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

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


FireWire versus USB

In its space shaving and cost cutting, the Air also removes FireWire. While most PCs only use FireWire for DV camcorder input, Macs commonly use it for Target Mode, hard drives, file migration between computers, professional audio interfaces, and ad hoc networking as well. USB provides an acceptable alternative for hard drive use on the Air, but the missing Target Mode is a significant issue for Mac users. Apple partially addresses the missing FireWire link by including a new version of Migration Assistant that uses the network in place of a FireWire connection for importing user accounts and files. This works well enough but is slower, particularly over WiFi.

Without being able to boot up as a FireWire drive, or from another Mac in Target Mode, Air users might want to invest in an emergency USB flash drive or hard drive that can boot to perform disk repairs. At the same time, PC users have all been living without Target Mode features all these years, proving that it can be done. The Air also has an internal bootable volume containing the Apple Hardware Test diagnostics, which can be launched by starting the Air with the D key held down. AHT tests RAM and other components for obvious errors, but is really only useful in determining if major logic board problems are occurring. It does nothing to diagnose or solve file system errors.

USB and FireWire overlap in use, but are very different in their architecture. USB is a general purpose way to connect a computer to a simple peripheral. FireWire is designed to connect smart devices together, and therefore requires more intelligence built into each device. USB simply isn't sophisticated enough to emulate FireWire or act as a gateway for FireWire devices, so there isn't any way to connect FireWire camcorders, instruments, or other devices into the Air's USB port. Further, the Air's USB port can't reverse to act as a USB disk in Target Mode nor act as a networking adapter as FireWire can.

If you have actual needs for FireWire, the Air isn't going to work for you unless you can delegate your FireWire needs to another machine.

Ethernet jack versus optional USB Ethernet Dongle

Another feature aggressively pruned from the Air is an Ethernet port. Apple provides an optional USB 10/100 Fast Ethernet dongle for use with the Air, but most users should find its 802.11n WiFi adequate for most tasks. Apple recommends using Ethernet for migrating files from an existing Mac because it offers a significant advantage over WiFi in speed, but most users will only migrate once.

As a light thin mobile system designed around WiFi wireless networking, the lack of Gigabit Ethernet is less critical but is still a significant omission, particularly when combined with the missing FireWire. There's simply no ultra fast way to get data off the Air. The optional Ethernet dongle might solve this issue for users who need to move a lot of big files around faster than 802.11n can deliver.

Wireless N is still pretty fast for moving around reasonably sized files. The Air seems to have very similar WiFi reception compared to the recent generation of MacBook Pros, which is very good. In addition to being faster, Wireless N also has better reception thanks to its MIMO antenna technology. Apple seems to have Wireless N dialed in now, so reception isn't the flakey situation it sometimes was with earlier PowerBooks running Wireless B/G with less than stellar antenna designs.

Thanks to the simplified file sharing and share discovery in the new Leopard Finder, the Air can attach to servers or other personal file shares on the same network quite effortlessly. In a wireless home or office, the Air's featherweight portability makes it an excellent presentation system and mobile computer for writing, working with office files, web, and email. For the most demanding work, you might want to opt for a more powerful system, but the Air is by no means anemic, and its wireless networking is only a problem if you're moving around gigabytes of files on a regular basis.

Design Factors: Premium Features

In addition to the design aspects of the Air that might give shoppers a reason to upgrade to the full featured MacBook Pro or a competing ultra mobile system from another vendor, there are also design features of the Air that go beyond what other systems in its class offer. The gallery MacBook Air unboxing: notes and high-quality photos depicts some of these design details.

MacBook Air


Full sized backlit keyboard versus toy buttons

As previously noted, the Air's keyboard seems to have been a defining factor in determining its overall proportions. Rather than making a laptop that was just small, the Air delivers a full size keyboard and shrink wraps it in an aluminum frame. Beyond the full sized keys, it also sports illuminated key labels that respond to ambient light levels or can be manually adjusted in brightness. Apart from the Air, Apple only offers this feature on the MacBook Pro.

The ambient light sensor, located just to the left of the center mounted iSight camera in the top of the display bezel, is used to both dim the screen's backlight and illuminate the keyboard as the room's light level decreases. While the LCD backlight brightness seems to have a major impact on battery use, the illuminated keyboard doesn't have as obvious of a drain. In terms of both practical use and wow factor, the Air's use of an illuminated keyboard really sets it apart from competing models.

MacBook Air


Full sized display and resolution versus mini screen

Building the Air around a full size keyboard also means there is room for a full sized display. The 13.3" wide LED backlit screen is the same size and 1280x800 resolution as the MacBook. It appears to be more evenly lit when viewed at different angles than the MacBook and previous generations of the MacBook Pro, both of which use a conventional cold cathode fluorescent lamp backlight. Incidentally, the new LED backlight is also mercury free, which helps make the Air more environmentally friendly and easier to recycle.

While the Air has a wider margin around the screen than other MacBook models, the bright display really grabs attention and is well proportioned. The Air's solidly minimal aluminum frame acts as a neutral canvas to the display; the flat metal body is ornamented only by the beveled depression around the keyboard and a thin rubber bumper around the edge of the screen lid that allows it to close tightly without scratching the lid against the case.

On page 5 of 5: Video conferencing camera; Multi Fingered Touchpad; Audio and Video input and output; Will the Air Breathe Life into Ultra Mobile Laptops?; and Rating.