The Apple MacBook Air: Does Size Matter?

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

I've used ultra-compact notebooks for years: four generations of the IBM/Lenovo X-series and two from Sony's TX line. I switched to a MacBook as my primary computer more than a year ago to avoid the increasing aggravation of Windows. But the MacBook, as all Apple notebooks, weigh more than 5 pounds compared to 3 pounds or less for most ultra portables. Two pounds may not seem much of a difference, but for someone carrying a computer everywhere, on the road and to meetings, the smaller size and lighter weight is a big advantage.

At this months's MacWorld, Steve Jobs moved to fill that void. He unveiled a stunning new notebook called the MacBook Air, available any day now for $1799. Apple's notebooks have always been beautifully designed with clean, geometric shapes, curved corners and careful attention to detail. But the Air goes much further. It's a gentle wedge that's just 3⁄4-inch thick at the rear and less than 1⁄4-inch at the front and sides, which seem to float in space as a result of its convex bottom. It's beautifully constructed out of brushed aluminum.

Like the iPhone, its design leaps ahead of the competition. I had the opportunity to try the Air for about a half hour. Unlike many of the ultra lights, the Air has a full size no-compromise keyboard, much like the MacBook, whose keyboard is one of the best I've used, second only to the ThinkPad. It's even backlit, making it easier to see in dim light.

The glossy display is a wide format 13.3-inches. It's very bright, backlit with LEDs, which eliminate mercury and use less power. There's an oversized trackpad that responds to gestures, much like the iPhone's screen. Zoom in and out, scroll, scan and rotate photos using simple finger movements.

As thin and light as it is, the Air seems sturdy. It opened and closed with precision, and there was no flexing. The bottom was not hot as on Apple's other models, the result of a new processor and more compact electronics.

With every new product, Jobs likes to do something different and often controversial, in part, I think, to tweak the industry's conventional thinking.

He was the first to eliminate the floppy drive and then to skip the PC Card slot. His latest move? Offering the first notebook with the battery sealed inside and not user replaceable, just like the iPhone and iPod. The huge, thin battery occupies nearly the computer's full width. Making it removable would likely have weakened the Air's housing and added a millimeter or two to its thickness.

What's the impact of this? You can't use the Air for more than the five hours it's rated to run between charges. And you'll need to bring or send it back to Apple to replace the battery when it wears out after a year or two. An Apple spokesman told me it could be replaced at an Apple store for $129 while you wait. If that's accurate and there's a store near you, then that's not a big deal. But being limited to five hours run time is a limitation for use on long flights or all-day computing, away from a power outlet.

The other concessions to form over function are the elimination of a DVD optical drive, just an 80GB hard drive, and fewer ports. Many of the ultra portable notebooks have managed to squeeze in an optical drive and a larger hard drive. Apple does provide a solution for loading programs: software that allows you to use the optical drive of another computer.

So what's the verdict? It's gorgeous and functional, with a great keyboard and screen. Yes, it does make concessions that seem to hurt the users that need the product the most, the frequent traveler, but it doesn't compromise where it matters the most, the keyboard and screen.

It does make one ask just who is the MacBook Air for? It's too expensive for a first computer, and is too limiting as an only computer. But it may just be the best second computer ever. That's probably just what Steve Jobs had in mind!

Originally published in The San Diego Transcript