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Summary:

I am one of the few proud MacBook Air owners in the world. Every article you’ve seen from me in the past was written on the petite beauty. I was understandably excited about Apple’s event yesterday. So why did I walk away feeling disappointed?

mba-feature

Thinner, yes. But better?

I am one of the few, proud MacBook Air (MBA) owners in the world. Every article you’ve seen from me in the past was written on the petite beauty. In one last month, I wrote:

I’m only here to make a case that anyone that hasn’t used one should give it a shot and that Apple needs to throw some marketing dollars behind it so everyone else knows what we MacBook Air owners have known for a long time: It’s the best notebook Apple makes and it also happens to be the smallest.

This is exactly what Apple did yesterday, and yet, I was severely disappointed. It seems as if Apple is finally throwing marketing dollars behind the MBA, and I watched my Twitter stream as thousands of geeks’ heads exploded at how thin it is. But I felt a little weird reading this on my MacBook Air and thinking out loud, “I know. It’s been that way for years.” It’s thinner, yes, but not significantly. That’s the whole story in a nutshell.

Pricing & Marketing

On the whole, the reason Apple’s MacBook Air wasn’t a hit before now was price. Imagine the iPad started at $999. Fewer people would own one, and those that did and sang its praises it to friends would be immediately be greeted with the response that it was simply too expensive for a tablet. Basically, Apple just dropped the price. The MacBook Air of today is largely unchanged from what we had before, and that’s disappointing.

11.6″ Model Versus the Sony TZ (circa 2008)

Consider Engadget’s live-blog from Macworld 2008, when the Macbook Air was introduced. Steve initially compared the MacBook Air to Sony’s TZ series. His biggest gripe was that the processor speed maxed out at 1.2GHz Core 2 Duo, and the display was only 11 inches.

The 11.6-inch MacBook Air is “too cramped” and “too slow” according to the Steve of 2008. To be fair, the Air isn’t the same as the TZ in every way. I haven’t used the new keyboard, but Apple claims it’s full-size and the body is still a bit thinner.

Let’s Talk Speed

Current MacBook Air owners won’t see a significant speed bump if they own the Revision C model (1.8/2.13GHz) released last year. In fact, not much has changed about the machine at all.

MacBook Air Revision C (Jun. 2009)

  • 1.86 ($1499) or 2.13GHz ($1799)
  • 3.0 Pounds
  • 6MB of L2 Cache w/ 1066Mhz Frontside Bus
  • 120GB HDD or 128GB SSD
  • 2GB RAM (DDR3-8500 at 1066Mhz)
  • 13.3-inch screen w/ 1280×800 resolution
  • NVIDIA GeForce 9400 w/ 256Mb of VRAM (shared with main memory)

MacBook Air Revision D (October,2010)

  • 1.86Ghz ($1,299) or 2.13Ghz ($1699)
  • 2.9 pounds
  • 6MB of L2 Cache w/ 1066Mhz Frontside Bus
  • 128GB SSD or 256GB SSD
  • 2GB/4GB RAM (DDR3-8500 at 1066MHz)
  • 13.13″ screen w/ 1440×900 resolution
  • NVIDIA GeForce 320m w/ 256Mb of VRAM (shared with main memory)

Of course, I’m only comparing the 13-inch models, but you’re getting a machine that’s basically the same speed with an option to add more ram and more storage,  plus a high-resolution screen which isn’t something I’d recommend to everyone. Some (especially those over 50) will prefer a lower resolution. Even I had trouble using a 17-inch MacBook Pro and eventually sold it.

What you are getting is a drop in price. Last year, a 2.13GHz machine with 2GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD would cost $1799. Today, that same machine costs $1699 with double the storage, and it’s only $100 to upgrade to 4GB of RAM.

Real World Performance

Will HD Flash movies on YouTube perform better? No. Will Photoshop CS5 filters apply faster? Maybe with a RAM upgrade. Nothing about this upgrade is impressive if you’re a current MacBook Air owner looking for more speed.

Why can’t Apple squeeze more juice out of this machine? Apple didn’t talk speed at all. They didn’t throw their famous “2x Faster” graphic up on the “buy now” page. Apple does tout the 2.9x faster graphics card, but I can guarantee you the Air released yesterday is only marginally faster than last year’s model, despite the introduction of the 320M, because that’s a video card using shared RAM, meaning the graphics performance goes down as you open more applications.

