Understanding the Ultra Portable

Before we get anywhere in this review, we have to have the talk. A friend of mine likes to call this talk a DTR, or Defining the Relationship. Usually with her it refers to something romantic but with the MacBook Air there are many similarities. It needs to be very clear what your expectations are of it and what sort of relationship you plan on having with the notebook in order to avoid something unpleasant.

Are you going home with it?

When Apple announced the MacBook Air, it was met with harsh criticism from many; it was almost as if the Air was being treated as the next MacBook Pro instead of an ultra portable Mac.

Let me give you an example. Back in college I needed a notebook to take to class with me that I could take notes on and email/browse with during class (not all lectures were as captivating as I’d like). Lugging even a 5-pound notebook around to class was a pain, I wanted something whose weight and form factor resembled its name; I wanted a notebook, something very thin, very light and just as easy as a pad of paper to carry around with me.

This wasn’t going to be my ultimate work machine, I wasn’t going to be running Photoshop on it, I just needed it to do some basic writing and web browsing. In many senses all I needed was a notebook-sized iPhone.

Since writing and basic internet access were the main duties of this machine, things like hard disk space, having an internal optical drive and absolute performance weren’t really concerns; running Notepad or TextEdit just doesn’t require much. At the same time, having a good keyboard, a killer form factor and keeping weight down were all more important than with a regular notebook.

Historically the ultra portable has been first and foremost, a very light notebook. The first ultra portables were around 3 lbs, but over the years we’ve seen entries into the space weigh in at less than 2 lbs. If you look at the weight of a textbook and remember how much you hated lugging that around in school, you’ll understand how even a 1 pound difference in notebook weight can make a big difference.

The weight side of an ultra portable is only one facet of importance, form factor is the other. This thing has to feel small in your hands when carrying it around, it has to feel just as natural and painless as carrying a paper notebook around.

The problem is that in the quest for small size and ultimate lightness, a number of sacrifices are made. Performance, keyboard, screen size/resolution, expansion, durability, battery life and price are all areas that you have to make sacrifices in if you want an ultra portable notebook.

You give up performance because the cooling and power requirements of a high speed CPU just aren’t possible to satisfy given the form factor and weight requirements of an ultra portable. There’s no budget for a large battery and heatsinks need to be on the order of millimeters in thickness. Ultra Low Voltage CPUs are generally preferred here and it’s only recently that we’ve seen ultra portables really get faster than 1GHz.

The screen size of a notebook actually determines the keyboard layout and size. In order to keep power consumption down, smaller screens with cramped resolutions are the norm in the ultra portable space. With a smaller screen, the keyboard that the screen covers when closed is similarly tiny. These two limitations generally run in contrary to one of the main uses for having an ultra portable: writing a lot becomes difficult. I owned a Sony X505 imported from Japan and it got me through my last year of college, but the keyboard was terrible to type on. It had a Japanese key layout so some of the key labels were in the “wrong” places. I had to rely on memory of a US keyboard layout to figure out which one to hit which is more difficult than you’d think on a keyboard with very small keys. Writing normal sentences wasn’t a problem, it’s the punctuation that really threw me off. My hands always had to do this strange ballet/gymnastics move in order to punctuate anything, which eventually drove me away from the notebook.

Expansion is an obvious problem; most of the ultra portables I’ve owned over the years didn’t have integrated optical drives, which made installing applications or just reading a disc handed to me while on the road frustratingly impossible.

In order to keep things light, ultra portables generally have tiny batteries and are built out of very lightweight materials - resulting in poor battery life and a hardly durable feel. The durability issue is compounded by the notebooks being very thin, which only makes them feel more likely to break. Admittedly I’ve never had an ultra portable break on me, but I’ve also never really dropped one. They do develop creaks over time just like other notebooks, there’s just no getting around that.

And finally we have the issue of price; the culmination of all of these sacrifices is a very light weight, very portable device...that also costs a great deal of money. Spending $2K - $3K on an ultra portable isn’t out of the ordinary.

Many consider Apple to be a leader in the computing world, but in many ways it is an attentive follower. Apple hasn’t historically been the first to introduce a new type of device, but rather a company that looks at where others have done poorly and attempts to do better. Apple didn’t invent the ultra portable, but with the MacBook Air it’s attempting to do it right.

With that pesky DTR out of the way, let’s get to know the Air a bit better.

The Air on Paper

On paper, the MacBook Air's size is impressive until you compare it to the MacBook - in many ways the Air is just a thinner MacBook. The screen is identical and the footprint is virtually unchanged. The two pounds Apple has managed to shave off and the reduction in thickness are huge, regardless of how small they may seem in numerical form.

