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MacBook Air (HDD model): an in-depth review

Video conferencing camera

We originally thought the Air supplied a high quality 1.3 megapixel camera for video conferencing with iChat and recording video and taking pictures with Photo Booth, just like the MacBooks and MacBook Pro. Of the other light and thin laptops we looked at, most supplied no integrated camera and the ones that did typically used a poor quality 0.3 megapixel unit that can't give as good of results.

It appears the Air uses a similarly lower end video camera. There is no resolution specification supplied, but it provides a visibly softer picture in iChat, and oddly enough, it does not work in Photo Booth at all. When launched, Photo Booth indicates no supported camera is installed. Hopefully this will be fixed shortly, as its a bit odd to ship a new model with an "iSight camera" that doesn't do what customers would expect from an iSight camera.

Multi Fingered Touchpad

While existing MacBook models already respond to multiple touch points, the Air goes further to provide pinch, rotation, and "three finger flick" gestures. These appear to be software features that Apple may port back to existing models. However, it's also possible they depend upon support in the new trackpad controller the Air uses, which has been identified as the same touch controller used by the iPhone. That further suggests that additional gestures developed for the iPhone and iPod Touch could be developed in concert with the Air and new MacBook trackpads that use the same sensor and controller.

The new gestures on by default are two finger scrolling (already supported on existing MacBooks); Screen Zoom, which uses control + two finger scrolling to zoom in and out (also supported on existing models, but not previously on by default); pinch to zoom and two finger rotate are entirely new features, and can't be turned off. Also new is the three finger flick, used to navigate back and forth through photos or web pages. It too is not possible to turn off from System Preferences. That doesn't seem like a problem, but it is interesting that there is no option.

Tap to click, double tap to drag, and "drag lock until you tap again" are all optional features left off by default, as they are on existing MacBooks. Two finger secondary click (right click) is also left off by default. That leaves pinch, rotate, and swipe the only new trackpad gestures that are as yet only available on the Air.

MacBook Air

Audio and Video input and output

The Air only provides a stereo headphone jack which lacks the optical audio support that the other MacBooks have. It lacks any audio input jack. It supplies a simple mono speaker and mono mic for video conferencing. Musicians and podcasters will need to get a USB audio interface to use the Air for those purposes.

The speaker sounds great for speech but only fair for music and movie playback. Even the MacBook Pros don't provide exceptional music playback from their small speakers. If you listen to music from your laptop, you probably already use headphones to do so. The Air has a standard headphone jack, but its location in the flip down port bay means that fancy headphones with a short, fat, or otherwise special connector might not fit well. Normal headphones work fine and sound great.

The Air's micro-DVI port supplies VGA and DVI output as well as composite and S-Video for use with a TV. VGA and DVI connectors ship in the box, but if you want to hook the Air up to a TV or lower quality video projector, you'll need the optional TV adapter. Most business-quality projectors have a VGA input that the Air can use without any optional dongles.

There's no video input options apart from capture devices you can attach via USB, and again, no workaround to directly importing DV due to the missing FireWire.

Will the Air Breathe Life into Ultra Mobile Laptops?

Most vendors of highly mobile laptop lines sell them to a niche market as high end luxury items. In many cases, these ultra mobile systems are less than practical, using ultra low voltage, single core processors that deliver slow performance, limited graphics support using small displays and only very basic video output features, scaled down keyboards that are unpleasant to type on, cheap and flimsy plastic bodies, and an assortment of ports covered up with rubber protectors fated to be mangled within the first couple months of use. Despite the weaknesses, they still cost $2000 and up once they're upgraded to a reasonable amount of RAM.

With the Air, Apple is targeting mobility users with a super slim, rigid metal case and offering liberal performance features that match the high end of the mobile class. However, it's also competing aggressively on price, with a $1799 model that undercuts less practical models by hundreds of dollars and doesn't need immediate upgrades. On top of that, Apple is leveraging its Mac OS X Leopard operating system, backwards compatibility with Windows, and the bundled iLife suite, which adds hundreds of dollars in value compared to typical PC offerings.

While critics complain about Apple's risk taking with a built in battery, an expansion strategy that relies almost entirely upon USB, or ask Is the MacBook Air Another Cube?, it seems they're missing the real value offered by the Air. It isn't designed to wow the crowd obsessed with specification numbers; it's designed to impress in design and execution. It's sexy, practical, powerful, and reasonably priced. It takes the MacBook into an entirely new weight class, and delivers itself as a razor thin, super light computer that can easily serve as a primary system for lots of mainstream users.

There are plenty of things to list as missing in the Air, but in many cases, adding them in would involve both raising the price and watering down the slick physical sophistication Apple delivered in its attractive, simple, and well designed ultra mobile laptop. The MacBook Air isn't a gamer PC, it isn't a workstation replacement, it isn't designed around optical media, and it won't plug into your DV camcorder, gigabit switch, or FibreChannel SAN. It doesn't have to. It's the delicious looking iPod laptop from the maker of the iPhone, and Apple isn't going to have any problem selling it.

Rating 4 out of 5

  • Highly mobile light and thin design.
  • Sexy, attention arresting appearance.
  • Impressively solid hardware engineering.
  • Leading CPU and graphics performance for its class.
  • Very practical full size, illuminated keyboard.
  • Bright LED backlit screen looks great and its environmentally progressive.
  • Innovative multitouch trackpad features work well.
  • Full featured video output options for a light mobile.
  • Runs quiet and cool even when cranking.
  • Very good WiFi 802.11n reception.

  • No built in WWAN options.
  • No FireWire or Gigabit Ethernet.
  • Peripherals and connectivity limited to single USB port.
  • Battery life closer to 3-4 hours; no add-on battery option.
  • Remote Disc needs more work.

Places to Buy

More on MacBook Air

MacBook Air unboxing: notes and high-quality photos
What's wrong with the MacBook Air?
MacBook Air internals revealed in tear-down photos
MacBook Air spawns new software solutions for missing hardware
Apple's MacBook Air support docs reveal one-of-a-kind solutions
How the MacBook Air stacks up against other ultra-light notebooks
MacBook Air's processor riddle solved
First Look: Apple's new MacBook Air (with photos and video)
High-quality photos and notes on Apple's new MacBook Air