Hands on With an Imaginary Apple Netbook

The computer industry is abuzz about "netbooks," the hot new category of dirt-cheap tiny laptops made by companies such as Asus and MSI. And, as you might expect, the media is also buzzing about the fact that Apple doesn't make one. (At US$999, the least-expensive MacBook costs three times the street price of an MSI Wind laptop.)

As for Apple, it's playing coy--as usual. In late January, Apple COO Tim Cook said that the company was "watching that space... We've got some ideas here." But, Cook warned, "right now we think the products there are inferior and will not provide an experience to customers that they are happy with."

I'm not at all convinced that Apple needs to produce a $300 laptop or risk losing its laptop market share to the netbook crowd. In its last financial quarter, the company sold more laptops than it's ever sold before, all without deigning to play in the world of the netbook. And how much profit margin can Apple really wring out of any sub-$500 laptop?

So I bought a netbook

However, one of the best things about netbooks is that it's cheap to buy one and take it for a test drive! So that's what I did. In December I bought an MSI Wind U100 from Amazon.com for $340. It's got a 120 GB hard drive, 10-inch screen, and 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor. And then, to fully emulate the Mac netbook experience--because unlike my colleague Peter Cohen, I'm not interested in a tiny laptop if it's running Windows--I installed Mac OS X on the thing.

Now, we're absolutely not going to publish a step-by-step look at how you get an MSI Wind netbook to run Mac OS X. Wired's Brian Chen tried that, and if you didn't notice, you can't read those stories or watch those videos on Wired's site anymore. Of course, there are plenty of sources out there on the big, bad Internet that will let you know how to do it. (We also covered the whole Hackintosh thing recently in Rob Griffiths' Frankenmac series -- but again, without any step-by-step tips. You're on your own for those.)

Besides which, this exercise was not about hacking the Wind in order to run OS X. The entire reason I embarked on this journey was to try and imagine what an Apple netbook might be like. And if you take a few blows to the head, you could almost begin to imagine that the MSI Wind is a MacBook Mini that fell through a rift in the space-time continuum. Almost.

MacBook Mini from Earth-U100

Netbooks are cheap for a reason. The specs of my MSI Wind U100 are the very definition of "inferior"--a single-core 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor, 1 GB of RAM, a 120 GB hard drive, a limited-capacity battery, a tiny 10-inch screen, a shrunken keyboard, and no optical drive. In Mac terms, its closest cousin might be a 2005-vintage iBook G4.

On pure physical terms, however, the Wind has that classic Apple iBook styling--it looks like a shrunken-down version of Apple's $999 MacBook, right down to the shiny white plastic finish. It's got a built-in video camera and microphone above the display, a clamshell case that opens and closes without a latch, even a familiar-looking trackpad.

And the Wind has a lot of things going for it. In a few key areas, the Wind even outstrips the functionality of Apple's laptops, especially the Air.

Let's start with the size. The 10-inch display (1024 by 600 pixels) is cramped, although I didn't feel as miserable using it as I thought I would. (It's only slightly smaller than the 1024 by 768 resolution on the old 12-inch PowerBook G4, and I dearly loved that laptop, but toward the end of its life it was clear that Apple was designing all of its software for larger, wider screens.)

While I was using the Wind, I felt obligated to set the Dock to hide, collapse as many toolbars as possible, and hide Safari's Status Bar and Bookmarks Bar just to eke out a bit more vertical height. Some dialog boxes were too tall to fit on the screen, and iMovie wouldn't run at all.

The Wind weighs 2.3 pounds, making it 23 percent lighter than the Air and a full half-pound lighter than Neal Stephenson's latest hardcover. It's quite a bit thicker than the Air, of course, but I found carrying around the tiny Wind to be a joy. Some of that has to do with the lighter weight, but some of it has to do with the shape of the thing. The Wind, being thicker but smaller, carries like a hardcover book. In contrast, carrying the Air--wide but thin--feels more like you're toting a rigid manila folder or a portfolio.

Most impressively, it's equipped with three USB ports to the Air's one. It's also got video out (it's only VGA, but at least it's such a commonly used port that adapters aren't necessary), a 10/100 Ethernet jack, and--in a boon to digital photographers--a built-in SD card slot.

You get what you pay for

But after spending quite a bit of time with the Wind, I've come to appreciate much about Apple's hardware design.

Take the Wind's wireless networking. Yes, the Wind supports Wi-Fi (although not the faster 802.11n specification) and Bluetooth. But for ages I couldn't figure out why my Wi-Fi card wasn't working, either in Mac OS X or in Windows XP. I thought I was going to have to return the system back as defective until I discovered, much to my chagrin, that in order to turn on Wi-Fi, you've got to press Function-F11.

This is a frustrating tendency, apparently common among PC makers, to wire up hardware features to keyboard shortcuts. (It's Function-F6 to toggle the included Webcam on and off.) Yes, Apple has joined this trend by connecting function keys to brightness and volume controls, and more recently to Expose, Dashboard, and iTunes controls. But the Wind takes this a step too far. I also don't quite know the purpose for the eight green lights on the front of the Wind. Okay, they'll tell you if you're using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, if your computer is asleep, if the battery is dead, if the hard drive's being accessed, and I don't know what else. But who needs to know? Apple's choice of a single, subtly pulsing light to indicate sleep status is more than enough for me.

