I have written a number of times about computers that keep getting smaller and smaller. For anyone who travels a lot, such as myself, the newest wave of laptops, netbooks, and handhelds from the many manufacturers is a great convenience. This week I caved in and purchased a new computer to be my primary traveling machine: an Apple MacBook Air
The MacBook Air has been around for more than three years although Apple just updated the product line with a couple of new models a few months ago. I purchased the smaller of the two, the model with an 11-inch screen.
I have experimented a lot with various Windows netbooks and other handheld computers. I'll ignore the differences in operating systems and perhaps write another article later. All I will say is that the Macintosh OS X operating system is very different from Windows and that both have devoted fans. Personally, I could get by on either one although I do prefer the Mac.
Most of the manufacturers of laptop computers for the Windows operating system have shrunk the devices by reducing the length and width of the computers but leaving the thickness in the one- to two-inch range. As a result, the computers are now reduced in size, are lighter weight, but have smaller screens that are difficult to see and undersized keyboards that are difficult to use for touch typing. Most of these so-called "netbooks" remain at one or two inches thick.
Apple took the opposite approach. The length and width of the MacBook Air computers is almost as big as a normal laptop. You have a choice of an 11-inch or 13-inch screen, both of which are very easy to read with my aging eyes. My 11-inch Air sports a 1366 by 768 pixels display, which is more pixels than the standard full sized laptops that often have 1024 by 768 pixels. Readability is excellent, unlike some of the competitive 2- or 3-pound computers from other manufacturers.
Both versions of the Apple MacBook Air have full-sized keyboards that are a pleasure to use if you are a touch typist. Admittedly, I am not a good typist but the MacBook Air is also easy to use for those of us who use only two or three fingers for typing.
Instead of the usual approach, Apple shrunk the thickness of the Air laptops. These laptop computers are only about 2/3 of an inch at the thickest part and my new 11-inch version only weighs 2.3 pounds. The two pieces of the case are each made from a single piece of aluminum for rigidity. There's no plastic at all in the case and the motherboard won't flex like it does in many other laptops. After seeing Steve Jobs introduce the MacBook Air in a similar manner, I carry my new computer in a standard office 9 1/2-by-12 inch manila envelope that is normally used for interoffice mail.
The version I purchased also has 5 hours' claimed battery life (I haven't tested that yet). The larger 13-inch MacBook Air claims to have 7 hours of battery life as it contains a larger battery.
The MacBook Air is available with two different processors and two memory configurations. I selected a 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 4 gigabytes of memory, and 128 gigabytes of solid state disk storage. A solid state disk drive is super fast, contains no moving parts, and is easier on the battery. All Airs come with built-in wi-fi, Bluetooth, an internal webcam, speakers, microphone, two USB ports, and external video port for plugging in a monitor or an overhead projector. I expect to use the Air when giving presentations at future genealogy conferences.
Even though it has a slower processor speed, the MacBook Air seems to run nearly as fast as my desktop 27-inch iMac with a 3.06 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor. In fact, it runs faster than my old Mac Mini. Apparently, the improved performance is because of the solid state disks. These "hard disks" are much faster than a normal hard drive, and also consume less power, resulting in longer battery life. These are the ultimate "hard drives," having no moving parts. Therefore, you can drop these things while in use without worrying about a head crash as there are no heads in a solid state disk drive.
On the downside, there is no CD-ROM or DVD-ROM disk drive in the MacBook Air. If you see the laptop, you quickly understand why there is no such drive: the computer itself is thinner than a CD-ROM drive. It would be impossible to include one without making the computer thicker. Apple does sell an external DVD-ROM drive that connects to one of the laptop's USB ports. I didn't purchase that, however. If you already have a Windows or Macintosh desktop computer, it is easy to map (connect) to that drive across the in-home network and use it in place of a normal CD/DVD drive. I can place a CD or DVD disk in my desktop system and use it from the MacBook Air. Instructions are included with the new computer and I found it only required a few seconds to make the connection. Of course, that only works if I am at home. Then again, it is rare that I need a CD drive when traveling.
I purchased the new computer mainly for my trip to England next week and for later trips. I always try to travel with only one carry-on case so I am miniaturizing everything I might pack. The 2.3 pound MacBook Air is a major improvement in miniaturization.
So, how well does it work? I only purchased it two days ago but, so far, I am pleased with the 11-inch MacBook Air. It is a full-powered Mac, not limited in programs or memory or speed. It runs the full version of Reunion, MacFamilyTree, Family Tree Maker for Macintosh, Genealogy Pro, GEDitCOM II, Heredis, iFamily for Tiger, MacFamilyTree, Personal Ancestry Writer II, or any other genealogy program written for the Macintosh operating system.
The MacBook Air runs all the normal Macintosh programs that I have tried so far and should run any others that I may try in the future. It will also run Parallels or VMware Fusion or VirtualBox so I can run both Windows and Macintosh operating systems simultaneously. Not bad for a 2.3-pound computer!
The screen in the MacBook Air is a delight: easy to read, very bright, and with excellent contrast. It is as good as or better than most desktop monitors. The keyboard works well, even for touch typing. Admittedly, I am not a touch typist so I am relying on reports from others who have better typing skills than I do. All MacBook Air owners I have talked with report they can type as fast and as easily on a MacBook Air as on any other computer.
Of course, a 2.3 pound, 2/3 of an inch thick computer easily slips into my one carry-on suitcase. Even though the aluminum-cased laptop is rugged, I still carefully cushion it with shirts, socks, and underwear.
Like most Apple computers, the MacBook Air is more expensive than most competitive systems. Prices start at $999 and go up to $1,800, depending upon the options selected. My 11-inch MacBook Air with the faster processor, the bigger solid state hard drive, and 4 gigabytes of memory cost $1,399.
So far, the new computer has worked flawlessly. If I do find any significant shortcomings with the MacBook Air in the future, I will publish a follow-up article in this newsletter.
For more information about the Apple MacBook Air line of miniaturized laptop computers, see http://www.apple.com/macbookair/ and http://www.apple.com/macbookair/design.html