the Air's design from conversations with Steve Jobs and made other unique observations. Here's an overview of the three reviews:

Wall Street Journal



"Apple finally has entered the subnotebook market, introducing a lightweight laptop meant to please road warriors. But, typical of Apple, the company took a different approach from its competitors," wrote the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg. "The result is a beautiful, amazingly thin computer, but one whose unusual trade-offs may turn off some frequent travelers."

Pros:
  • "It's impossible to convey in words just how pleasing and surprising this computer feels in the hand."
  • "The MacBook Air's screen and keyboard were a pleasure to use."
  • "The machine felt speedy, even with multiple programs running."
  • Mossberg was able to install and run Windows just fine via Parallels virtualization software on his test unit, though he did not specify whether that test unit was a 1.6GHz or 1.8GHz model.
  • Apple's "clever" Remote Disc software for wirelessly sharing another Mac or PC's optical drive worked fine in Mossberg's tests, in which he installed several new programs from CDs on remote computers."

Cons:
  • However, Remote Disc "requires disabling third-party firewalls on Windows machines. It also doesn't work for installing Windows on your Mac, for watching DVDs, or for playing or importing music." For those tasks, you need Apple's $99 MacBook Air external SuperDrive.
  • The sealed-in battery means you can't carry a spare in case you run out of juice, and you have to bring it to a dealer when you need a new one.
  • The thin case can't accommodate a larger internal hard disk. And the machine omits many common ports and connectors.
  • There's no Ethernet jack for wired broadband Internet connections and no dedicated slot for the most common types of external cellphone modems." So, "[i]f you're out of Wi-Fi range, you're out of luck, unless you buy an optional, $30 add-on Ethernet connector or a cellphone modem that connects via USB."
  • That single USB port is a problem, because so many peripherals use USB. You can buy a tiny, cheap USB hub that adds three more ports, but that's yet another item to carry.
  • Battery life failed to live up to Apple's claims, coming in at just 3 hours, 24 minutes when Mossberg disabled "all power-saving features, set the screen brightness at maximum, turn on the Wi-Fi and" played an endless loop of music.
  • Because of the Air's larger screen height, "the lid stands higher when opened than on most other subnotebooks. So it isn't as usable as some competitors when the seat in front of you in coach on a plane is reclined."

USA Today



"The MacBook Air laptop that CEO Steve Jobs unveiled last week turns heads. And now that I've used this Twiggy-thin, 3-pound marvel for several days, I can also report that it's a remarkably sturdy-feeling machine, especially given its size and weight," the USA Today's Ed Baig wrote after toying with his 1.6GHz loaner. "The skinny — the word can't be emphasized enough — $1,799 (and up) computer will make students and frequent business travelers gush."

Pros:
  • "The wide, backlit LED screen is lovely."
  • "[I]t is a yummy machine for people who spend a lot of time traveling."
  • "The keyboard keys light up the dark — there's a built-in ambient light sensor."
  • Spacious multi-touch trackpad.

Cons:
  • "Air does not come with the built-in ability to connect to a speedy wireless data network run by various cellular carriers. Jobs told me last week that Apple considered it but that adding the capability would take up room and restrict consumers to a particular carrier."
  • "With too few ports, a sealed battery that you can't replace on your own and no built-in CD/DVD drive, Air is not the ideal laptop for everyone."
  • "The 80 GB hard drive isn't generous by today's standards.
  • I ran into initial snags trying to remotely install software from the DVD drive in a Dell PC, until tweaking settings in Windows.
  • Baig rented The Cooler from iTunes as part of his test process, but on playback, the film "occasionally hiccuped" as he watched it on the Air.
  • The MacBook Air's $99 external SuperDrive is "awkward to use" sitting in coach on an airplane.
  • [T]here's no FireWire connector for folks wanting to hook up digital camcorders, or ethernet jack for tapping into the Internet when Wi-Fi is unavailable or poky."
  • Battery life came in at 3 hours 40 minutes as Baig surfed the Web, used Remote Disc and wrote. However, "he battery died an hour sooner when he watched The Cooler, but he did make it through the movie.

Newsweek



"Certainly Apple has fulfilled its goals in terms of thinness. The Air is a lithe sheath of aluminum so slim that it can slide under my office door," wrote Newsweek's Steven Levy. "Packed inside the shell — which is three quarters of an inch at its thickest point, trailing off to a wispy 0.16 inches — is two gigabytes of memory, a bright 13.3-inch screen (lit by cutting-edge LED technology) and a full-size keyboard. This is a top-of-the-line array for a subnotebook."

Pros:
  • "Did I mention that it's really skinny."
  • Multi-touch trackpad.
  • "The Air doesn't run as hot as Apple's other laptops—it's actually possible to work for an hour with the device on your lap without the feeling that your fertility is at stake."
  • "Its diminutive dimensions pretty much evaporate the eternal quandary of whether or not to take your computer along with you.
  • The Air includes "an excellent keyboard with its great automatic backlighting feature."
  • It's got a built-in video camera for conferencing.
  • "The screen is big for a subnotebook, and quite bright."
  • "Battery life is quite acceptable—I didn't have time for a definitive study but was getting only slightly less than the five hours per charge that Apple promises.

Cons:
  • Many people will likely have to pay $29 for a "dongle" that plugs into the USB port to allow the Air to be plugged into Ethernet.
  • "There's no slot to plug an EVDO card for cellular broadband, so if you want that, you must use a different USB dongle connecting to a card for that purpose.
  • "No Firewire port either."
  • A USB hub will be required for most people, but at the expense of "spoiling the Air's sleek figure."
  • Non user-replacable battery.
  • Remote Disc is tricky and not as effective as the physical drive it aims to replace.
  • 80GB standard hard drive too small — "Apple insists that if it used the 160-gig hard disk drive it offers in its high-end iPod classic, it would blow the profile of the MacBook Air."
  • The MacBook Air's omissions "are troubling — especially to someone in a down-turning economy deciding whether to spend a premium sum for a computer with subpremium storage."