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

Daniel Eran Dilger
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.

Continues: AppleInsider | How the MacBook Air stacks up against other ultra-light notebooks

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  • mmbossman

    This is one of the best explanations of why the MBA is different from all the other ultra-portable notebooks out there. I’ve seen so many detractors saying “Well, this has more RAM”, or “Well this other one has a 10″ screen, so 13″ really isn’t portable”, or “1.6GHz is such a weak processor, how can they charge $1700?”. However, when each competitor is taken as an entire package, it becomes clear exactly how much Apple has crammed into the Air, without a lot of the other sacrifices others make, at a competitive price.

    The only minor complaints I would have with it is only 1 USB port (would 2 really have added that much extra space?), and the lack of a swappable battery (again, is there any engineering argument against one?). Other than that, as a “take anywhere” machine I think it will make a big splash.

  • roz

    You left off an important category for comparison – 3g wan card integration. Lenova x61s allows you to BTO with Verizon or ATT card. The Air is a nice machine no doubt but integrated wan is cool.

  • roz

    Lets hope that next gen iPhone supports some kind of wireless modem…

  • fleshintension

    “lack of a swappable battery”

    As an exclusive user of laptops for the last five years, I never had to swap out batteries because I was too cheap to buy extra batteries for the 3 laptops that I’ve owned.

    In cases where I started to run out of juice, a wall plug was close by. If one isn’t available, turn off processes you don’t needs then use vi from your terminal to write your next business proposal: format later when you have a wall plug handy.

    The trick to never running out of juice when using a laptop, turn off WiFi unless you need to access the internet, and keep the power chord with you at all times.

  • mikeg

    Yes, this was a well-written article. Prince McLean shares some of Daniel’s excellent and lucid technical writing skills.

    There are (smart) design concessions on the MacBook Air for which I feel there are suitable workarounds. A lot of the articles/comments on the blogs are just plain whining in my opinion.

    I, too, have been using laptops exclusively over the last five years, and although the main computer in our home is a Mac Mini, I am planning to purchase a MacBook Air., which will be my primary computer (I really do not use the Mini that much). All I have to do is to decide if I want to spring for the SSD or go with the HDD, and upgrade in a few years. Spending less means more money for future offerings, like an iPhone rev 2. More toys is more compelling. Hmm, perhaps both. I just have to dig further into the piggy bank. :-)

  • Brau

    Personally I feel the MBAir was designed primarily to appeal to the Japanese market where wireless connectivity abounds. Mr Jobs has said in the past that he was disappointed with the uptake level there, where size, form, wireless features and portability are paramount to success. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, at this time, buying a MBAir would require many North American users to carry about a power brick, ethernet dongle, USB hub, optical drive and conversion cables, just to be prepared to use whatever wired services we encounter while traveling. The MBAir is well ahead of the curve here but is only Apple’s first attempt. I look forward to how Apple is going to address their lower end laptop line while following this form, the same way they did by shrinking the iPod, the Cube (Mac Mini) all the while driving prices down.

    I don’t find comparisons to Windows PCs fair, simply because the PCs don’t run the Mac OS. Hardened Windows users will likely never consider a Mac and Mac users only buy Windows based PCs under extreme duress. How Apple stacks up against PCs is often moot. The MBAir competes primarily with Apple’s own line-up where the typical Mac buyer will have to justify the size, weight, and price, over the technically much superior MacBook. However, Apple is in it for the long haul, has laid down the blueprint for the next line of laptops with the MBAir, and it will be very interesting to watch what develops over the next couple of years.

  • amyhre

    Another way I found to milk more out of a battery is to lower the screen brightness as much as is comfortable for you. I learned this while having to sit in an auditorium-style classroom for 3-hour long class periods away from a wall jack. Always managed to milk enough out of my 15″ PB (from which I’m typing this) that it’d still have enough power for me to plug in my cord and all that in the following 3-hour class (which was still auditorium-style seating but less crowded, allowing me to actually find a place to sit and jack in). On glossy screens, this might also serve to minimize some of the glare.

  • http://www.15thStreet.tv huebs


    I’m an avid reader of your blog and writer myself. I’m also a long time AppleInsider reader (nearly 6 or 7 years now). I enjoy your work on both sites. This is the second time in recent memory though that you have posted a link to a Prince McLean article without giving him credit before the jump. Being that I don’t know all the details, I won’t criticize (for all I know you helped write the article). However, if McLean did in fact write the article, it would be nice for you to give him the by-line on this post. Just my 2ยข so please don’t take it personally.

