MacBook Air: How Incomplete Is It?

Steve Jobs is, among many other things, the great denier. Second mouse buttons, floppy drives, 56-kbps modems--for decades, he has been perfectly willing to release products lacking one or more features that are standard equipment on everyone else's computers, if he thinks they're unnecessary or they offend his design principles or aesthetic sense.

Typically, the news that a new Mac is missing a feature is met by yelps of protest. But then, sooner or later, the rest of the industry follows Jobs's lead. (Okay, usually--I haven't seen any one-button mouses on PCs lately.) Jobs, in other words, tends to figure out that we can live without something before the rest of the world does.

I'm not sure if he has ever denied Apple customers as many features as he will with the MacBook Air, the superthin notebook that he unveiled at this morning's Macworld Expo keynote. In introducing the Air, Jobs said that manufacturers of other thin-and-light laptops made too many compromises to make their machines sleek, like using small keyboards and screens and wimpy CPUs. But nobody else in the industry would dream of making some of the compromises that the Air makes.

So what's missing? And how big a deal is it?

An optical drive
Mildly annoying omission

This is the one thing everybody assumed the Air would leave out, although I was holding out hope that Apple would take its cue from Toshiba's optical-drive-bearing featherweight Portege 500. There's a long history of subnotebooks skipping the optical drive to shave off weight and space, so the Air's doing so won't strike anyone as shocking. And Jobs is right in that a lot of things people do with optical drives--such as watch movies and install software--can be done these days without one. (Apple's new Remote Disc feature will help in the latter instance.)

Me, I mostly use my MacBook's Superdrive for two things: ripping CDs into MP3s and making data CDs and DVDs to distribute files to friends and colleagues. I guess I could do the former on another computer and then move the MP3s to an Air--sorry, Steve, I'm not ready to buy all my music from iTunes. And cheap thumb drives can probably do the trick when I want to hand out copies of files. Still, if I were to buy an Air, I suspect I'd spring for the $99 external Superdrive.

Seriously annoying omission

In the old days, no notebook had built-in ethernet; you had to futz with external adapters. Then it became standard equipment. The fact that the Air lacks it makes the machine a throwback.

Jobs spoke of the Air as a machine built to be used wirelessly. But most of the hotels I stay in assume that my computer has ethernet. It's also damn handy at work. I can't imagine there are that many people who can spring for a $1799 Air who won't need ethernet at least from time to time. Apple sells an external adapter, but if I traveled with an Air, I'd probably just toss my Airport Express travel router into my briefcase, giving me a form of ethernet compatibility that doesn't actually make me plug an ethernet cable into the Air.

Multiple USB ports
Mildly annoying omission

I'm not sure when I last owned a computer with only one USB port, but it's been a very, very long time. On the other hand, it's rare that I want to plug two USB devices into my MacBook at once, and at least one of the ones I use (a SanDisk MicroMate card reader) blocks access to both of the MacBooks ports when I use it anyhow. So I wouldn't not buy an Air because of its solo USB.

More AWOL Features

Significant omission for some folks

If you have scads of FireWire peripherals, or a digital camcorder that does only FireWire, get ready to replace them if you make an Air your primary machine. If you don't have such things, count yourself as lucky. I think Apple probably made the right decision when it removed FireWire from the Air...but then again, I speak as someone who doesn't own any FireWire-based accessories.

Big hard drives
Majorly annoying omission

I like the fact that Apple was clever enough to use a 1.8-inch hard drive to keep the Air trim, but it's offering only an 80GB configuration, and that's just not enough space if you have a lot of media and like to install lots of applications, or want to install Windows for use with Boot Camp or Parallels or VMWare Fusion. There's a 160GB iPod Classic; I'm not sure why the drives inside those aren't being used in Airs, too.

Large RAM capacity
Not really annoying at all, at least to me

The Air has 2GB of RAM standard. And for most of us, that's enough. So I'm not traumatized by the fact that there's no way to increase its capacity.

Removable battery
Potentially crippling omission

If Steve Jobs ran the world, there would apparently be no such thing as a battery you could remove--or at least that's what you might suspect given that the Air is joining all iPods and the iPhone as Apple Products That Don't Have Batteries You Can Take Out.

For many people, I think, that'll be a deal breaker. If the Air really gets 5 hours on a charge, it helps--that's enough for a cross-country flight. But I've bought a second battery for most of the notebooks I've ever owned, and used it from time to time. And I'd worry about the Air's battery losing its charge over time and needing to be replaced, and that being a hassle. (Big question: Will Apple Stores be able to do battery swaps quickly, on site?)

(And a random related thought: If all airlines did what Virgin America, for one, has done and put power jacks at every seat, would that make most of us a lot less obssessive about needing to be able to remove a laptop's battery?)

I love small, light notebooks. I admire great industrial design and clever engineering. And I've carried Mac portables as my primary notebooks for about four years now. So in theory, I should be a candidate to become a MacBook Air owner.

Would I buy one for myself, based on what we know about the machine?

No--for two main reasons. Reason one is the hard drive. Eighty gigs is just too small; it would severely limit my ability to enjoy using the Air. If Apple announces a 160GB Air, that concern would disappear instantly. But reason two is the fixed battery, and I doubt we'll see an Air anytime soon that lets you remove the battery.

But I'll sure be watching this machine closely. I can't quite tell whether it's likely to be an influential hit or a Cube-like dead end...but it'll be fun to find out.


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