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Review: Apple's new 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch MacBook Air (Late 2010)

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Comparing the Air to iPads and netbooks

The MacBook Airs' new category of mobile machine is particularly interesting for Apple to debut now, given that the company just established the iPad as a new tier of mobile device below the full sized needs of the notebook and yet significantly differentiated above the handheld mobile arena of the smartphone or iPod touch.

In fact, if Apple hadn't just successfully launched the iPad with such an explosive, industry neck-snapping violence that managed to vaporize the nascent "netbook" category and send PC makers into frantic efforts to develop their own tablets, the new MacBook Air models, and particularly the 11-inch version, would likely be described as Apple's new "netbooks."

Unlike netbook offerings, however, Apple isn't trying to compete in the $400 space with a micro-sized notebook with a tiny chiclet keyboard, low resolution 10-inch display (1024x600 is customary among netbooks), an anemic Atom processor paired with a barebones Intel GMA GPU, a single gigabyte of RAM, and a limited version of Windows 7 that requires an $80 OS upgrade just to work as expected.

Apple's unlikely to woo many discount netbook buyers with the MacBook Air, but it has been able to attract a lot of attention in that segment with the $499 iPad and $199 iPod touch, both of which offer much of the capabilities of low end netbooks at a similar price target. The Air models are clearly aimed at a market above the netbook, which is why they overlap with the lower end of the MacBooks to create those difficult buying decisions outlined earlier.

MacBook Air and iPad

MacBook Air and iPad

MacBook Air vs iPad

Still, there will be a segment of the market comparing the MacBook Air (particularly the 11-inch model) against the iPad. In terms of hardware, the MacBook Air packs significantly more processor power and memory: a full sized Core 2 Duo and dedicated Nvidia graphics processor and 2 to 4GB of RAM, compared to the iPad's integrated A4 application processor and 1GB of RAM.

Despite those differences, the Air and iPad both provide a capable computing experience with a responsive, fluid user interface. This is in contrast to most netbooks, which often try to force a full desktop operating system to run within cost-contained hardware, typically a "mobile" Intel Atom CPU and a lethargic embedded GPU strangled by limited RAM.

The screen size and resolution of the 11-inch MacBook Air is comparable to the iPad; its display is not quite as tall but slightly wider, and its resolution is identical vertically while being about a third wider. These added pixels make the Air better suited to Mac OS X's multiple windowing environment as opposed to the iPad's "one full screen app at a time" iOS interface. The 11-inch Air's added screen width makes it slightly preferable to the iPad for watching widescreen movies, but there's less of an advantage when viewing maps, documents and web pages, all of which are more fun to peruse on the iPad with its multitouch display, and often benefit more from vertical real estate rather than extra width on the screen.

While the 11-inch Air's small display will initially feel cramped to users accustomed to a larger screen, its resolution is fully capable of web browsing, document editing, and media playback. In fact, its widescreen aspect ratio results in cinematic movies playing at about the same size as they do on the 13-inch Air's screen once you subtract the letterbox bands on the top and bottom.

While the iPad commands an advantage in direct manipulation with its multitouch screen, the Air's integrated keyboard and trackpad make it more conventionally productive, particularly when entering any amount of text. Depending on the task at hand, the iPad's tablet form factor will either offer a simpler, streamlined and more rugged solution, or an excessively constrained experience that loses out to the Air's familiar clamshell construction. Despite being nearly the same size when closed (and feeling about as heavy), the 11-inch Air offers not just an expanded screen and full size keyboard, but also packs in a video conferencing camera, standard USB ports, and more flexible external display options than the iPad.

For users with more customary computer-like needs, the 11-inch MacBook Air delivers the fantasy tablet experience many iPad critics had wished for, with the full Mac OS X experience; conventional text input with a comfortable, integrated keyboard; and the ability to run all their existing Mac apps, including FaceTime video conferencing. Like the iPad, the Air delivers a thin, light but strong form factor with "instant on" performance, lasting seemingly forever when left idle and waking up immediately at the tap of a button. The Air is clearly a close relation to the iPad in terms of design, although it also costs twice as much and weighs 0.8 pounds more than the entry level iPad (2.3 pounds vs 1.5 pounds).

On the other hand, the iPad has no hinges to tweak, doesn't need to be opened up to use, and can be purchased with integrated 3G WWAN capabilities, something the Air conspicuously lacks. Why didn't Apple include an option for internal mobile networking with a plan comparable to the iPad's flexible contract-free service agreement? The only possible explanation is a constraint on size, but this seems like such an attractive option that it remains puzzling. Perhaps Apple expects users to spring for a tethering plan on their smartphone instead of modifying the Air's design to include a 3G antenna and receiver.

MacBook Air and iPad

On page 3 of 4: What's new in the MacBook Air design