Living With Apple's 11.6" MacBook Air

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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.

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