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

 MacBook Air
Daniel Eran Dilger
Prior to completing our look at the MacBook Air, we asked readers to contribute questions and concerns about the new model in “What’s wrong with the MacBook Air?” The response was overwhelming, and helps underscore the fact that the Air has captured the attention of customers both with its new form factor and with its controversial design tradeoffs engineered to deliver its thin profile and light weight.

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

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  • nat

    That review was pretty helpful. I say nice job Daniel, but the author is Prince McLean? Pseudonym?

    However, I have seen MacBooks run videogames fairly well, so I wonder how much better they run games than the Air. It would also be nice to know how apps like GarageBand run – would that be in the realm of video apps like iMovie? I’m still using my 15″ PowerBook G4 (the last model made before the debut of the MacBook Pros) and during lengthy sets in GarageBand, it stops recording, telling me I essentially don’t have a capable-enough computer to record more than a few minutes of audio.

    I’ll be investing in a new laptop this upcoming summer. Would a MacBook Air be decent for some GarageBand, maybe a little iMovie experimentation, and light PhotoShoping? Also, when does anyone think those SDDs will become truly affordable?

  • elppa

    The Air may run some games better than the first MacBooks, because it has a more advanced graphics chipset. On the downside the base model has slower disk access and a slower clock speed (although the processor is the Core2 Duo, which may have a small advantage over the Core Duo).

    Either a Base MacBook or Air would be faster than what you have. The biggest problem with iMovie would be getting the Movie in without a firewire port on the Air.

    I know the MacBooks when debuted far outperformed the G4 iBooks they replaced.

  • nat

    Thanks for your thoughts elppa. The performance of current MacBook Pros is great, yet the size of the Air is so alluring. Unfortunately, I’ve seen numbers that seat it lower than the Mac Mini. I’ll have to check all these options the next time I go to the local MacXperts store.

  • Brau

    “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. ”
    So, rather than just let people stream a DVD from a shared drive, the MBAir forces people to violate the law and copy the media first. Makes perfect sense! Two hours of ripping and another two hours (or more) to transfer the massive file via WiFi to your MBAir. No thanks, I’ll stay on the clearly legal side and continue using my MBP to watch the physical DVD using my built-in drive.

    “Because it (MBA SuperDrive) 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.”
    This makes no sense at all. The very fact that the MBAir optical drive can run on the other side of a powered usb bus means it must be able to run on standard usb voltage and current. Further, if third-party usb devices can also plug directly into the MBAir’s native usb port then the voltage output from the MBAir must meet industry standards. Any extra *current* the MBAir could potentially deliver would make no difference at all to any usb compliant devices as long as it meets minimum industry amperage standards.
    There appears to be only one option left: The MBAir optical drive doesn’t work on other Macs and vice-versa because Apple doesn’t want it to and has invoked a software based limitation. It must be either a marketing scheme, some sort of hardware authentication, or an anti-filesharing DRM based tactic. If there’s another explanation, I’d sure like to know.

    “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.”
    That’s an extremely misleading understatement, I’d say, when other sources are reporting migrating over the much faster ethernet/usb adapter can take a veritable lifetime (about 5 hours) and attempting to do it via WiFi is crazy, if not futile. (http://arstechnica.com/reviews/hardware/macbook-air-review.ars/4) An ethernet-usb adapter is an absolute must. Good thing Apple is selling them so cheap at $30.

    “It’s the delicious looking iPod laptop” …
    I could not have said it better. It looks as beautiful as an iPod, it restricts media importing and filesharing just like an iPod, has to be authorized (via Remote Disk) to one computer just like an iPod (via iTunes), requires more break-out cables or dongles than an iPod, it requires proprietary batteries just like an iPod, and a proprietary optical drive as well.

    “4 out of 5 stars”
    All those difficulties you encountered only subtracted one star? While I understand this was written for AppleInsider, not one respected review has turned up on Apple’s Hot News RSS feed, for good reason, and neither will this one. They are all saying the MBAir, while beautiful and incredibly thin, has some major caveats and “may not be the laptop for you”. Instead of saying “I’m going out to buy one today” they’re saying “I’d buy one if I could afford it”. In journalistic terms that’s the kiss of death. Conversely, the iPhone, iPod touch, and MacBook/MacBook Pro lines got glowing reviews from almost every major source which were repeated on Apple’s Hot News the same day they hit the net.

    The MBAir will indeed sell because it is very beautiful and the latest “gotta have it gadget”, but it will be very interesting to see what happens after the bleeding edge early adopters are tapped out.

  • Dr. Fu

    Hi Daniel, just registered to say you this:

    You´re killing me, man.

    I think you want to comment THE big thing when you have enough material.

    But come on. Give us SOMETHING.

    I feel like cold turkey here back in germany. I desperately need this fix.

    Bye,
    Markus

  • Jon T

    The answer is that the Air is going to be a big hit for people who also have a desktop.

    As your only machine, the limitations might be too evident.

  • Jon T

    I think you need to follow the link above to the full article Dr Fu…!

