MacBook Air Takes on MacBook Pro

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The original MacBook Air was a spectacular piece of engineering -- a laptop form factor that simply hadn't been seen before. Despite its anemic CPU and the slow PATA 1.8-inch hard drive, I quickly took to using the MacBook Air as my primary laptop. When the next iteration appeared, with a significantly lower price, a solid-state drive, and a faster CPU, I jumped at the upgrade. And so it's gone with every new Air since.

But even as the Air steadily improved, it had more in common with the MacBook than the MacBook Pro. It was a good fit for ultramobile users with general computing workloads (and my IT-oriented purposes), but not for users running heavy-duty, CPU-intensive apps. Now that Apple is offering the Air with a four-core Intel Core i7 CPU, that's no longer the case. The new CPU puts Air into a realm it has not enjoyed to date -- that of a mobile workstation rather than an ultrathin terminal.

[ Also on InfoWorld: " Review: Mac OS X Lion, more than multitouch " | " Mac OS X Lion's top 20 features: The InfoWorld visual tour " | " Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: The last notebook you'll ever need " | Subscribe to InfoWorld's Technology: Apple newsletter . ]

The four-core Intel Core i7 CPU is a big step up from the Core 2 Duo in the previous version, even at 1.8GHz per core rather than 2.13GHz. (If all that horsepower isn't necessary, there's a Core i5 version.) The 4GB RAM limit is the same, as is the 256GB solid-state flash drive. There's the Thunderbolt port instead of the DisplayPort, along with the welcome return of the backlit keyboard and the ambient light sensor. The extremely fast storage, solid display, and exemplary battery life have been retained as well.

The new Air presents a compelling package, even to longtime MacBook Pro users. I fully expect to see MacBook Airs in places I never would before -- in recording studios, video production houses, and other realms that have been the domain of the Mac Pro and MacBook Pro. Whereas I would never consider mixing a large recording in Digital Performer on my old Air, I can definitely picture doing that with the new one.

Unfortunately, there are tasks I do with the old MacBook Air that the new Air can't handle, such as working with a few applications that I rely on. The new Air ships with Mac OS X 10.7 Lion installed, which -- depending on your habits and the software you're running -- could impact usability for the worse.

MacBook Air: Stumbling into Mac OS X Lion Lion brings significant changes that, though highly beneficial in many cases, also cause problems for a variety of applications. As usual, the first thing I did when I received the new model was to fire it up and use Apple's Migration Assistant to move all my data, settings, and applications from my old Air. This process took about two-and-a-half hours over 100Mbps Ethernet before finishing successfully, but 140GB of data and detritus takes time. At the end, the new Air rebooted and I was able to start working immediately without reinstalling anything apart from Microsoft Office (more on that below). Migration Assistant really is crazy cool, but Apple users are used to it somehow.

What wasn't so successful were a handful of applications that are now orphaned due to the fact that Lion jettisons Rosetta, software that allowed previous versions of OS X to run programs compiled for PowerPC processors on Intel Macs. Among the PowerPC apps sent to purgatory was Intuit QuickBooks, which simply will not function under Lion. As it stands, I'll either have to keep my old Air around to construct invoices and handle business finances or move to a completely different tool. I have yet to decide on that count, but it's a bummer either way.

Also, I'm writing this review on the new Air -- in TextEdit. While Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac was successfully transferred over from my old Air, it refuses to accept a valid license key and claims it needs to be reinstalled to function properly. There are many tales of Office 2011 having bizarre problems with Lion, and this can be added to the list.

It should come as no shock that a significant OS upgrade like Mac OS X 10.7 Lion will come with some hiccups, and those will generally be found with third-party applications that have been developed outside of Apple's Xcode framework. Applications that have been developed "properly" as per Apple will have a much easier time making the Snow Leopard-to-Lion migration. Software vendors that have been borrowing heavily from their ancient PowerPC roots (such as Intuit with QuickBooks) face significant hurdles in moving up to Lion's stricter standards.

In the meantime, note that upgrading to Lion may cause important applications to become unusable. This was nearly a showstopper for me when dealing with an IT outage that required a Raritan remote KVM application that won't run on Lion due to the lack of Rosetta. Luckily, my previous Air was with me, and going back to Snow Leopard saved the day.

Lion also brings myriad changes throughout core OS X applications, such as Apple Mail. The layout is vastly different, opting for a columnar view across rather than the top-and-bottom split screen of old. I've never liked that view, but it can be changed to Classic View easily enough. Other UI changes abound, such as the new LaunchPad, which is easily accessed with the F4 key. Overall, I like LaunchPad, but it'll take some getting used to.

One thing I'm leaning toward changing from the Lion default is the trackpad scroll direction. When I'm using an iPad, the scroll method seems natural, as the content tracks finger motion (you're moving the content, not the scrollbars). It's the same in Lion, but on a laptop trackpad, my natural reflex is the opposite, and I wind up scrolling in the wrong direction. If the Air were my only computer this might be OK, but as I use trackpads on multiple computers running multiple operating systems that all work the opposite way, it's proving to be a difficult transition.

Otherwise, the new trackpad gestures to invoke Launchpad, Mission Control, and application switching seem natural and easy to get used to. One caveat is the removal of the Dashboard button and the Dashboard now functioning as its own virtual desktop rather than an overlay. Many times I've used a widget on the Dashboard to work with data on the desktop, such as for a quick trip to the calculator to run some numbers in an email. Unfortunately, that's no longer possible.

MacBook Air: Light weight meets heavy duty As I noted in my previous MacBook Air review, I badly missed the keyboard backlighting and ambient light sensor removed from the last model. I never quite got used to that and was constantly tapping the screen brightness keys to manually adjust the display to current lighting conditions. The lack of a backlit keyboard was less disturbing, but now that it's returned, I'm surprised I didn't miss it more. The difference in usability is marked.

The performance of the new Air is significantly improved. The move from a Core 2 Duo to a Core i7 makes a big difference, especially with threaded apps. Previous Air iterations were powerful enough to support "normal" use, as in word processing, heavy Web surfing, email, coding, and the like. The new Airs offer sufficient power to successfully run higher-end applications like digital audio and video processing with much more headroom than before.

To put it mildly, the new Air has several orders of magnitude more horsepower for these apps than the dual-core PowerMac G5 that powered my recording studio for several years. I wouldn't hesitate to run DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), Logic, ProTools, or Digital Performer on the new Air, not to mention a plethora of software audio plug-ins where the older Airs would have struggled to keep up with the load.

Couple the new juice with the Thunderbolt support, and the new Air truly does pack an awful lot into a small package -- one suitable for everything from general computing use to ably handling much heavier tasks. It does so with Lion, however, and while there's much to like about Lion, the downsides can be significant.

In many cases, it may be that those who could benefit most from the new, more powerful Air won't be able to make the leap until their apps catch up to the new OS. Those that use Apple tools exclusively will be able to get started right away, but otherwise, it will pay to keep up with compatibility and update announcements from your critical software vendors before springing for this very quick, lithe, and powerful ultraportable.

This Air scored slightly higher than the previous model, but should have tracked far better. The reduction in usability due to the incompatibilities in Lion and the significant changes in OS defaults such as the trackpad scrolling direction take that category down a notch. Performance of course goes up.

Doubtless this is the best MacBook Air yet, at least for those not requiring Rosetta. In my case, I'll be using the new Air as much as possible, but right now I'm going to fire up my older Air running Snow Leopard since I can't create invoices on this one. It's the pain of the early adopter, true, but painful nevertheless.

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