Hands-on: The MacBook Air beyond the hype

Apple Air has a slim and sexy form factor, but we found some function there too.

By now, you've read all about the wildly hyped MacBook Air, the slenderized version of Apple's MacBook line that looks like it's been run over by a steamroller.

I had a chance to bang on one of these for awhile, and I'm here to report that Mac-centric road warriors used to lugging around a 2.3kg MacBook or a 3.08kg MacBook Pro - count me in the latter camp - will find the 1.4kg Air to be just what they've been waiting for.

This ultralight (if not exactly ultrasmall) laptop comes with a heaping helping of Mac OS X, a full-size keyboard, a 13.3 inch backlit LCD and even an optional state-of-the-art solid-state drive.

What more could you want? Well, how about more than one USB port, a FireWire port or two, an ExpressCard slot and an optical drive? The fact that the Air offers only a single USB port, a micro-DVI port and a headphone jack means that if you tend to hook up a lot of peripherals, you're going to have to rethink how you use your laptop.

Is smaller better?

For a lot of people, smaller and lighter is better when it comes to their laptops. I am not one of those people. I have a late-model 17 inch MacBook Pro with a high-res screen that's still perfect for me. Since I rarely travel, about the farthest my laptop goes is from my desk to the couch, with an occasional foray to the screen porch or the office. (I keep secretly hoping Apple will offer up a 20 inch laptop. Silly me.)

Having made my bias clear, I can say that the model Apple sent over for this review is probably one of the coolest-looking laptops to appear in years - both in terms of size and hipness. "Cute" is the word that keeps popping up when friends and co-workers give it the once-over. This is really a laptop where form has overtaken function. It's so slim that no pictures do it justice, so if you're at all interested in buying one, get down to an Apple Store and eyeball it yourself. And be sure to pick it up so you can judge how light it feels.

In case you missed the details when Apple CEO Steve Jobs pulled the Air out of an envelope at Macworld in January, here are the basics: It's 0.16 inches thin at the front, and 0.76 inches thick at the back where the screen hinges are located. It weighs 1.4kg, has those three ports hidden behind a small door, offers a built-in iSight webcam and uses a revamped multitouch trackpad.

Some impressive basics

The unit I played with was the entry-level Air, which is now selling for US$1,799. That's the model with a customized 1.6 GHz Core 2 Duo chip, a standard 80GB 1.8 inch hard drive that spins at just 4,200 rpm, and 2GB of RAM (which is soldered to the logic board - no upgrades possible). Given that my trusty MacBook Pro sports a 2.4 GHz processor, a 160GB drive running at 7,200 rpm, 4GB of RAM, and that luscious 17 inch LCD screen, you'd think the Air would be something of a comedown.

Surprisingly, it's not. The Air feels just about as snappy as my MacBook Pro in day-to-day use doing the kinds of things most users will be doing: surfing the Web, firing off e-mails, text editing and light graphics work. Sure, the 13 inch screen with its 1280-by-800-pixel resolution feels a bit constrained. But it's a gorgeous display that looks sharper and brighter on the Air than it does on the regular MacBook. No doubt, the new LED backlighting - which the MacBook doesn't have - helps. The switch to LED also eliminates the use of mercury and arsenic in the display, which should make the green-computing crowd happy.

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