Traveling With a MacBook Air, Part 2

Last week's look at Apple's MacBook Air focused on the ultra thin-and-light laptop's gorgeous, bright screen, and what it's like to use on a cross-country flight. This week my review continues with a look at the Air's wireless connectivity, battery, monitor connections, security, and entertainment options.

Easy Wireless Connectivity

The Air has built-in Bluetooth 2.1 and Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11n draft specification, compatible with 802.11a/b/g). During my tests, I had no problems connecting to public and private Wi-Fi networks. The Air automatically reconnects to networks you've previously used. (I didn't connect any devices using Bluetooth.)

The Air lacks a built-in Ethernet port. However, Apple's USB Ethernet Adapter ($29) gets you around that limitation.

There's no built-in support for cellular wireless, either. You could attach a USB cellular wireless modem; one possibility is Sprint's Wireless Compass 597, which is $50 with a two-year data service contract. The modem is especially compact, includes built-in GPS and a slot for a micro-SD memory card, and reportedly works well with the Mac OS X as well as with Windows XP and Vista. (I didn't test the modem.)

Built-In Battery

The Air's built-in battery has been criticized a lot. The fact that you can't swap out a spent battery for a fresh one is the Air's biggest drawback.

Another concern: Over time, laptop batteries lose their ability to fully recharge (don't we all?) and need to be replaced. When your Air's battery is spent, probably after about two years of regular use, you're supposed to turn your Air over to Apple for a battery replacement. The current cost for installing a new battery is $129 from an Apple store or reseller.

Would you worry that someone might obtain personal information from your files while the computer is in Apple's hands? Would you be concerned about your data? If so, you should back up critical files and remove or encrypt sensitive files beforehand.

As for battery life, my experience varied depending on how I used the Air.

Battery Life: Good, not Great

Before my trip from San Francisco to Atlanta, I tested the battery in San Francisco Internet cafes. In those tests, the Air's battery lasted for 3 hours with the screen brightness at 100 percent and with Wi-Fi on. That's probably enough for most people in those circumstances.

However, each of my cross-country flights was longer than 4 hours. To stretch my battery life, from San Francisco to Atlanta I dimmed the screen to about 50 percent brightness while working in Microsoft Word and Excel. The Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections, two big battery drains, were turned off since you're not supposed to use wireless connections in flight.

After 2.5 hours of work, I watched 1 hour of video in iTunes with the screen's brightness dimmed by about 30 percent. (Video playback is a much bigger drain on battery power than working in Office applications.) After a combined total of 3.5 hours, the Air battery had 7 percent of its juice remaining.

From Atlanta to San Francisco, I worked with the screen dimmed by 50 percent. I didn't watch any video or listen to music using the Air. After 3 hours and 45 minutes, the battery was still 17 percent charged.

Back in San Francisco, I fully recharged the Air's battery. Then I kept the screen brightness at 100 percent and played a DVD movie with Apple's SuperDrive connected. After 2 hours and 3 minutes, the battery ran out of juice.

I'd prefer to have the Air's screen at 100 percent brightness at all times. But the display is so crisp and bright, I didn't mind dimming it by 50 percent, at least while working in Office applications. The plane's overhead lights helped with screen legibility during my night flights and sitting by a window helped during daylight travel.

Based on my experiences, the Air's battery will probably keep you working for about 4.5 hours or longer if you dim the screen by 50 percent, turn off all wireless connections, and don't watch video or play music. You'll go for about 3 hours with full screen illumination and Wi-Fi turned on. Put in context, the Lenovo ThinkPad X61, which topped our Top 10 Ultraportable Notebooks, weighs just a bit more than the Air, but its extended-life, four-cell battery lasted 6 hours and 14 minutes in our tests, which involve video playback.

Tip: Portable power sources, such as the Duracell PowerSource Mobile 100 (about $110 online), can buy you extra time when you're away from a power socket. You can connect an Air to the PowerSource using the Air's MagSafe power adapter. The PowerSource and its AC adapter weigh 1 pound, 5 ounces. Another option is QuickerTek's MacBook Air External Battery, which reportedly adds 6 to 10 additional hours of battery life to your Air and recharges the battery as well. The QuickerTek battery, which weighs 1.2 pounds, costs $300 plus $100 for a modified Air MagSafe power plug, which the company says is required to connect the Air to the QuickerTek battery. [Note: This paragraph was updated on 6/26/08 with information on the Duracell PowerSource Mobile 100. --Editor]

Hooking Up to a Monitor

The Air ships with Micro-DVI to DVI and Micro-DVI to VGA adapters. I connected the laptop to my Dell 2005FPW display by attaching the Air's Micro-DVI to VGA adapter to my monitor's VGA cable. Separately, I connected the Air to my Dell display using the Air's Micro-DVI to DVI adapter and my monitor's DVI cable. Both connections worked without incident.