While the Wind is not a terrible laptop, it most definitely feels cheap. Apple's Aluminum-clad laptops all feel solid, and even the white plastic MacBook feels sturdy. The Wind's plastic skin feels thinner and more flexible, especially on the bottom--it feels more like what you'd find in a clock radio or other cheap consumer appliance.

And I realize now why someone at Apple demands full-sized keyboards for all the company's laptops: the Wind's compact (or, to use Tim Cook's word, "cramped") keyboard and its too-small keys make my hands grow weary after spending almost any time typing on the Wind.

The Wind also made me appreciate my MacBook Air's trackpad more. The Wind's trackpad button is mushy and hard to click, and there's no support for the multi-finger gestures that I've come to rely on (most especially two-finger scrolling, which I use all the time) on my Mac.

Then there's the raw speed of the thing. The Wind's 1.6GHz Atom processor is a low-power chip that only offers a single processing core and just can't measure up to the performance of Intel's Core Duo line. And the Wind's 1GB of RAM doesn't help matters any.

When I started using the MacBook Air as my main system, an avalanche of people insisted that it was never intended to be used in that fashion. I strongly disagree with that statement--Apple has refused to make any Mac with features so limited that it can only be used as a sidekick to other systems.

But the Wind is most definitely a system that isn't intended for heavy use. It could be an appealing second (or third, or fourth) computer in a household, the kind of computer you keep under the couch so that you can pull it out and look up some actor's name on IMDb. It's the computer you buy for your kids with little fear of what they'll do to it. If all you're doing is reading e-mail, surfing the Web, and maybe writing some basic documents (such as this story), you'll probably never notice.

But if you try to do more, you'll probably regret it. Which gets me back to the fact that Apple has, thus far, refused to make any Mac that isn't a complete computer that can be plausibly used with the full range of Mac software, including iLife and iWork. If Apple made a netbook like the Wind, that philosophy would have to be hauled to the trash can. I just can't see it happening.

So what if it were made by Apple?

Every time I use the Wind, I am reminded that it most definitely didn't originate in Cupertino. But what if Apple were to design something like it? How would the choices Apple's engineers make differ from those made by the Wind's designers?

We start with the software. My Wind runs a hacked version of OS X, but with an Apple laptop you'd get the real thing. That's not just a nicety, either--using the Wind has reminded me just how good we Mac users have it, since Apple makes sure that OS X contains every driver necessary for every component used in its computers. (Prospective Hackintosh Mac-on-Wind types, please note: getting my Wind's trackpad to behave at all was a nightmare, and I still can't use the VGA port, microphone, or headphone jack.)

An Apple-built MacBook Mini would undoubtedly dump the VGA port for a Mini DisplayPort connector. Beyond that, I'd vote for Apple to keep at least two of the USB ports, ideally on either side of the laptop. I'd be okay with dumping the Ethernet port and the card reader, although iPhoto '09 combined with that built-in card reader would be awfully compelling for roaming photographers.

When you consider the choices Apple made when designing the MacBook Air--chucking the optical drive but holding fast on a full-size keyboard and a 13-inch display--it's hard to imagine the company releasing a Mac laptop with a 10-inch screen and a miniature keyboard. The 12-inch PowerBook G4 was only 10.9 inches wide, with a full-sized keyboard that extended to the very edge of the system. After my time with the Wind, I have to agree with Apple--a shrunken-down keyboard is one compromise too many.

If you pull back and consider the bigger picture, the laptop I've been using cost just over $300. Apple doesn't need to make a $300 laptop. Since when has Apple played the same game as other PC-makers? If the company made a $500 laptop, that model would still be half the price of its current low-end MacBook. Even a $600 laptop would bring the base price of an Apple laptop down 40 percent. So if Apple did build a "true" netbook, it would be more full-featured than the Wind.

Why Apple won't do it

While part of me wishes that Apple would build a $500 laptop, a design more in keeping with the white iBook or 12-inch PowerBook G4, I just can't see Apple it happening. Not only are such low-cost, low-margin, and ultimately low-quality products simply not Apple's style, but the company has a much better alternative--a device based on the iPhone operating system.

Imagine something roughly twice the width and length of the current iPod and iPhone display, which would make the device approximately 8.5 by 5 inches (roughly the size of an Amazon Kindle), compared to the Wind's 10.2 by 7 inches. And of course, it would probably be less than half an inch thick, compared to the Wind's tapered .75 to 1.25 inch thickness.

Such a device wouldn't have a built-in keyboard, but there would be more room for a mega version of the iPhone's touchscreen keyboard. And perhaps we'd also finally see the iPhone OS support Bluetooth keyboards, which would let you use a full-sized keyboard if you wanted. (Apple's existing Bluetooth keyboard would be a perfect choice.) Someone could even make a nifty keyboard-with-hinge doohickey that would essentially turn that device into a more laptop-like creature. And presumably third-party developers would be able to add all sorts of different apps to the device via the App Store, just as they can today on the iPhone.

Here's the catch: the current 16GB iPod touch costs $299, almost exactly what the MSI Wind costs. What would a mega-touchscreen Apple device cost? At least $500, I'm guessing. But as I've said repeatedly, Apple's not in the business of making the cheapest products possible. And would a $500 iPhone OS-based tablet netbook sell? You know, I think it would.

I'm glad I spent my time with my parallel-universe MacBook Mini. And I have to admit, I do wish Apple would make a smaller, cheaper laptop in the same vein (but a little bit better). But I just don't think it'll ever happen. That's why we're far more likely to see a touchscreen in our future than a tiny, cramped keyboard.

[Jason Snell is Macworld's Editorial Director.]

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