Is the 2010 MacBook Air just an overpriced netbook?

Having tested Apple's new ultralight MacBook Air for over a week, one and only one thing tempers Jotman’s enthusiasm for this beautiful new travel laptop.

The 13" MacBook Air.

Apple Computer's new 11" and 13" MacBook Air laptops are not the least expensive machines in the world, but neither is Lance Armstrong's racing bicycle.   If you were to tell Lance Armstrong his bike is "overpriced," he would just assume that you don't know what you're talking about.

That's how I feel about some comments people are making about the MacBook Air.   I would like to address a ridiculous misconception that has sprung up across the Internet:  the idea that the new 11 and 12" inch MacBook Air notebooks are overpriced.

My experience with the new 13" MacBook Air
I picked up a new 13" MacBook Air last week.   I surprised myself by having opted for the 13" rather than the 11" model.  Given that it has a full sized keyboard, I view the 11" model as sufficient for many purposes.  It did bother me somewhat that its screen was not taller.  Having used an ultralight 12" laptop for years, I saw that the higher processor speed and extra storage capacity of the 13" model might open up exciting new possibilities.    Moreover, although the 13" is half a pound heavier than the 11" model (2.3 lbs vs. 2.9 lbs),  the relatively robust storage capacity of my 13" unit's configuration (256GB vs. a maximum of only 128GB for the 11") meant that I would not be so tempted to schlep a portable hard drive, saving about as much weight.  Also, the extra battery life (7 hrs vs. 5 hrs for the 11") is appealing.  Here are some other things I like about the 13" MacBook Air:
  • With 4GB of RAM, the 13" MBA is a serious laptop computer.  I can't think of anything that I am likely to want it to do that it will not be able to handle.    
  • The SDRAM means chores like copying a few hundred photos off my camera is blindingly fast.
  • The keyboard has a much better feel to it than I would have imagined.
  • It feels super fast.  Programs load quickly.  I don't have to wait half a minute for Scrivener (an alternative to MS Word) to load.   Web pages load quickly.
  • It wakes up immediately from sleep.  It shuts down just as fast. Waking up from a power-off state doesn't take more than a few seconds.  
  • I don't have to continually think about the battery is holding up.  In fact, it's not a crisis to forget the power adapter. Speaking of which, in the past, why have so many laptops come with  needlessly heavy power adapters?   I love that the MBA's power adapter unit and cord is tiny.   
  • The speakers are remarkably good
  • The 13" model comes two USB ports and SD card reader (Why the 11" model has no built-in SD card reader is a mystery to me).
  • This thin slap of aluminum never gets hot.  In fact, it barely even seems to get warm.  This fact ought to keep the processor operating at a fast clip.   Excess heat can really slow a machine down.
A few things about the MacBook Air that I'm not so keen about:
  • I wish the trackpad had buttons instead of making you push down on the whole trackpad which makes a fairly loud sound when I click it.  The trackpad clicker is also far stiffer than I would like it to be.   Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to configure the trackpad, and shortcuts you can learn, such that you might never need to actually press down on the thing.   Nevertheless, I'm still clicking it frequently out of habit if not necessity.   
  • The ultra-thin screen seems to have some issues.  For example, it is said to be somewhat limited in the range of colours which it can display.  Also, some users are reporting screen-related technical difficulties.   
  • I wish the MacBook Air had firewire, so it could take advantage of fast external storage.   But the amazing speed of the internal SDRAM almost makes me want to forgive of Apple for this silly  limitation.
  • I don't like that the AppleCare warranty doesn't cover accidental damage.  Dell, for example, offers such a warranty on its laptops.   Owners of the previous edition of the MacBook Air had problems with a faulty hinge, and a number of people appear to have had difficulty persuading Apple that they had not broken the hinge themselves.   Who wants to worry about things like that?
Benefits of the 11" and 13" MacBook Air ultralights
Both the new MacBook Air models are good value for the money if you consider the MacBook Air's value proposition. That is, if you personally place a high premium on the following factors:
  • High processing speed to weight ratio
  • High screen resolution to weight ratio
  • High memory to weight ratio
  • Durability/build quality to weight ratio
  • Battery endurance to weight and power ratio.
If you want the maximum computing power for the minimum weight, then what laptop even comes close to either of the new MacBook Air?    I had been shopping for a comparable Windows machine (the type of machine I ordinarily buy), and couldn't find anything suitable.  Today, the 11" and 13" MacBook Air machines appear to be the undisputed rulers of the ultralight laptop category.

Netbooks and ultralight laptops: separate categories
Most laptop makers stopped making quality lightweight machines a few years ago.   Too many companies behave as if the only kind of lightweight laptop consumers are willing to invest in is a disposable one.  They make the curious assumption that consumers concerned about size and weight only want netbooks.  Just what does a netbook entail?
  • a small screen with a resolution that's 5 years out of date
  • an unresponsive trackpad
  • processing power that's 5 years out of date
  • a children's sized keyboard.
  • a mechanical hard disk drive.
  • a relatively heavy machine. (Few, if any netbooks, are as light as the 11" MBA. In fact, most are heavier than the truly powerful 13" MBA).
  • cheap build quality that means the device is unlikely to last (and it makes little sense for buyers to put such inexpensive devices under warranty).   
Admittedly, some netbooks don't fall short with respect to every point listed above, but all the netbooks I have inspected have had several such serious deficiencies.  Watching an underpowered CPU attempt to run Windows is a discouraging sight.   I still use an ultralight Dell that I bought back in 2006.  Not only did my ultralight come with a good warranty, it continues to outperform even the best netbooks on some of the above criteria.  

What about other "real" laptops?
Although most big computer companies stopped making ultralights several years ago, they have continued to manufacture laptops they designate as "lightweight."   But a 2 kilo (4-5 lbs) laptop is not what I consider a pleasure to carry far.  Lightness is a relative term, and what most computer manufacturers today call lightweight is a far cry from ultralight.  Compared to either of the new 11" or 13" MacBook Air notebooks, all the other comparably powered laptops on the market today are heavier -- most by at least a pound.

This isn't to say heavier laptops and inexpensive netbooks are not worthwhile. It depends on your circumstances.  In other words, if you have no plans to race across the Alps, you probably won't have any need for Lance Armstrong's bicycle.   Just don't call his machine overpriced.

Although I certainly would not call the new MacBook Air overpriced, I believe lightweight, potentially fragile laptops costing well upwards of $1,000 should come with the option to purchase a more comprehensive warranty than is currently available from Apple.    That's the one and only thing that tempers my enthusiasm for Apple's beautiful new travel laptops.

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