  • Dr. Fu

    @ Jon T: maybe i wasn´t clear enough about my thoughts … i was talking about the Microsoft-Yahoo thingy ;)

  • Dr. Fu

    I already ordered a MacBook Air … coming February 9th ;) I also want to mention that this MacBook is for my Parents and will also be their ONLY machine, since it

    – will perform only light tasks,
    – they don´t use any further peripherals and
    – they don´t like the plastic on the MacBooks …

    of course i also ordered the external SuperDrive. And will get Time Capsule, too.

  • nat

    Hate to be off topic, but since I’m still running Tiger (10.4.11) on my PowerBook G4 (1.67Ghz, 80GB hdd, 1.5GB RAM, ATI Radeon 9700 w/ 128MB vram, 1440×960 res) and won’t be buying either a MacBook Pro or Air until late in the summer, would it be wise to upgrade to Leopard in the meantime? I can get it for $70 at the local university’s (MU) computer shop.

    Mainly, I’m interested in whether it would make the eventual migration to the new computer easier, or if the upgrade would introduce issues, take up considerably more storage space, or not be worth the price considering I also want iLife 08′ ($40 at MU). I’d appreciate any insight.

  • Jeroen

    nat,

    I seem to have almost the exact same computer you do, only difference is the video RAM (I have 64MB)

    Though I can tell you Leopard’s been a very welcome update to Tiger. If you’re in a network environment logging onto other computers’ shares in Finder then I’d say upgrading is almost a must. Finder doesn’t hang/timeout anymore when those remote computers are turned off or disconnected. This has saved me many minutes of beachballing already.

    Leopard’s Mail 3 is a serious improvement over Mail 2. QuickLook is worth another $20 dollars of those 70.
    Backing up via Time Machine is effortless (though mine stopped working now… hoping for a fix and more fine-grained management in 10.5.2)

    I don’t think it’ll have any impact on migrating. The install will take up to 3GB extra on your disk though.

    Seems like you’ll be using your computer for 6 more months or so, that’s USD $12 per month for Leopard. Sounds like a no-brainer to me :)
    There are a couple of things to consi

  • nat

    Jeroen,

    Thanks for the info. $10-$12 per month is definitely a bargain and it could potentially lengthen its life, though not much thanks to my backpack’s poorly padded laptop pocket that caused the display wire to disconnect intermittently and my friend spilling water, causing speaker hiss, a complete loss of the mic, and damage to the logic board. Just recently, the glue holding the display in degraded, disconnecting from the housing. :( I sort of can’t wait to be rid of this thing.

    Now for anyone awaiting a MacBook Air, I tried one out at the MU tech shop. Unfortunately, I didn’t check which processor it was using (though 1.6GHz vs. 1.8GHz isn’t a major difference), but it was certainly faster than my PowerBook G4 and I don’t believe it was the SSD model. It’s light, yet when I opened it, the screen size and keyboard really surprised me. I was expecting something closer to the 12in PowerBook G4, yet the extra 1.3in of screen real estate make a good difference. The screen was glossy, but not very noticeable, and I appreciated that the display didn’t rock back and fourth like the MacBook Pros heavier displays do. The built-in iSight had decent quality, which I discovered after opening PhotoBooth. Yes, it worked on the one they had in the store, so I’m not sure what AppleInsider’s issue was. Probably the only complaint I have is in the position of the hidden door that holds the ports. The door itself is fine, but because of the Air’s curved edges, I had to tip the unit up a bit on one side to reach and pull it open. Oh, and I’m not sure if this is due to Leopard or if its unique to the Air, but man it shut down fast! I hit shut down and in like 1/2 a second, it was off! The start up wasn’t as fast, but faster than my PowerBook.

    The decision between Air and Pro has just become considerably more difficult for me.

  • roz

    Brau you say:

    ““Because it (MBA SuperDrive) 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.”

    This makes no sense at all. The very fact that the MBAir optical drive can run on the other side of a powered usb bus means it must be able to run on standard usb voltage and current.””

    Actually it makes perfect sense. A standard USB is too weak to power a bus powered device that needs more power like any kind of mechanical drive. Apple wanted this to be bus powered so they increased the power of the USB on the MBA so that it would be enough to power the super drive along. Apparently they have a way to do this and still be compatible with lower powered devices.

    Now when you take the MBA superdrive and plug it into a stand USB it does not have enough power to operate. The is no great mystery here.

    I never really understood how weak USB bus power is until I bought a notebook sized 2.5″ drive enclosure for a spare drive. The box said bus-powered so I figure it was going to be like firewire, wrong! The box came with this crazy USB cable that expected me to use up 2 USB ports to power the drive. It was a mess. So I am sure that there is good reason for Apple wanting to up the power on that single USB port.

    It probably has some smarts that lets it look for a identifier to confirm that its connected to a MBA superdrive and then ups the power – other macs just don’t do that. Makes perfect sense.

    It would be nice if regular bus powered 2.5 hdd could be powered of that port too.