The Air supports composite and S-video output using Apple's optional $19 micro-DVI to video adapter. I didn't test either output.

The Air supports both extended desktop and video mirroring. The Air's own screen supports a maximum resolution of 1280 by 800 pixels, but the laptop supports up to 1920 by 1200 on an external display (at millions of colors).

Securing Your Files

The Mac OS X features FileVault, which will encrypt your entire user directory and all the files contained within. (I didn't test this feature.) Like Microsoft Windows Vista's BitLocker, however, FileVault isn't necessarily bulletproof. Researchers at Princeton University announced in February they had discovered a way to steal the hard drive encryption key used by both BitLocker and FileVault. Then again, is any encryption technology 100 percent tamper proof, 100 percent of the time?

Entertainment on the Go

Like other Macs, the Air comes with Apple's iLife 08 suite, which includes iPhoto, iMovie, iTunes, and GarageBand (for creating audio mixes). The Air also comes with Apple's Front Row, software that lets you access your multimedia content from one interface, like Windows Media Center. You can use Apple's wireless remote to control your media on the Air, but it's a separate purchase ($19).

Do I Love It?

As I mentioned last week, one of the most frequent questions people asked me about the Air was, "Do you love it?"

I do--more than any other laptop I've used.

The Air is a pleasure to touch, with its silky, brushed aluminum casing. It's gorgeous to behold. It's a pleasure to carry. Mac OS X Leopard is far more entertaining, innovative, and intuitive than Microsoft Windows Vista or XP. (You can also install and run Windows XP or Vista on the Air.) The Air's multitouch trackpad, using technology first introduced on the iPhone, is a kick to use. And though the Air is no speed demon, it's fast enough for Web surfing, e-mail, Office applications, and basic video and photo editing.

Who's It For?

All that aside, the Air is not for everyone. The battery is its biggest drawback. You can't swap it out, and the battery life won't accommodate a mix of entertainment and work for much more than 3.5 hours.

Want a laptop to serve as your only computer? The Air is probably not for you. The Air has only one USB port, and it has no FireWire port or built-in Ethernet connection. Its internal storage drive (either the 80GB hard drive or 64GB solid-state option) would be too small for many people's only computer. And it lacks a built-in optical drive. It's possible to work around most of these limitations, but not all of them. For example, if you have a digital camcorder that connects to a computer via FireWire, you're out of luck. You'd need to buy a USB-connected camcorder.

If your goal is to get the most laptop for the least money, the Air is not your computer. If you plan to stick with an Apple laptop, you'll get more value with a MacBook (prices start around $1100) or even with a low-end MacBook Pro (prices begin around $2000). If you need a Mac for high-end video or graphics editing, you're better off with a MacBook Pro, Dell's Inspiron 1720, or any laptop with a FireWire port, dedicated graphics memory, and an option for a 7200 rpm hard drive.

So who does that leave? The Air's ideal candidates are those who appreciate sleek design and who want an ultra-light but full-sized computer for traveling between offices, around town, or across a company or school campus. If you frequently fly long distances in first- or business-class, where in-seat power ports are more widely available, you're also a strong candidate for the Air.

And, oh yes, if you're looking for attention at Internet cafes, by all means, buy an Air.

For More Information

Mobile Computing News, Reviews, & Tips

MacBook Air Sleeves: Not surprisingly, there are some stylish sleeves designed especially for Apple's MacBook Air. A few worth considering are Beyza Cases' sleek leather Thinvelope ($215), Marware's CEO Envi ($90), InCase's neoprene sleeve ($35), and bags from Tom Bihn.

Tools for Enhancing Your Wi-Fi Experience: Want to make your Wi-Fi connections go more smoothly? We've got information on 12 downloads designed to help you easily find hot spots, improve your computer's security when connected to public Wi-Fi networks, and more.

Second-Gen OLPC Portable: Nicholas Negroponte recently showed off images of the XO-2, the second-generation laptop being developed for children in developing countries. The touch-screen laptop is designed to look like a book and is scheduled to be built by 2010.

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