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How the MacBook Air stacks up against other ultra-light notebooks

At last year's Macworld Expo, Apple's dramatic unveiling of the iPhone divided the world into two camps: those who were excited about the state of the art being pushed, and those who were irritated that Apple was the one doing it. This year, the role of the iPhone is being played by Apple's new MacBook Air.

As with the iPhone, Apple wasn't inventing a new category of product when it announced the MacBook Air. The ultra light notebook category has been steadily refined and advanced by Sony, Panasonic, Fujitsu, Lenovo, and many others; each manufacturer has delivered product lines designed to match their customers' needs.

Sony targets high end consumers; it leverages its physical media engineering prowess to build DVD burners into most of its models, something that few other light notebook makers even attempt to do. Sony's Vaio line is splashy and feature rich, but isn't commonly regarded as well built or durable.

Panasonic is known for its ruggedized Toughbook line, designed to operate in rough environments. Its models commonly trade off high end performance and features for extremely light weight and compact size. That relegates Panasonic's fans to mobile business users, and makes it less appealing to mainstream consumers.

Lenovo, which bought up IBM's PC division, continues the venerable ThinkPad line as a highly regarded workhorse that delivers top performance in a thin but well constructed case —all work and no play. ThinkPads are also known for their long usable life and their fingertip controllers rather than trackpads, something that polarizes users for or against based on their personal preferences.

Fujitsu is another leader in light and thin notebooks, but also makes more general purpose machines that borrow from its leading edge thin designs. Its larger sized lines are powerful and economical while still remaining thin and fairly light. Fujitsu also makes Tablet PC convertible machines with the flip-around monitors that have yet to prove popular because they are gutless and expensive.

Asus, best known for its popular $350 EEE PC toy notebook, is also making inroads into the light notebook business. It's targeting low powered thin models with small but higher resolution displays than most of the competition.

Of course there are many other makers of light notebooks. Dell and HP both make lighter notebook models, but none are really comparable to the top competitors in the ultralight market; instead, those two companies target the mass market, which hasn't yet started chasing light thin notebooks because of the engineering tradeoffs they require to drop the pounds and millimeters and their commensurate price tags.

Enter the MacBook Air

With Apple now competing fiercely against Dell and HP for mainstream notebooks and rapidly gaining market share, it's no surprise that Apple is leading the two contenders in its move into the ultra light notebook market.

Who is in the market to buy an ultralight Mac? Apparently Apple's market research is telling the company that it's well heeled business people who demand mobility first. Steve Jobs has previously talked a lot about building cheaper things that can be sold in volume rather than expensive things that target a niche market. The iPod, iPhone, Apple TV, and other recent products all fall into lower priced devices that the majority of Apple Store buyers can afford.

How The MacBook Air Stacks Up Against Ultra Light notebooks

How The MacBook Air Stacks Up Against Other Ultra Light notebooks.

So what about the Air? At $1799, the new model is nearly twice the cost of an entry level MacBook. Clearly, it's not directed primarily at education. However, compared to other ultralight notebooks, the Air is very competitively priced. While clearance deals can be found among last year's models, the current Sony Vaio G series, Lenovo ThinkPad X60, Panasonic Toughbook R6, Fujitsu LifeBook s6510, and Asus U1F are all at least within $100 of the Air, and most of them are priced significantly higher when configured with the same processor, RAM and other core features of Apple's entry level Air configuration.

The Illusion of Features in Complex Configurations

Apart from the models I looked at in detail, all of the ultralight makers also maintain various other model numbers and lines that all deliver slightly different mixes of features. The common thread is that each model also offers a bewildering variety of options unto itself. However, it appears that all of this choice is largely designed to mask reality behind attractive sounding numbers.

Base model prices frequently exclude Bluetooth and Wireless N and most of the models ship with 1GB of RAM or less in the default configuration, neither of which could be described as reasonable when running Windows Vista to do the actual work buyers expect to do with their new ultralight notebook.

Also, many ship with a lean battery which the manufacturer includes primarily to advertise a slim profile and light weight. Over half of the models I looked at recommended a big strap-on battery that made the unit considerably heavier and bulkier, just to pull off the advertised "maximum" battery life ratings. Additionally, while most of the models advertise around 8 hours of battery life, they hit that target by turning off WiFi. When wireless is turned on, they actually achieve about 4 hours of use, based on tests performed by reviewers. Apple only advertises one number for the MacBook Air: 5 realistic hours of life with WiFi running.

On page 2 of 2: How to Be Thin; What's Missing in the Air; and The Very Hot Air.