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Monday, February 04, 2008, 05:00 am PT (08:00 am ET)

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


Design Factors: the Missing Features

The real controversies surrounding the Air are related to what it leaves out in terms of features outside of its strengths in mobility and performance. The primary worries relate to its design decisions concerning its optical drive, WWAN support for 3G mobile networks, FireWire, and Ethernet.

Built-in Optical Drive versus network Remote Disc or optional SuperDrive

It was widely assumed before the Air's announcement that Apple would deliver a thin new laptop in part by removing the optical drive. Most makers of ultra mobile laptops already do this apart from Sony, which specializes in getting a tiny optical mechanism inside its extremely small laptops. Optical drives not only take up a lot of space, but also help to consume battery power. Apart from installing software and serving as a floppy replacement, the main use for an optical drive is to play DVDs or CDs.

It's in Apple's interest to migrate users to iTunes media, so it has positioned the Air's custom designed SuperDrive as an optional accessory users might be able to live without. In order to make an optical-free system even more viable, Apple includes Remote Disk DVD and CD sharing software that allows Air users to set up a Mac or Windows PC on the same network as an optical disc server. Remote Disc was detailed in the article MacBook Air spawns new software solutions for missing hardware.

The software is easy to install and simple to use, but we ran into several problems with it. As Apple warned, it does not work with CSS encrypted DVDs. When I tried to play a DVD remotely, it mounted and launched DVD Player, began playing the initial FBI warnings, then stopped with an error that "disc copy protection could not be verified. The disc can not be played." (below) This seems to be related to the licensing restrictions on DVDs, and is not a technical problem Apple can solve. In order to play DVDs on the Air, you'll have to rip the CSS off them yourself using Handbrake, and then copy them over the network. DVD Player on the Air happily played my ripped DVD directly from a personal file share on another computer.

MacBook Air


Audio CDs also have issues, for reasons that are less obvious. When sharing a CD over standard file sharing, a client Mac can read the raw file and play it because there is no CSS encryption on standard audio CDs. By default, a Mac reading an audio CD over the network will open iTunes and copy the song over directly, essentially ripping the CD over the network. Both existing Macs and the Air can do this, although it requires logging into the remote Mac with a user account.

However, Remote Disc seems to have a problem with reading audio CDs. Apple warns that "Some CDs or DVDs may be unable to install over a network using DVD or CD Sharing if they contain some forms of copy protection" but also states "MacBook Air does not support playing DVD movies or burned or ripped CD media." That simply does not make sense. Burned CD media is not different than pressed commercial CDs, and "ripped CD media" is a puzzle of its own. What is that even supposed to mean, a CD that has been ripped, or that can be ripped? Perhaps Apple was trying to say "does not support ripping or burning using Remote Disc."

If you want to rip a CD on the Air without buying a SuperDrive, you can do it by simply connecting to the CD via the computer name under Shared in the Leopard Finder. You're currently out of luck trying to do that with Remote Disc. Whether this is an artificial, non-sensical limitation Apple purposely erected or just a bug in Remote Disc isn't yet clear. We also experienced intermittent problems with sharing standard DVD-ROM and CD-ROM media, too. All of them presented the same error: "the original item could not be found."

MacBook Air


MacBook Air


The DVD and CD Sharing server software that gets installed on the remote machine has some issues as well. On one Leopard Mac, the software appeared to work but wouldn't ever pop up the permission dialog when the Air asked to use the drive. On another Leopard machine and a Mac running Tiger, there was no problem with asking permission. Remote Disk is a great idea and has a clever and simple interface, but it does not yet work flawlessly, or even satisfactorily. Expect an update to improve things in the next few weeks.

The optional SuperDrive leaves less to chance, and has no issues with audio CDs or DVD movies. Because it requires more power than the USB specification supplies, the Air was specially designed to deliver additional power over its USB port. Using a hub allows you to power the SuperDrive while still using other USB devices. Using the SuperDrive will also tax the Air's battery however, so rather than using it to watch inflight movies, it makes more sense to rip them to local files or to use media downloads instead of DVDs.

WWAN radio or expansion bay versus option to use a USB Dongle

Many expected Apple to include a 3G radio for use with mobile data networks. Other laptops in the Air's class often feature built in support for EVDO or HSDPA networks, which require a data plan with a mobile service provider. However, a look inside the Air's case reveals there's no room for a WWAN radio and antenna and no space for an Express Card slot. There also appear to be no ExpressCard slot WWAN modules that support the Mac.

Users who want to access a WWAN service will need to use a USB adapter like every other MacBook user. The remaining complication is that some WWAN USB units won't fit into the tight space of the Air's port bay, requiring a USB extension cord. It might be tricky to find such a short USB extension. A more ideal solution would be to tether the Air to a mobile phone that supports data uplink, either using a USB cable or wirelessly. The iPhone, as all other phones from AT&T, doesn't support tethered data sharing from mobile phones to computers, unfortunately.

Another option for mobile users who want ubiquitous network access is one of the new portable WiFi wireless LAN routers that accept CardBus EVDO cards. This allows multiple WiFi devices, including the Air and iPhone, to access EVDO broadband mobile service.

On page 4 of 5: FireWire versus USB; Ethernet jack versus optional USB Ethernet Dongle; Design Factors: Premium Features; Full sized backlit keyboard versus toy buttons; and Full sized display and resolution versus mini screen.