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.
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.