MacBook Air – Sexy Nonsense, or Giant Killer?

When Apple launched the MacBook Air (MBA) in January 2008 the general reaction on blogs like Engadget was “too expensive, no replaceable battery, no DVD, only one USB slot”. Comments from readers were so acidic that it seemed half of them could have been Microsoft employees. I wondered, what is it about the MBA that raises such hostility? Are people truly offended by one more elegant but pricey object from Apple, is this the popping of Apple's Bubble of Cool, or were the claws out for simpler, more visceral reasons? People at Microsoft have surely seen how AAPL's market cap is hitting 50% of MSFT's, how Apple manages to waltz into mature markets and revolutionise and conquer them, how the incumbents are sitting ducks, fat and slow and unable to get out of the way, nor compete. Every new product from Apple is a cause for fear for someone and a cause for joy for the consumer.

Yes, I like to paint with a broad brush, and so the question tormented me, for at least a few moments. MacBook Air… sexy nonsense, or giant killer?

Since I am a sucker for elegant but pricey objects that I can roughly justify as business expenses, and since I also really missed my X505 – more on that in a second - I ordered my MBA quickly and got the surprisingly small package around the start of February. Having now used this notebook for two weeks, here is my review and my answer to that burning question.

But first back to the X505, which was the Most Sexy Notebook Ever, in its day. The X505 was an elegant but pricey object from Sony, who made a global empire from geek's need for the latest and greatest, until they lost their touch somewhere around the turn of the century. When I first started selling software in the mid-80's, I bought myself a top-of-the-line Sony Walkman to celebrate the first arrival of real money. The little thing was built from eternium and lasted for ten years before I finally gave it away to a friend who still used cassette tapes. I remember a friend of mine, Benny, an overpaid IT contractor, who bought Sony gadgets like my wife buys hangbags – with passion and longing, and a real sense of collector achievement.

The X505 was without question pricey – only available as an import from Japan, costing around $5,000 with the extra battery and external DVD. It had modest specs but wrapped these in a wafer-thin carbon-fibre exoskeleton that literally caused people to stop and stare when they saw me use it. It was light, robust, and as thin as a supermodel. It was not perfect… too short battery life, too small keyboard for serious use. But I used it heavily and never regretted buying it, until it died.

A year or so ago, as I plugged an external hard drive into my X505, it gave a small buzz and then screen went black. That was it, supermodel dead and gone. Some kind of power issue, perhaps a 5 cent fuse blown somewhere on that tiny, elegant, and very expensive motherboard. I emailed the US distributors, they said it was not serviceable. I called Sony, they asked me what an X505 was. Perhaps somewhere in Tokyo there was/is a shop able to repair my little wafer thin carbon-fibred toy, but I was stuck in Brussels, Belgium, and now had a little pile of very expensive, very useless Sony equipment on my desk.

No more Sony. No more ultralight notebook that would grab passers-by and tell them, “this man is a God, look at his sexy notebook”. No more jealous looks from clients and competitors as instead of the X505, I opened my nice but boring MacBook in meetings. “Oh look, he's got a white MacBook, can't afford the more expensive black one…” And frankly, my bag got a lot heavier again. The nice thing about an ultralight is that it is really light. I like to forget my old days in the army, carrying tons of materiel in a grimy heavy backpack, feeling the squish under my boots as I walk over fallen comrades, while the shells explode overhead. But my frequent treks through airports and stations with the MacBook (not a heavy notebook compared to some!) kept giving me flashbacks. Passers-by stopped and stared, but for all the wrong reasons. “Mommy, why is that man screaming?” “Shhh, don't pay attention! Pretend you don't see him!”

Post-X505, I switched to a MacBook for two reasons. First, the sad and sudden death of the X505, the last Windows machine in our Linux-happy office, was obviously a sign from the god of technology that Windows was Dead. Second, I liked and still like my iPod and the way it worked neatly with iTunes. I'm a sucker for good design, even if I know it locks me in. What I really hate is being locked in to lousy products. And frankly, I like the MacBook, it is reliable, fast, fun to use, and runs all the software I need: FireFox, OpenOffice, and gcc. OK, it's not Kubuntu, but it's most of the way there.

Conspicuous consumption is not just showing off. Well, technically it is, but my point is that it's not for nothing. We show we can afford expensive toys, that tells people we're successful and wealthy and they should definitely trust us with their projects. I don't spend money on cars, since I drive as badly as my grandmother did. Fancy clothes don't interest me, I look great in anything. I would spend money on supermodels, but then I married one, and she gets this strange murderous look when I speak of the good old days before we met. So, all that is left is tools of the trade. I'm a programmer and a writer, so it makes sense I buy the very best material. This, at least, was what I told myself when I clicked that “buy” button on Apple's website as I chose the top of the line MacBook Air model.

So when that small box – so small and light I was sure they'd sent me the wrong object – arrived I went through the “unboxing” ritual and made the usual “ooh” and “aah” sounds as I carefully unpacked the MBA. If you never unboxed an Apple object, you need to try it at least once before dismissing it. Supermodels always dress right; one does not serve gourmet food on paper plates.

In terms of looks, the MBA wins the prize for Most Utterly Gorgeous Notebook of 2008. I've already been stopped by strangers who literally congratulate me on the sheer stunningness of my object. Obviously I grip it as tightly as a peacock grips his own tail feathers, but it does bring back all the good memories of the X505, and it's clear that the MBA hits all the same buttons, and more.

