Living With Apple's 11.6" MacBook Air

I like ridiculously small notebooks. There was a time when I used a truly diminutive Fujitsu subnotebook called the Lifebook B112 as my main mobile machine. I also have a soft spot for netbooks. I'm willing to make compromises to shed weight-such as dealing with cramped keyboards, squinting at small screens, and learning to use abnormal pointing devices.

In recent years. though, I've tended to use laptops that were reasonably compact -- 13" is my favorite -- but not ridiculously small. That's in part because I've used Macs as much as I have Windows laptops, and no Mac notebook has been anywhere near midget-sized. The closest Apple has gotten to tiny has been the MacBook Air, and until last week, the MacBook Air (with its 13.3" screen) hasn't been so much small as thin and light. All Airs up until the new models have also pretty basic in terms of specs and kind of pricey-which is why they never tempted me.

But a week and a half ago, Apple announced the first all-new Airs since the original version. The prices are lower, the specs are better, and there's a new model with an 11.6" display. It weighs 2.3 pounds and is .11" at its thinnest point, making Apple's smallest Mac portable ever -- much more so than my late, lamented 12" PowerBook, the smallest Mac I'd used until now. It also starts at a temptingly low $999. I've been living with one (loaned to me by Apple) since the press event.

A Netbook-Notebook Hybrid

Back when the new Air was just a rumor, I theorized (halfway jokingly) that it would be Apple's first netbook. It's certainly the closest thing to a netbook that Apple has ever released, but it doesn't reflect any backpedaling on any of the netbook-bashing that the company has indulged in -- nor is the Air, strictly speaking, a ridiculously tiny notebook. At 11.6" and a surprisingly high-resolution 1366 by 768, the widescreen display feels more like a small notebook screen than a cramped netbook one. The processor, a 1.4-GHz Core 2 Duo in the base Air, may not be a barnburner, but it's an upgrade from the Atom in most netbooks. Maybe most important, the keyboard and touchpad are full-size, super-comfy versions, not shrunken netbook ones. (As with all Macs, "full-sized touchpad" actually means "much larger than most Windows PC touchpads, with a cool built-in button.")

When the original MacBook Air shipped in 2008, its amazingly thin aluminum case led to compromises that bugged me: It lacked an Ethernet port and had only one USB jack, and the ports were ensconced in a flip-down panel that could interfere with cables. Both the new 11.6" and 13.3" Airs, however, have a wedge-shaped aluminum case with enough room at the hinge end for standard ports, no flip-down access required. There are now two USB ports (one on each side-a less elegant but more useful configuration than Apple's standard approach of lining up all the ports on the left). And the old Air's mono speaker has been replaced by decent (by small-notebook standards) stereo ones. There's still no Ethernet, but that's much less of a sacrifice these days; I can't remember the last time that I absolutely, positively needed to plug a computer into a wired network connection.

You do give up some features in return for the Air's waif-like profile: Both models lack backlit keyboards, a feature that's standard on MacBook Pros. There's no FireWire, which shouldn't be a dealbreaker for most people (I'm sure there are some exceptions). And the one feature missing on the 11.6" model that I know I'd pine for is a slot for SD cards -- it's awfully nice not to have to futz with external card readers. (The 13.3" model does have a built-in SD reader.)

Of course, the new Airs, like the original version and an increasing percentage of laptops, don't have an optical drive. I already know how I feel about that: It's not an big issue 95% of the time, unless you like to watch DVD movies on your computer, install vast amounts of disc-based software, or are a big believer in DVD as a backup medium. I waver back and forth on whether I want an optical drive built into my laptops, which is why I find Toshiba's Portege R700 -- a thin 3-pounder that has a DVD burner-rather intriguing. But giving it up in a machine as thin, light, and inexpensive as the 11.6" Air is an easy tradeoff.

A Solid State of Affairs

All the new Airs dump hard disks for solid-state flash memory. That's a compromise in one major respect: Flash provides far less capacity at any price point than a plain ol' hard drive does. The base $999 11.6 Air has only 64GB of storage, which will likely be tight unless you're using the machine as a secondary (or tertiary) computer. $200 more gets you 128GB -- not exactly roomy, but much better. (The 13.3" version is available in 128GB and 256GB -- hey, that's almost spacious! -- versions.)

Other than the lack of elbow room, the move to flash storage is all good news. It's helps explain why the Airs are so small and light, and why their battery life is respectable for systems of their class. And although I haven't done lab tests like the ones my pals at Macworld performed, everything about my experience with the 11.6" Air tells me that the flash helps performance a lot. This Air has only 2GB of RAM -- 4GB is a $100 upgrade -- yet it's never felt bogged down, even when I've run the notoriously demanding Photoshop. (Actually, Photoshop loads in a few seconds, versus a minute or more in some cases on my 13.3" MacBook Pro.) For the stuff I do every day, the Air feels at least as snappy as a MacBook Pro with beefier specs.

The Air also comes out of its slumber almost instantly -- opening it up and returning to work isn't quite as effortless as on an iPad, but it compares favorably to most laptops I've ever owned, including other MacBooks.

As for battery life, I'm used to buying notebooks (including Apple ones) and getting maybe half the juice out of a charge that I've been led to expect. But at last week's press event, Steve Jobs said that Apple is using more stringent tests to come up with estimates for these new Airs. He seems to have spoken the truth: The 11.6" Air is supposed to get "up to" five hours of life on a charge, and I've been getting...about five hours. That's respectable for a machine as small, light, and thin as this one. As someone who spends a lot of timeout and about without reliable access to AC outlets, however, I remain attracted to the seven-hour estimated life of the 13.3" Air -- that would be enough to get me through a typical workday or a cross-country flight.

Come Fly with Me

But speaking of airplanes, the 11.6" Air would be especially well-suited to cramped coach seats-ones in which dealing with even a 13-inch notebook can be a struggle if the person in front of you reclines all the way. The 11.6" display is short and wide, so it needs very little clearance, and the high resolution provides enough pixels for dense user interfaces such as Photoshop.

Overall, I've really liked bopping around town with the 11.6" MacBook Air in tow. Rather than sticking it in a laptop bag, I've usually been clutching it in one hand, usually as part of a stack of papers -- and the best testimonial I can give it is that I keep forgetting I have it with me, in the same way I can lose track of the fact I'm carrying an iPad.

The new Air's starting pricetag of $999 -- the same as the low-end plastic MacBook -- was one noteworthy element of yesterday's news. But I'm struck by the breadth of the new line. Your $999 gets you an 11.6" Air with a 1.4-GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM and 64GB of flash storage; the configuration is clearly meant as a second computer for people who don't plan to tax the machine too much and don't plan to load it up with vast quantities of software, music, and video. But you can spend as much as $1799 -- which was the original starting price for the first Air, incidentally -- and get a 13.3" version with a 2.13-GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, 4GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage. That's within the same ballpark as the 13.3" MacBook Pro I use most often as my main computer these days.

I'd like to see the 11.6" Air be enough of a hit to inspire similar Windows PCs, possibly in plastic cases at lower price points; right now, there are a few that are vaguely reminiscent in certain respects (such as Lenovo's 12" IdeaPad S12 and Sony Vaio X) without being truly comparable. This Air proves that it's possible for a personal computer to be a breeze to tote around without any crippling compromises. It's not for everyone, but I suspect the folks who like it -- who haven't had a Mac aimed at them until now -- will really like it.


Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter