Not Buying It

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 10:00 PM

The MacBook Air is, at first glance – or really any glance – one of the most impressive looking little laptops ever to appear. Anyone who hauls a laptop around a lot would be hard pressed not to be excited about the prospect of a good, lightweight laptop with a full sized keyboard. For me, the easy to carry PowerBook 12” has long served as my trusty mobile companion and I was excited about the idea of a lighter, newer model to follow in its path. Having seen the MacBook Air, it seems in many ways to be the true successor to my PowerBook – but if I were shopping today, a MacBook Pro would get my money.

In his keynote on Tuesday, Steve Jobs made a big deal of the idea that the MacBook Air was a device designed to avoid the compromises of many ultra-light computers, such as those from Sony’s VAIO line. To be sure, in many ways the engineers did avoid those pitfalls with the Air – it has a normal processor, a full sized keyboard and good screen. Nifty multi-touch gestures, which we can only hope will show up on all Apple laptops in the future, round things out nicely. Toss in Apple’s signature styling and it seems like a winner. I fully expect it to sell well for a product in its class.

But, it missed the point that many former PowerBook 12” users have been trying to raise: we want a smaller MacBook Pro; we want a professional grade laptop without a large screen. While Apple seemed to always view the PowerBook 12” as an ugly duckling, it was in many ways the perfect laptop for the road: it featured most of the same impressive specifications of Apple’s larger PowerBooks – the same speedy processors and a good video card, for example – while fitting into a small chassis. It was not the thinnest PowerBook, but it was the smallest and lightest by virtue of removing the larger screen that many people simply did not need. The point of buying the 12” was neither to find the most affordable Mac laptop (it wasn’t, that was the iBook) nor to pay extra to make a fashion point, but to get a computer that was small and still capable of being a serious workhorse.

The PowerBook and MacBook Pro lines have always been attractive for a key reason: they have combined the types of features that usually show up in “desktop replacement” class laptops with sizes somewhat more along the lines of ultra light laptops. They were neither the thinnest nor, perhaps, the fastest, but they struck up something of a balance that suits a vast majority of people very well.

The same cannot be said of MacBook Air. It is great for people who need the absolute least amount of weight to lug around. It is also great for people who simply want to have a device that will attract attention – if this laptop doesn’t, well, it seems likely nothing will.
Source: Apple, Inc.
But, it fails in the point that made the PowerBook 12” strong: it does not have the same basic feature set as the MacBook Pro. In fact, it is for all intents and purposes really a lesser system than its cheaper sibling, the MacBook, in every respect other than thinness. It has the same size and resolution screen, a slower processor, the same integrated video card and so on. If thinness and a little less weight are not absolute requirements, it seems hard to justify a $1,799 laptop with a slower processor over a $999 laptop with a faster one.

Clearly, the MacBook Air is a niche product; the laptop many of us were hoping for was not. By keeping the specs at the MacBook level (or below) while charging a premium, the MacBook Air seems like it is in an uncomfortable position for most users. Had it been just a bit thicker and packed with more of the MacBook Pro’s feature set, it could have been perfect for an absolutely huge number of users.

There is enormous potential for this product line in the future, let there be no doubt. If Apple can push up the specifications or bring down the price somewhat, the Air will have a chance to truly shine. As it stands, however, I sadly find that if my laptop died today, it would be the 15” MacBook Pro that would replace it, and not the 13” wonder that I had so anxiously anticipated over the past few months.

I really wanted to like this machine — and I do admire its amazingly svelte form — but the MacBook Air misses a mark it did not need to miss because of its unnecessary quest for the ultimate in thinness, and in my book, that is unfortunate. Apple got the Apple TV wrong last January and fixed it one year later. Let’s hope the MacBook Air gets rethought at the next MacWorld, if not before.

Timothy R. Butler is editor-in-chief of Open for Business. Note: the author owns a small amount of Apple (AAPL) stock.

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10 comments posted so far.

Re: Not Buying It

Actually, the 12” PowerBook did not offer the same sort of spec and features as the larger PowerBooks. It was essentially an iBook in the clothing of a PowerBook. Get your facts straight.

Posted by Thomas Massengale - Jan 17, 2008 | 3:35 PM

Re: Not Buying It

I could not have summarized my position better, Mr. Butler. I agree with your thoughtful review. I have used my trusty PowerBook G4 12” for non-professional video editing for years. The MacBook Air, however, does no appeal to me. No Firewire, no thank you.

I was hoping not for a new product, but a thinner MacBook Pro line (and then MacBook line months later). The MacBook Pro 15” is too large for economy coach tray tables (I don’t have a private jet). So I have a MacBook in my shopping cart (my PB-G412” will soon be on eBay…). The MacBook has a nice footprint. It has Firewire, capacious Hard Drive, 4MB memory. It can handle HD video editing, albeit slowly, and I can connect to a larger display.

I am sold on Apple products, surely. My PB-G412” has cost me about $1.25 per day to use over the years. MacWorld, alas, had little to offer me this year. No complaints; it can’t be everything to everyone.

Posted by J Hale - Jan 17, 2008 | 4:52 PM

Re: Not Buying It

Mr. Massengale, my facts are quite straight. Note I did not say everything was the same, I noted however the clock speed was the same, which it was. The 12” also supported dual heads when the iBook supported merely mirroring, and usually had a video card that, while not as good as its larger brethren, was better than the iBook’s card. That’s pretty much the way it ran through all the specs. AirPort and Bluetooth became standard on the PB12” at the same time it became standard on the other PowerBooks, not the iBooks. All in all, my sense was it was much more in league with the PowerBook line, save on a few things, like the Ethernet card.

