MacBook Mini or iPad Pro?

Nov 6, 2010 (Updated Nov 6, 2010)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Tiny, light, long battery life, instant-on

Cons:Small SSD storage, no SD slot, expensive upgrades

The Bottom Line: Surprising fast and and surprisingly affordable, the new MacBook Air finally brings executive ultraportables to the masses.

 Small Laptops:
I've been a Mac user for quite some time, and while I've owned desktop Macs for home and business on occasion, my primary Macs have always been laptops.  From my first PowerBook 145B in 1993 to my current Core i7 15" MacBook Pro, Apple machines have always had a few things in common.  Innovative industrial design, "surprise and delight" features, and above-average, though not always leading-edge ergonomics.  Apple's first PowerBook invented the modern design of almost all laptops by pushing the keyboard to the back of the computer and opening up the area in front for the pointing device, a trackball back then, a glass multitouch touchpad today.

To me, the ideal portable Mac is a computer of extremely small size and light weight, though with adequate performance and very long battery life.  Apple has delivered a few such gems over the years, while they have also, numerous times, missed the mark.

The original MacBook Air was one of those near misses, getting the thin and light part right on, and the SSD model, once fitted with nVidia graphics, offered more than adequate performance that blew away almost everything else in the ultraportable class.  The original Air design had two flaws that kept it from portable computer Nirvana for me, and those were the single USB port and decent, but not stellar battery life.  I had my Rev. B MacBook Air (1.86 GHz Core2Duo and 128 GB SSD) for almost two years, and highly regret selling it.

The reason I did sell it was because of the battery life.  I usually could squeeze four hours and a few minutes from my Air, two hours if watching movies.  Not bad for an ultraportable with a full Core2Duo processor and tiny batteries, but nowhere near enough to get through a workday or a long flight.

The iPad:
I own a 15" MacBook Pro as my primary computer, and used the MacBook Air as a secondary.  In the quest for longer battery life and lighter weight I made the move from the MacBook Air to the iPad, and while the iPad does everything I expected it to do, there are many ways in which it falls short of a regular laptop.  Still, with 10 hours of battery life and a weight of 1.5 lbs, it was half the weight and ran more than twice as long as the MacBook Air, which forgives many shortcomings.

The new Air:
We are still not there yet, but getting closer and closer.  I recently bought the 11.6" MacBook Air in this category, though upgraded from the factory with the 4 GB RAM option ($100).  Since this is a business computer with minimal storage needs I went with the base 64 GB SSD and the 1.4 GHz processor, for a total price of $1099.  I have not yet decided whether to pass the iPad or the Air to an employee, as each has compelling arguments in its favor.

The new Air is rated at 5 hours of battery life, just as the old officially was.  With the old Air, I was able to achieve a real-world four hours, with the screen dimmed to about 4 bars and wifi and Bluetooth off.  Wifi on and a brighter screen dropped that figure closer to three hours.  The new Air is also rated at 5 hours, but Apple made a big deal about its new, more rigorous battery testing, and they were not lying.  With the screen at 4 bars and all radios off my MacBook Air ran for six and a half hours.  With wifi and Bluetooth on and the screen brightened the new Air still ran for just a few minutes short of five hours.  Its not iPad level battery life, but its far better than it used to be.

The new MacBook Air also weighs in at only 2.3 lbs.  Yes, it is noticeably heavier than the iPad, but it also has a full keyboard and full OS X instead of the iOS system from the iPhone and iPod touch.

Fresh Air:
The new Air is a revelation in terms of industrial design.  No computer anywhere near its size is as comfortable to use.  In fact, the new Air, like the old one, is more comfortable to use than its bigger MacBook and MacBook Pro brothers on account of the very thin profile that puts the keys physically closer to the table.  The sharp front edge of the current 15" MacBook Pro digging into my wrists with my poor typing position has been a constant complaint since the first unibody MacBook Pro in 2008, and Apple has done nothing to smooth that edge in subsequent revisions.  The Air, and its predecessor simply don't have that problem.

In fact, the only two things that the current MacBook compromises on in terms of ergonomics compared to its bigger brothers is the backlit keyboard, which I really liked on the old model, and half-height function keys, which I find totally insignificant.

Those two negatives aside, the MacBook Air is otherwise improved in every conceivable way.  It is dramatically smaller than the old 13" or its new 13" sibling.  The screen, while smaller, has higher resolution.  The hinge feels stronger and more importantly, the display opens at a greater angle, giving far more flexibility for viewing and placement, especially in confined spaces.  This is the second laptop I've ever owned, in fact, that is in no danger whatsoever when used on a coach-class tray table.  Other laptops are tall enough when opened that a sudden recline by the passenger in front can take-out your screen, but not so the MacBook Air.

The 11.6" model does not have the SD slot that the new 13.3" model does, but it does have two USB ports, which is another HUGE improvement.  Now you can connect a flash drive AND a mouse, or an optical drive AND an Ethernet adapter, without bothering with a hub.  Personally, I never felt limited by the single USB port on the old Air, but I know many people who did.

Finally, there are many reviewers who complain about the lack of an optical drive, or that the regular 13" MacBook Pro is "only" 4.5 lbs.  These reviewers just don't get the MacBook Air.  If you consider 4.5 lbs to be light, or if you think a laptop should included every device you MIGHT use, then the MacBook Air is clearly not designed for you and you've got no business reviewing it.  Its like a car reviewer writing about a Trek bicycle and complaining that it lacks an engine.

So who is the MacBook Air intended for?  The original model was quite expensive and was clearly aimed at executives and those who at least could afford to spend like one.  The new model, however, starts at the same price as the base white MacBook, though with far lower specification.  That low price puts the MacBook Air within reach of almost anyone who values small size, light weight and long battery life in their portable Mac.  Yes, a netbook is even smaller and lighter, not to mention MUCH, MUCH cheaper, but the Air plays in a different class.  It is a premium, ultraportable LAPTOP, not netbook, and in that class, it is a raging bargain in its base configurations.

So who is it for?  It was clearly designed for me, and may very well have been designed for you too.

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