  MacBook Air MacBook MacBook Pro 15"
Dimensions H: 0.16-076"
W: 12.8"
D: 8.94"
H: 1.08"
W: 12.78"
D: 8.92"
H: 1.0"
W: 14.1"
D: 9.6"
Weight 3.0 lbs 5.0 lbs 5.4 lbs
Screen Size/Resolution 13.3" / 1280 x 800 13.3" / 1280 x 800 15.4" / 1440 x 900
CPU Intel Core 2 Duo 1.6 - 1.8GHz (65nm Merom) Intel Core 2 Duo 2.0 - 2.2GHz (65nm Merom) Intel Core 2 Duo 2.2GHz - 2.6GHz (65nm Merom)
GPU Intel GMA X3100 (144MB UMA) Intel GMA X3100
(144MB UMA)
NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT (128MB - 256MB)
Memory 2GB DDR2-667 (fixed) 1GB - 4GB DDR2-667 2GB - 4GB DDR2-667
HDD 80GB 1.8" HDD
or 64GB 1.8" SSD
80 - 160GB 2.5" 5400RPM SATA HDD 120 - 250GB 2.5" 5400RPM SATA
200GB 7200RPM SATA
Optical Drive Optional External USB SuperDrive Integrated Combo drive or SuperDrive Integrated SuperDrive
Networking 802.11a/b/g/n 802.11a/b/g/n
10/100/1000 Ethernet
10/100/1000 Ethernet
Built in iSight Yes Yes Yes
Inputs 1 x USB 2.0
1 x Integrated mic
2 x USB 2.0
1 x FireWire 400
1 x Audio in
1 x Integrated mic
2 x USB 2.0
1 x FireWire 400
1 x FireWire 800
1 x ExpressCard/34
1 x Audio in
1 x Integrated mic
Outputs 1 x Audio
1 x Micro-DVI
1 x Audio
1 x mini-DVI
1 x Audio
1 x dual-link DVI
Battery 37WHr 55WHr 60WHr
Price $1799 $1099 $1999
It Feels So Good


View All Comments

  • aliasfox - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    It may be 50% faster than the 1.2 GHz ULV processors in most other ultraportables, but that also means it's also about 50% slower than most mainstream high end CPUs (2.2 GHz and up).

    Slow hard drive doesn't help either.
  • sprockkets - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link

    I don't get it. I can use my Pioneer laptop slot loading burner on an external enclosure and it be powered solely via the one usb port and works just fine, even while writing to dvds.

    For that matter, I can do the same with notebook laptop drives. Rarely do I need both usb ports connected in order for it to work.
  • sprockkets - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link

    Only about 16mbits per second on the xfer rate on wireless? Wow. Were you using n? Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    I don't know what Anand used, but I've seen everything from 3MBps to 12MBps on an 802.11n network... all with laptops in the same room, and many using the same chipset (Intel 4965AGN). Overall, N tends to feel about half as fast as 100Mbit Ethernet - or about twice as fast as 802.11G. Router choice unfortunately still has a major influence on 802.11N performance. Reply
  • Imaginer - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link

    It is what the overall feel and message of the article indicates to me. It is a bit expensive, non-expansive, lacks most utility to be used in most mobile situations, and it is purely for computing on the bare minimum.

    Kind of like that so called weekend car. I don't think I myself will have ANY need for such a device. Give me a powerful desktop and a versitle yet remaining non cumbersome notebook anyday.

    Most people in the market for a laptop usually would use it like their normal away from home computer and because of this, the air really disappoints. (not that I would invest in a new computer anytime soon).
  • jedmitchell - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link

    hey, so good review overall -- kept it very even handed considering the difficulty of reviewing a niche product like this. one hardware point I'd like to mention though is the info you give on the X3100. certainly the idea behind it is that as an integrated controller it won't provide very fast graphics, but there's a trick here: most of the things it's not rated to run... run. at least on the older macBook (santa rosa). final cut pro, maya, and photoshop actually all run pretty seamlessly on the X3100, both in OSX and windows (fcp is more memory/drive limited there than GPU). the only small problems are in windows where the X3100 drivers by intel are actually lacking several openGL 2.0 features present in apple's version.

    the X3100 even plays older games on windows without much trouble -- I can run the Orange Box games at 1024x768 with high quality settings and see a fairly regular 30fps, less a few texture memory glitches. anyway, it would be interesting to see how that performance in the same chipset scales from the macBook to the air.
  • jdwango - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link

    However I wish you had also tried to install Windows XP/Vista via boot camp and reported your thoughts. Reply
  • joey2264 - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link

    This would be a fairly good review if you would just mention the fact that most of the sacrifices Apple made to create the Macbook Air simply weren't necessary. If you look like at a notebook like the Fujitsu Lifebook S6510 of the Lenovo X300 this becomes clear. Looking at these two notebooks, it is obvious that each of the manufacturers could have come up with a 13.3 in, 1 spindle notebook that didn't make hardly any other compromises (decent keyboard, decent port selection, replaceable battery, upgradeable memory, standard 2.5" hard drives (Lenovo could have probably fit a 2.5" hard drive in there if they had used a 13.3" screen, with the requisite larger footprint, although it would have been a little heavier), etc). Reply
  • michael2k - Wednesday, February 13, 2008 - link

    The S6510 you mention is heavier (by a pound) and nearly twice as thick! It is much more comparable to a MacBook (5 pounds and an inch thick vs 4 pounds and 1.42 inches thick).

    The X300 is also not available yet, so a comparison will have to wait until we find out about price and build quality.
  • mlambert890 - Thursday, February 14, 2008 - link

    OK, so then the Sony TX, the Fujitsu P7k, the Toshiba Portege, the Dialogue Flybook, the Panasonic Toughbook, the Dell XPS1210, the Sony SZ, The LG XNote....

    There's a pretty long list of notes that are smaller and ligher or as light or slightly heavier with a lot more features than the MBA.

    The MBA is THINNER. Last I checked thinner is a BS feature. When someone can explain to me WHY thinner means ANYTHING beyond looking cool at Starbucks, maybe Ill be interested.

    The Sony X505 was pretty much the same situation as the MBA except it had a removable battery and more ports and that was 3 years ago. I think the MBA was like .2" thinner than the Sony *at its thinnest point* and about the same at the thickest.

    The MBA is big news for the cult of Mac which lately is including PC sites like this.

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