Amherst Bytes: Revolutionary Redux: MacBook Air 2.0
By Dylan Herts ’13, Staff Writer
Steven P. Jobs often tells consumers and tech journalists that he is showing them the next big thing. His keynotes, loaded with adjectives like “magical” and “amazing”, have been the subject of many a five-minute YouTube montage. Sometimes Jobs is way off the mark. The original AppleTV was released with the usual Apple fanfare, and then demoted to a “hobby device” after two years of lackluster sales. But sometimes Steve is right: the iPod kick started the MP3 player market, the iMac introduced consumers to the all-in-one desktop, and the iPhone became the benchmark for app phones.

The original Macbook Air fell into the former category. Steve pulled it out of an office envelope, declared it “incredible” and slapped on a $1,500 tag. Consumers shunned it, and reviews criticized its small hard drive space, poor performance and short battery life. Its screen was too small, and the touchpad lacked multi-touch. Competing models from Sony and Dell quickly snatched up the Air’s “thinnest laptop” title. Like the AppleTV, the Air was demoted to a niche product and given a low priority for updates and refreshes.

But El Jobso always has “one more thing” up his sleeve, and on Oct. 20, 2010 the Macbook Air received a big refresh. Instead of one Air, there are now two: an 11.6” model and a 13.3” model. Both feature high-resolution displays, packing a few extra hundred pixels for easy viewing. Inside, both have updated processors, new graphics cards, huge battery reserves and solid-state storage. Pricing now starts at $999 for the 11.6” model and at $1299 for the 13.3” configuration. Introducing the new Air, Steve informed his audience that this was the new model for designing notebook computers. This time, Steve is absolutely right.

The Macbook Air has everything consumers need from a laptop, and nothing they don’t. Students’ laptop-of-choice these days seems to be the Macbook Pro, which sacrifices battery life and portability for processing power that, in reality, most students have no use for. With new pricing and updated components, the Macbook Air is a perfect laptop for casual users today and a model for future laptop design.

The new Air hits a sweet spot for performance and battery life. Laptop design is a careful balance between providing useful battery life and selling powerful, energy-sucking components. Critics have balked at Apple’s choice to use last-generation Core 2 Duo ULV (Ultra-Low Voltage) processors rather than the recent Core i3/i5 series. The i3/i5 series, though higher performing, would come at the expense of significantly increased power draw, crippling the Air’s battery life. Furthermore, the i3/i5 would provide a tangible increase in performance only for tasks like heavy gaming or video editing, hardly a benefit for the casual user.

Instead, the Air’s solid-state upgrade offers remarkable performance for everyday use without sacrificing battery life. Boot-up times are cut in half, programs open almost immediately and accessing multiple programs simultaneously is no trouble. Combine the low power-usage of a solid-state drive with a massive battery reserve that holds enough juice for a month of standby or five to seven hours of web browsing (Macbook Pro’s compare at three to four hours of web browsing), and you’ve got a winning product.

At the same time, the Air still retains its main selling point: sleek form factor. It achieves that at the expense of a CD/DVD drive but that is hardly a deal-breaker in a world of flash drives, streaming Netflix and the iTunes store. As a result, both models weigh in at three pounds and feature a maximum thickness of 0.68 inches. Their full-size keyboard and multi-touch touchpads make use easy and high-resolution screens make up for their relatively small size. That weight, size and durable solid-state storage mean that the new Air is perfect for carrying around to classes or commuting in general.

The Macbook Air doesn’t have everything; it is insufficient for tasks like heavy gaming or video editing, lacks an optical drive and its solid-state storage options max out at 256GB. But for casual users today, its battery life, performance, portability and new price point are worth considering. As die sizes shrink to produce faster low-voltage processors and graphics, CD/DVDs become completely obsolete and cloud storage takes off, notebooks like the Macbook Air will become the new norm for portable computing. Steven P. Jobs, the wizard of white and plastic, the egomaniac of electronics, is onto something this time.

Issue 08, Submitted 2010-11-03 19:15:33