I'm not going to bore you with a technical review, you can get this anywhere. Memory, CPU, blah blah blah. The specs are fine; this is not a power machine but a travel companion. Also, when you kick the Microsoft habit, computers have a way of becoming overpowered very quickly. I bought the solid-state disk version, it's quiet and very fast in loading FireFox and OpenOffice.

A supermodel lives or dies by her build, and the MBA stuns. The aluminium casing is a pearly shiny silver, smooth and warm. I hate plastic in general and much prefer metal, glass, brick, wood, be it in my kitchen or in my office. The screen is gorgeous and bright, the keyboard is a joy to type on. Ergonomics – remember that word? – are perfect. Keyboard lights up in dim surroundings, the screen adjusts brightness automatically, and overall the object feels so sexy I'm tempted to give her a name. There was one problem with the MBA but I fixed it. The title bar had a strange pink tinge and little bright spots that I thought were a defect in the screen lighting. Eventually I realized the title bar is semi-transparent and the default screen background, a pinkish star-spotted image of space, was showing through. I replaced the background with a photo of Earth from space, and the pink went away. See, twenty-five years of IT have taught me well!

Two things most annoyed the bloggers – who I'm really sure were mostly Microsoft trolls. One, the lack of a replaceable battery. Two, the solitary USB port. Well, the battery… now, I know there are notebooks with 8-hour battery lives. The MBA gives me around four hours. The X505 gave me one and a half. I already have excellent instincts for finding power ports, and they appear now in trains and planes. Battery life, if it's more than three hours, is not an issue.

But that solitary USB port? Well, here is where I think Apple have hit the nail on the head. The lack of multiple USB ports signals Apple's vision of the future of mobile computing. It's a vision that is daring and which scares Microsoft. It says, “USB is the desktop, and the desktop is dead. We present a world without wires, a world of Internet and BlueTooth, high-speed WiFi, and data stored on the Internet, not local hard drives.”

Who exactly is the MBA aimed at? In my opinion, it's designed to be the user interface for a wireless world that Apple is building, piece by piece. MBA is a minimalist computer with excellent screen, keyboard, and trackpad, and powerful wireless networking.

I think Apple's vision is of a world of well-defined devices, each doing one thing and doing it perfectly. Apple don't make multi-function devices because these inevitably compromise on everything. This is Microsoft's biggest weakness, the insistence on putting too much into every box. Yes, it sells, but it does not satisfy, does not create passion. Microsoft's successful products do less, not more. Apple's design mantra is “less is more” and I'm convinced that's the right approach. The iPhone has no keyboard, the iPod has no buttons except that click wheel. And the MBA has no lines on its bottom, and only that single solitary USB port, hidden in that drop-down flap.

Apple's future world consists of a family of precise, perfect tools, connected by WiFi and the Internet. Local storage becomes less important as the Internet takes over the role of hard drive. DVDs are the new floppy disks. What counts more than anything is design and ergonomics. Usefully, in an industry where prices keep falling, design is worth a premium.

It's a world that does not need Microsoft Windows. While Apple have done spectacularly well with their iPods, and pretty well with the iPhone so far, their real success has been to break Microsoft's desktop/laptop monopoly and become one of the largest sellers of PCs, and especially notebooks. And with the MacBook Air, Apple is telling Microsoft, “notebooks are the future of personal computing, we are the future of notebooks, we're dead sexy, and you're not. Your empire is dust.”

Sony used to understand that good design and superior quality sold technology. I guess they still know this, but they cannot deliver. Benny gave up on Sony, saying all his pricey objects broke and were expensive to get fixed. Sony also made life really hard for their customers, something people don't forgive. For a while I had a very nice Sony minidisk player, but apart from the fact that it was stolen in a burglary – not Sony's fault – minidisk was born as a dead technology, a great example of Sony not getting it. “Let's give consumers a snazzy format they can't do anything with.” I made the mistake of buying a Sony MP3 player for my wife – it was pretty in pink. The damn thing only works on Windows, insists (like that minidisk player did) on copy protection software called SonicStage, and thus when my X505 died it dropped, abandoned, into the big box I keep under my desk, labeled “useless junk”.

I'll conclude because it's now 6:11 am and I want to catch another hour of sleep before catching a train, on which I'll open my MBA and continue on my book. The MacBook Air is a joy to work on. It makes a bold and probably accurate statement about the future, a world without Windows and a world without wires or dongles. USB ports are already passé. It's uncool to have to plug things together when it can all be done by a few sweeps of the trackpad.

The MacBook Air, especially with the solid-state drive, is without a shadow of doubt the most desirable and usable laptop ever designed, and the bloggers who dismissed it are ignorant, jealous, Microsoft shills, or all three. This supermodel among notebooks rips the crown from the dead head of the X505, and struts down the catwalk in shiny curvy satin, setting the standard, and setting it very high. Like the iPhone, she is a vision from the future. And for quite a reasonable price, the future is here, sitting on my knees, and she's dead sexy. I'm calling her “Babe”, and if my wife reads this, I'm dead.

Summary

Good points

  • Beautiful
  • Skinny
  • Fast
  • Built to last
  • Minimalistic
  • Functional

Bad points

  • No Kubuntu
  • Not expensive enough
  • My wife also wants one

Vital statistics

  • Time to launch OOo = 3 seconds (15 seconds on MacBook)
  • Number of wows in public = 1 per 2 hours (average over 2 weeks)
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