Mr. Hale, thank you for your comments. I think Apple underestimated the number of PowerBook 12” users out there who really want the same type of unit, not to mention the potential for such a machine to draw switchers. Enjoy your MacBook!

Posted by Timothy R. Butler - Jan 17, 2008 | 7:09 PM

Re: Not Buying It

Any product is aimed at a specific market. You prefer a MacBook Pro? Fine, it’s because the MacBook Air is not done for you. Who cares?

It is not aimed at me either. No problem: I have a 24” iMac and I’m interested in a 8 core MacPro. Who cares?

But don’t you think that it will perfectly fit the needs of some? The MacBook Air is aimed at those people. And the only important thing for Apple is to have a solution suitable for anyone.

This is just one more “Not Buying It” article, after the iPhone, the MacBook Air. Same story. Same writers?

And you now the story.

Pointless article, but you will get your hits. Congratulation.

Posted by Didier Kobi - Jan 17, 2008 | 8:24 PM

Re: Not Buying It

I don’t think this article is pointless. I’ve been trying to find a reason for me to switch from MBP to MBA and it’s hard. I travel alot but at the same time I have semi-professional demands - thus is rather dependent on CPU and RAM. I will wait until real life tests are getting around and if it keeps up with PS and InDesign I will probably switch. Importing video for editing will be done on my stationary. Obviously this is an “executive” item or second computer machine.

It’s bugging me Apple didn’t leave 160 GB HD for build to order - there are 160 GB 1.8 disk in the iPod…

Posted by fredrik - Jan 17, 2008 | 9:37 PM

Re: Not Buying It

Mr. Kobi, actually, I’ve never written such an article before. The key here is two fold: (1) Apple discontinued a product that fit a very decent size market’s need, e.g. a professional semi-desktop replacement in a small form factor, and (2) released a niche, almost luxury laptop which has a much smaller market. The product I hoped for (and many hoped for) was not some dream product, but rather a product line that Apple offered until just a couple of years ago.

I’m not saying the Air shouldn’t have been released, but if they’d made it a bit thicker, they could have targeted a larger market and offered an upgrade path for all of us still using the 12” PowerBook waiting for something that can replace it to come along.

Posted by Timothy R. Butler - Jan 18, 2008 | 1:31 AM

Re: Not Buying It; 15

Mr. BUTLER, I agree with you. I do not find a FW400 port to be redundant with USB 2.0, but maybe wireless connection to a distal laser disc drive obviates this. Regardless, MB-AIR should have been given 1 FW400 port. Secondly, the 1.8” HDD instead of a 2.5” HDD and resulting GB size limitation destroys my interest, especially with an entry fee of $1,800. Too much for too little. My 15” MacBookPRO satisfies my needs too well, except that I’m drooling over the new dual quad MacPro once a Blu-ray drive comes out combined with a descent price on Blu-ray blank discs hopefully by June’08. Steve did it before with Apple’s introduction of SuperDrives and DVD 5-packs, and with Apple having a seat on the Blu-ray board, I expect it to happen again very soon.

Posted by MacRand - Jan 18, 2008 | 4:13 AM

Re: Not Buying It

Count me as another 12-inch Powerbook owner who was waiting hopefully…and was really disappointed.

I use my 12-inch Powerbook for DJ-ing, and (aside from the lack of back-lit keyboard, sometimes an issue in a dark DJ booth) it’s been near-perfect in form-factor, functionality and performance.

But the software I use (Serato Scratch Live for DJ-ing) is slowly creeping upward in minumum requirements as new features are added. I’m already locked out of the new video add-on they recently announced (won’t run on PPC at all).

I can’t use the Macbook Air at all. I need at least two USB ports and Firewire.

The Macbook would be a step down in a few important ways…and the plastic-case design is not optimal for high-CPU use for long periods under hot conditions (like in a DJ booth).

If my 12-inch Powerbook dropped dead today, I’d probably have to buy a 15-inch MPB and be irritated that it’s both larger than I really want.

Posted by Mark - Jan 18, 2008 | 9:47 AM

Re: Not Buying It

All good things to those who wait.


Posted by pb12 - Jan 24, 2008 | 12:56 PM

Re: Not Buying It

There is a point to this article as it outlines a Mac users views on Apple’s latest product. A product released on the back of many comments from Mac users who would clearly like a smaller form factor MBP.

It also touches on a broader point, namely that many were expecting MacBook Pro updates generally; especially upgrades to the processor and case design. The rumour seems to be that this was indeed planned for Macworld, but the chips weren’t ready on time. Although it’s doubtful they have a 11/12” MacBook Pro as it would compete with the MacBook Air.

It does seem a lost opportunity, an attempt to trailblaze that comes off as gimmicky. A laptop too weak to be used by pro’s, and too expensive to use as a secondary machine for most. It is quite difficult to see who this is aimed at.

Another reason many would like to see a little more focus on MacBook Pro’s is that they’re getting a little long in the tooth. You can pick up many laptops with better components, especially larger screen resolutions, for $500 less. Hardly a great advert for a cutting-edge company.

Posted by Insane - Jan 25, 2008 | 11:24 PM