  • nat

    Well done, roz. Thanks for the logical explanation.

    I’d like to address a few of Brau’s criticism too.

    Brau said:
    “So, rather than just let people stream a DVD from a shared drive, the MBAir forces people to violate the law and copy the media first.”

    MacBook Air was built as a progressive notebook with decent battery life. DVD streaming would be old-fashioned since you could buy or rent movies from iTunes and Handbrake the rest of your collection. Whether that’s “legal” or not doesn’t matter to most since the average person doesn’t even know about Handbrake. Also, most watch DVDs on a TV using a dedicated player. Spend $100 if it’s that important to you.

    Brau said:
    “There appears to be only one option left: The MBAir optical drive doesn’t work on other Macs and vice-versa because Apple doesn’t want it to and has invoked a software based limitation. It must be either a marketing scheme, some sort of hardware authentication, or an anti-filesharing DRM based tactic. If there’s another explanation, I’d sure like to know.”

    While roz pretty much explained this, I’d like to add to it. Think about what you’re saying. Macs have had SuperDrives for years! They don’t need an external one with a short USB cable designed for MacBook Air. Older Macs wouldn’t have the software to know what to do with these drives. What would be the point?

    Brau said:
    “That’s an extremely misleading understatement, I’d say, when other sources are reporting migrating over the much faster ethernet/usb adapter can take a veritable lifetime (about 5 hours) and attempting to do it via WiFi is crazy, if not futile. (http://arstechnica.com/reviews/hardware/macbook-air-review.ars/4) An ethernet-usb adapter is an absolute must. Good thing Apple is selling them so cheap at $30.”

    Since you obviously haven’t migrated to a MacBook Air via WiFi, and the fact it’s pretty much a one-time process, how do you know it’s futile? Oh, right, you link to arstechnica.com, one of many tech sites that put down Apple on a regular basis for no substantial reason.

    Brau said:
    “I could not have said it better. It looks as beautiful as an iPod, it restricts media importing and filesharing just like an iPod, has to be authorized (via Remote Disk) to one computer just like an iPod (via iTunes), requires more break-out cables or dongles than an iPod, it requires proprietary batteries just like an iPod, and a proprietary optical drive as well.”

    How does the iPod restrict media importing? The iPod accepts a number of audio formats that easily syncs via iTunes with up to 5 computers – PCs or Macs. MacBook Air includes a small utility that lets either a Mac or PC to know it exists.

    More “break-out” cables? What?

    Neither the iPhone/iPod, AppleTV, or MacBook Air have “proprietary” batteries. They have BUILT-IN BATTERIES! There’s a difference. Brau, do you even have an extra MBP battery? :D You realize, that’s proprietary too, right?

    Brau said:
    “All those difficulties you encountered only subtracted one star? While I understand this was written for AppleInsider, not one respected review has turned up on Apple’s Hot News RSS feed, for good reason, and neither will this one. They are all saying the MBAir, while beautiful and incredibly thin, has some major caveats and ‘may not be the laptop for you’. Instead of saying ‘I’m going out to buy one today’ they’re saying ‘I’d buy one if I could afford it.’ In journalistic terms that’s the kiss of death.”

    The reason places like ars technica and computerworld are so negative, is because they’re headed by shills. If they and their readers would do some research on other ultra-portable laptops, they’d find the alternatives to be more expensive or considerably less powerful.

    Brau said:
    “The MBAir will indeed sell because it is very beautiful and the latest “gotta have it gadget”, but it will be very interesting to see what happens after the bleeding edge early adopters are tapped out.”

    Uh, then everyone else will grab em up. The MacBook Air is just reaching those early adopters and the ad for it has only been shown a few times on TV. By this summer or sooner, they’ll probably increase the hard drive space to 160GB with a 128GB SSD drive option, not that they “need” to.

  • Brau

    Well, so much for your “logical” explanation, roz, Daniel (via AppleInsider http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/08/02/09/early_adopter_issues_macbook_air_superdrive_remote_disc_and_install.html) has proven me right. Perhaps you should actually have some basic understanding of electrical power before you speak. It is not the voltage that restricts the optical drive. I quote:

    “For some reason, Apple doesn’t support the new SuperDrive on anything other than the Air. There’s no obvious physical reason for this; our previous observation that Apple was using a higher powered bus to drive the SuperDrive turned out to be wrong. It uses the standard 500mA USB power, and when plugged into other Macs, it shows up as a recognized USB device (below, plugged into a MacBook Pro).

    While Daniel sidesteps making any direct accusations, leaving out a driver to enable use of this drive on other Macs would make no marketing sense at all if they wanted to sell any. Apple could have released the driver with the last update. This optical drive could also be packaged at a reduced price for Air buyers and sold for more to others *if* Apple wanted to, so it’s not a “loss leader” as Daniel vainly asserts it may be. The fact is plain and simple – Apple does not want people using this drive to transfer media off the MBAir, just like they don’t want to let you transfer media via Remote Disk, have limited the AppleTV, and just like how they removed the audio/video output ability from recent iPods.