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Macworld Update: Macbook Air, A First Look

macbook air reviewAround the Macworld show Floor, I heard a lot of the same comments. The Mac faithful groaned consistently this morning’s keynote address was a snoozer.  They weren’t impressed enough.  There was too little surprise, they said, and, worse, only little changes.  It’s not that something is wrong with the existing Apple product line, Apple’s Steve-worshiping fans just wanted more. Their expectations were over stoked.  They wanted to be surprised, wowed and awed.   The reality was short.

In a way, it’s not unlike the stock price.  It tends to rise before the trade show and drop a bit after; a consequence of Apple’s finely tuned marketing machine. Sometimes, it’s almost too good for their own good.

It’s true, Apple’s product announcement this morning largely validated the rumors, or the rumors largely pegged the announcements. There were few surprises.   Odds on, most expected announcements were made.    Like a predictable book, Apple delivered the comfortable conclusions.  That’s not to say it wasn’t satisfying, however.   The new Macbook, in fact, is rather impressive.  The improvements to the Apple TV’s software aren’t bad either.

In my experience, price notwithstanding, the decisions to buy many a gadget starts in the gut.  It’s less about need than desire.  It’s a question of whether the product leave you walking away impressed. Or just walking away.  Is it something you rave about? Or something you pan?  There’s not much middle ground.

Apple TV is nice but it doesn’t rise to the standards of a “must have” product, yet.  It’s an appetizer.  Hands on, the support for the new rental program, and the improved HD video and surround sound capabilities are good.  Displayed on a theater sized screen, with massive speakers, it got audience attention.  And in demonstration, it remains iconic. The user interface is crisp and intuitive.  It’s clearly from Apple. Better yet, existing owners aren’t made obsolete. The changes are in the software.  Still, with gadget lust it doesn’t fuel hunger yet. I can wait to see what comes from Netflix and LG’s partnership. From TiVo and Amazon’s joint effort. From Building B and Vudu. TV Convergence devices, just aren’t ripe for the picking, yet.  (Case in point, on Apple’s own site, Apple TV is relegated to a placement under the iPod + iTunes tab. Unlike the Mac, the iPhone, or the iPod, Apple TV doesn’t yet rate its own top-billed section)

The new Macbook on the other hand?  It was the show stealer at this Macworld.   Michael Jordan wasn’t on hand to share his famed “Air” Moniker, but the Macbook Air would have done him proud.  It’s another design sensation.   With tapered edges and a sleek shape, the design cues remain minimalist, right down to the now classic Apple magnetic power connector (though this one is different at the tip).  In line with the aesthetic there’s also a fold-out door which hides a USB port, a headphone jack and a micro DVI port, and amazingly, it doesn’t look flimsy as folding computer components often do. (adapters are included for different monitor connections).

With a 13.4 inch screen, the computer is not a miniature, but in weight and thickness, it is.  Its tapered case ranges from .76inch to .16inch thick.  It’s like holding a legal pad.  And in weight, it’s not much heavier.

The Intel chipset seems quick (though testing that is purely anecdotal and no benchmarking is really possible until Apple ships the product or provides review models).  In speed, the real virtue is the flash based hard drive option.  With no moving parts it boots incredibly quickly. The only question is whether it proves reliable. .  (There’s not necessarily any reason to doubt it will but new hard drive technology always inspires a few “lost data” neuroses.)  And for those wanting, traditional hard drives are available too.

With the user interface, the gesture controls added to the tracking screen are also smooth and easy to adjust to.  The rest is classic Apple.   For intuitive and elegant design that seems simple, Apple yet again proves they’re in an elite league.   It’s no accident an art college offering an industrial design degree had a prominent booth on the trade show floor.  Apple is the Bang and Olufsen of the mass market, if not something more than that.

All in all, for anyone who travels, for people who like Macs, for gadget freaks, the Macbook Air is wowing.  True, the battery is not removable.  True, there are things that can be criticized. True, it’s evolutionary. True, it’s not shocking in its feature set, but it’s a product easy to see yourself using (for many).  I can picture it on my desk. Or in a bag when I’m on the go. Accompanying me on a plane.  Improving my work.  I can see it. 

And who can deny, little fuels gadget lust more than being able to easily see yourself having the product in your life.  It’s kind of like buying a house – people picture how their furniture will look in it.  The Macbook Air is a product you can picture decorating your office furniture. 

In the past, I have been impressed by Apple computers but not tempted to switch away from the Microsoft world.  This is a product that could motivate me to finally change.

From the minds of Steve Jobs, Jonathan Ive and their team, this notebook is a winner….and groans of the unsurprised notwithstanding, on first looks- it impresses.   The lines of people stacked two and three deep hoping to play with one is evidence of that enough. 

By June, even with its expense, this is a computer that will sell a lot of units.  It won’t be for everyone. It has a niche, but it should capture it with vigor.


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