MacBook Air Lacks Features, Analysts Say

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Steve Jobs wowed the Macworld audience when he unveiled the slim, ultraportable MacBook Air notebook, but users and analysts say its lack of some important features may make it unattractive to buyers.

The ultraportable notebook, launched at the conference and expo on Tuesday, has a 13.3-inch wide-screen display and a full-size back-lit keyboard. It uses a 1.8-inch hard drive, also found in the iPod and a smaller version of Intel's Core 2 Duo processor.

Apple has also developed a program called Remote Disk, with which users can download software from the optical drive of a nearby computer using built-in 802.11n wireless networking. At 3 pounds (1.3 kilograms), Jobs called it the lightest and thinnest notebook on the planet.

Scott Armstrong, a Mac user, was watching the Web for news from the show as Jobs unveiled the notebook, which is .076 inches at its thickest part and from 0.8 inches to 1.2 inches high, by removing it from a business-size manila envelope. For all its impressive features, it does not meet the needs of Apple's traditional multimedia audience, said Armstrong, who is also president of the Macintosh Users Group in Kennewick, Washington.

One omission is a FireWire communications port, which is necessary to transfer big multimedia files, Armstrong said. Apple has led the effort to promote FireWire, so it's surprising it wasn't included in MacBook Air, Armstrong said. One USB (Universal Serial Bus) port isn't enough, he said.

The machine lacks storage capacity and, at 4,200 revolutions per minute, the hard drive is really slow, Armstrong said. "Most people would like to have features in their laptops. This product is for people who won't need stuff or hook stuff up," Armstrong said.

It may be targeted at students, who could sacrifice features for portability, Armstrong said. "They haven't discontinued the MacBook and MacBook Pro notebook models, so they are doing it for a niche market," Armstrong said.

The Air's novelty value could attract buyers, but the US$1,799 starting price tag is too heavy for a machine lacking features.

"They won't stay with this for long, they'll come out with something more innovative with Air," Armstrong said.

The MacBook Air is a mismatch with Apple's price-sensitive customers, such as educators and those who do creative work and require significant storage for music, photos and video, Citigroup said in a research note on Wednesday. Moreover, ultraportable-laptop users are generally Windows-based PC users, not Mac users, Citigroup said.

While the product could be a long-term success, Apple will produce the laptop in small volumes until more features are added, Citigroup said.

Unlike Asus' Eee PC, the MacBook Air may sell slowly because of its high price point and overlapping functionality with the existing MacBook and MacBook Pro lines, said Shaw Wu, an analyst with American Technology Research, in a research note. However, Apple is adept with product placement, as shown by the iPhone and iPod, where there has been minimal cannibalization despite overlapping functionality, Wu said.

The MacBook Air may be niche, but Apple could be pioneering the adoption of future technologies like wireless communication between devices, said Jim Ritz, a Mac user and member of the Apple Pi user group in Rockville, Maryland.

Users were concerned when Apple got rid of the floppy drive, and now Apple is now betting that the time for wireless networking has come by removing the Ethernet port and including wireless storage, Ritz said.

Adding more wireless features establishes Apple's intent to change the way users look at ultraportable laptops, Ritz said. "I'm curious to see what the notebook looks like a year from now."

Ritz has a plan that will help him afford to buy a MacBook Air, which he wants to try out -- he says he's going to offer to sell his recently purchased MacBook to his wife.

"It's a costly little puppy no doubt, but all new things are expensive," Ritz said of the MacBook Air.

Apple officials could not be reached for comment regarding concerns with the MacBook Air that were raised by Mac enthusiasts and analysts.

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