    Keep up the good work,

    Ben Huebscher

  • harrywolf

    Dan, are you Prince Mclean?
    Is this a pseudonym?

  • BjK

    I’ve made the assumption that ‘Prince McLean = Daniel’ since the Road to Leopard series on AppleInsider.

  • PerGrenerfors

    The only thing I’m a bit disappointed with is that the high-end MBA doesn’t offer more RAM (DDR2 is dirt cheap nowadays) than the lower end. Since they’re making two different motherboards already with different processors, it would have been easy for them to make it a true high-end laptop.

    Other than that I love that Apple is trying to ween us from our wired life style. Apple’s quick adoption of 802.11n may be one of their best moves ever. With laptops that aren’t full desktop replacements, the power chord is really all we should tolerate. This is like the original iMac all over, making us realize that a lot of the things we use (like DVDs) are soon to be legacy hardware.

  • Jon T

    Of course he is one and the same!

    Could anyone have ever doubted it?

    Dan must be a Gemini with a bit of a spit personality…

  • mmbossman

    @ fleshintension & amyhre:
    I personally have never had a second battery either, and have learned a few tricks to conserve battery energy. However, I know that the battery life of my Dell laptop (don’t bash me, my grad school made me get it) drops very steadily with normal use of the battery so that now, on a full charge, I can get roughly two hours. This is after replacing it 5 months ago, when my previous battery would give me 15 minutes on a full charge after 9 months of use. So at times I sure have wished for a second battery when a wall socket hasn’t been available. I hope that the MBA doesn’t end up having battery recall issues like half the laptop batteries (previously) on the market.

    Oh, and I still am curious if it was an engineering problem, and not just a “battery replacement $ making scheme” by apple. I heard it put best by some other blogger: “A non-replaceable battery on an iPod makes sense. One on an iPhone is a pain, but I’ve learned to deal. One on a laptop just isn’t practical”. So I have to assume some people, especially travelers, have found a replaceable battery useful in the past and since that’s one of the prime demographics this will be marketed to, why wasn’t it included?

  • http://windyroad.org windyroad

    The thing that amazes me most about the MacBook Air is how Apple had completely changed the target market for ultra-portables. Previously they were all targeted towards very niche markets.

    While the MacBook Air is not suitable for myself (I’m waiting for the new MacBook Pro’s), it would be ideal for my wife (albeit with Windows XP installed), who is an executive. It would also be ideal for cashed up high school and university students who would never need a MacBook Pro (e.g., Bachelor of Arts, etc students, not you IT/Graphic Design/Animation students).

    This is a huge market. Don’t be surprised if you start to see the MacBook Air’s becoming the laptop to own if you are an executive or a student with rich parents.

  • WholesaleMagic

    mmbossman – In my experience, I’ve found that nothing was created by Apple just for the sake of making money. The Apple attitude has been to create something extremely clever, then wait for money to roll in as a byproduct of people liking the creation.

    As for the MacBook Air, I think it’s a brilliant laptop. All the people talking about lack of ports, non-user replaceable battery, etc. have some thinking to do. It’s designed as a use-by-day laptop. At home, you have to have a desktop. Period. But during the day, the MBA is ideal for portable work.

  • Leonard

    I have read the reviews on the MacBook Air and don’t disagree that this is a great second computer for the road warrior and those who travel a lot and need/want to take their computer along with them, which all the reviews I’ve seen seem to key on.

    I think there is a second demographic, however, that the MBA will appeal to in a very positive way and that is those people, mostly older folks, who use a computer primarily for email and web browsing with the occasional web purchase/eBay sell/buy. These are the folks who currently sit at a desktop PC longing for the ability to join the wireless ranks and be able to use their PC anywhere in the house.

    What better way to bring these people into the modern world of computing then with this great Apple product

  • hrissan

    Btw, why you need 4 gigs of RAM on this? Half of it would not get used at all in most circumstances… Also Apple are limited by memory density. They use high density chips already and to fit twice as much memory they would need extreme density chips which are more expensive (if they exist today of course).

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  • http://www.thinkbasis.com/ nicknick

    Very well written post. I just found your site to day and I’ll be subscribing to the RSS from now on. Keep up the great work. You’re bang on about the cube and macbook air.

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