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Originally published Saturday, February 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Review

The MacBook Air: Sleek, light, classy — and limited

Would you pay $1,000 to get less? That's what Apple is wagering on with its new MacBook Air, which early purchasers just started receiving...

Special to The Seattle Times

Would you pay $1,000 to get less? That's what Apple is wagering on with its new MacBook Air, which early purchasers just started receiving last week. The MacBook Air is blissfully light and free of encumbrances, but you're paying a premium to shed some pounds.

Apple emphasizes that the Air is designed around a lifestyle in which all media is digital and all files downloadable. They stress this because the MacBook Air has the fewest networking options of any computer Apple has ever shipped. That's not necessarily a minus — something had to give to make it this light.

The MacBook Air has no noticeable openings. Even the power jack, which accepts a plug that uses magnetism instead of friction to attach, is tucked slightly out of view. The monitor, USB 2.0, and audio jack are discreetly hidden with a pop-down panel.

The Air is a joy to behold. It's the most beautiful and stylish computer I've ever touched, and it works precisely as expected. It's a Mac, albeit one that runs slightly slower than even the slowest of other Apple laptop models, but fast enough to avoid feeling sluggish.

The Air also incorporates an expanded set of iPhone-like touch pad gestures that let you navigate through photos, rotate items, Control-click, and zoom entirely with your fingers, making up for some of loss of the flexibility of a mouse that laptop-toters contend with.

Physically fit: It doesn't feel like Apple gave up much to sacrifice 2 pounds. The Air has none of the hallmarks of similarly priced Windows systems that use underpowered processors, have small screens, shrunken keyboards and no pizazz.

For those keeping score, what you get with a MacBook Air is a computer that runs more slowly than a $1,099 MacBook, omits that MacBook's Ethernet, FireWire and second USB 2.0 ports, and doesn't include a CD/DVD optical drive. It does have a backlit keyboard and twice as much RAM.

Factoring both performance and features into the price difference, I see a premium between $700 and $1,000 to get the world's greatest subnotebook.

There are some problems with the fit and finish, however. The all-aluminum clamshell, designed to be largely recyclable, has all the beauty and the heat dissipation of that element. It can get rather hot, which also explains the somewhat horsey black rubber feet on the Air's underside — army boots under an evening gown.

I find the front edge of the Air painful to rest my palms on while typing at less-than-optimal angles with the laptop lower than my wrists. True, ergonomists tell us our wrists should be up when typing, but this computer was designed to be used everywhere, and the edge is tapered a bit too fine for comfort.

The footprint of the MacBook Air is also an issue. It might be the thinnest laptop ever and quite light, but its width and height are identical to a MacBook. As I walked around and used an Air, I found that I consistently underestimated the amount of space I needed to open the screen to a comfortable viewing angle. The light weight seemed to short-circuit my ability to guess where to place it.

But it's not just a surface issue: on airplanes, even with the inset hinge design on the Air, you don't gain any improvement relative to the depth of a seat back tray.

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The barrel-style magnetic power connector is recessed in a way that emphasizes the unbroken line of the Air, but I find also makes it easy to dislodge. I even managed to insert the plug in such a way that it was magnetically attached but not in the right orientation to charge.

The charger is also underpowered to keep weight down: 45 watts instead of the 60 watts used on the MacBook, which makes for a slower refill of the battery. The five hours Apple promises in typical use with Wi-Fi enabled seems a huge overstatement; I watched the Air run down over just a few hours, and other reviewers have found less than three hours is more accurate.

The battery can't be swapped or replaced by a user, which means that the jet-set population had better be taking short flights, or flying airlines with trickle charging, using an optional airline power attachment ($49).

Finally, the drop-down compartment that hides the ports for audio, USB, and video out (mini-DVI) leaves too little room for what it contains. Normal audio jacks, including the extremely narrow one at the end of an iPhone headphone set, won't fit securely in its hole.

The compartment doesn't neatly snap out, either; I found it extremely easy to shut it accidentally and repeatedly while trying to plug something in.

No-spin zone: Apple is wagering that, especially with its recent introduction of movie rentals through the iTunes Store, fewer of us need to handle physical media.

It has also worked out a clever compromise. The company clearly thinks the MacBook Air will be a second (or more) computer for most people, one to take on the road or in the air. But at home, the user will use another, heavier laptop or a desktop system.

Because of this, Apple offers Mac and Windows (XP and Vista) software called Remote Disc that lets you turn a CD/DVD drive in any other computer on a local network into an extension of the MacBook Air. This neat feature, not available for any other Mac, lets you install software remotely, copy files and even reinstall the Leopard operating system.

You can also use Remote Disc with a new Migration Assistant that lets you transfer all your data, preferences and applications from an existing computer to an Air wirelessly.

Remote Disc has plenty of limits. In my testing over Wi-Fi (802.11n), the only networking method built into the Air, it was excruciatingly slow to boot and start installing Leopard. You might have to reserve the better part of a day for the task, where an hour to two hours (depending on the kind of installation or upgrade) is more reasonable for other modern Macs. Colleagues have found that Migration Assistant takes several hours wirelessly, too.

You don't install an operating system or migrate your data every day, though, and Mac OS X — like Windows Vista — rarely needs to be reinstalled.

But Remote Disc falls down in other ways. You can't watch a DVD, or play or rip a CD from a remote disc. Even an older 802.11g Wi-Fi network should be able to keep up with audio or video, so this may be related to preventing piracy. It's still a poor decision, given that the Apple TV can stream pre-encoded media from Macs and Windows systems over older networks.

You can purchase an external optical drive for $99 designed to work only with the MacBook Air through its USB 2.0 port. While it's lovely that no external power brick is needed, there's a design misstep here: the USB cord is permanently attached coming straight out the back of the drive. In travel, the cable will be frequently bent in a back.

If you plan to use discs rarely, the $29 USB-to-Ethernet adapter might be a better choice. Topping out at just 100 Mbps Ethernet — a far cry from the 1,000 Mbps or 1 Gbps Ethernet found on nearly all other Macs — it offers a great boost for any networked file transfer or remote installation. And it's more compact, to boot.

Who the computer is for: At Macworld Expo last month, I heard (and coined) a few great one-line statements about the MacBook Air:

"I won't buy one, but my boss will."

"It's an executive computer."

"It's a computer for someone who doesn't want to carry a computer."

They're all true. The MacBook Air is decidedly not for everyone. If you want a reasonably fast, full-featured laptop, the regular MacBook continues to be a great combination. Those with more computationally demanding professional needs can bump up to the MacBook Pro.

But the MacBook Air is truly the province of road warriors willing to pay a premium for convenience, appearance or comfort. If you regularly upgrade to business class from a coach ticket; if you find your current computer contributes to $1,000 in chiropractor bills a year from carrying it around; or if you just think it's beautiful (it is), then you can err on the side of an Air.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column in Personal Technology.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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