I was underwhelmed by today’s announcement, but the MBA was already a good notebook. I was hoping Apple would make it even better. It didn’t. “One more thing” was simply a minor evolutionary product refresh, and that’s too bad.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

  1. I guess what Apple is trying to do is reach for that sector that iPad is not getting, the ones that are still sticking to the netbooks, the ones that still dont want a tablet to rule their “computing stuff”, i have to say they are still quite a lot of people, apple is always pushing technology i dont doubt that we will see a mac book air pro or something like that, not yet, i dont see this as an mac book air upgrade but as a deadly shoot to netbooks share.

  2. I was hoping for an i3 to be honest. In this current form it makes no sense to me to buy it over this: http://www.amazon.com/UL30A-A2-Light-13-3-Inch-Silver-Laptop/dp/B002P3KMNU/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1287681491&sr=8-2

    Which I actually bought 1 year ago, was a fight betwen MBA and the Asus, and I am sad to say, Asus still wins hands on, even after 1 year of usage and even with the new MBA revision…

    1. Agreed. For quite a while, both me and some Mac forum buddies have prayed that the MBA got the Core i3 treatment in this refresh but that didn’t happen.

  3. On “that’s a video card using shared RAM, meaning the graphics performance goes down as you open more applications.”

    Uh, can you point to any technical articles discussing this? I don’t think shared graphics memory works that way (it’s dedicated at POST).

    1. I agree with Apple’s choice. It makes sense based on how the author in ArsTechnica laid it out. If needed a new Mac – the 13 in with the additional RAM would be my first choice. Way to go Apple!

  4. I have to agree, I think it was a pretty underwhelming release. Using an old CPU and then making the clock speed slower is odd to say the least. Using higher resolution screens is nice, those are needed much more on the Pro line though.

    Oh well, I guess I’m not the target market there. I’ll keep my MacBook Pro for now.

  5. This is nearly the same that was done with the new Apple TV. Little to minimal change compared to its predecessor, lots and lots of marketing effort and hype. The only substantial change i can see appears to be the updated OS.

    1. re: AppleTV, there’s also that price drop from $250 (roughly) to $99.

      Imagine if the iPad was priced at $999 and the AppleTV at $250 or if this machine was still at near $2K for the entry model as it was back in 2008…sales would continue flat because, in my opinion, Apple simply isn’t innovating this year with their products.

  6. The Air is the laptop of tomorrow built with the technology of today.

    As it is, it’s not even competitive with Apple’s vanilla $999 MacBook. If you’re a secretary for a C-Level executive, tell your boss they make great stocking stuffers. But if you’re at all price sensitive, stick to something more utilitarian, like MacBook Pro.

  7. I’ll start by saying that I agree with most of this analysis. The original MBA didn’t do that well, and I agree that it was predominantly the price which caused that. The lower price will make this laptop much more accessible and popular (especially once 10.7 hits and it becomes even more the MB/iPad combination it dreams to be).

    I do not think it is the best laptop Apple makes. In fact, I would argue that it’s the most niche product in the company’s current lineup. For those who simply need to do relatively light computing work in a high-travel environment, it’s fantastic; for others, well it’s good, but it may not be the best choice.

    This article should note that the graphics chip in the new MBA, the GeForce 320M, is a significant step up from the 9400m, and when combined with new technologies that the card supports, provides quite a boost to the overall system performance when compared to similar specs with the 9400M.

    And for those who are wondering why the i3 isn’t in this laptop, the link to ArsTechnica is right. Using an i3 involves using Intel’s integrated graphics solution, and without any room whatsoever for another graphics card, it would actually offer worse performance than the current Core2Duo w/the GeForce 320m. Latest and greatest doesn’t always mean best when you can’t use all the technologies available to you.

    In the end, I think it’s an interesting direction for the Air to move. I’m not sure how it’ll fare in a increasingly iPad dominated market, but I’m sure it will find it’s place.

    As for me, I’ll never be leaving my (surprisingly portable) 15″ Core i5 Macbook Pro.

  8. Being I didn’t own a MacBook air before I’m now jumping on it…so there are 2 ways to look at it (a) you’re happy that more of us will be as smart as your (b) you’re mad that more of us are catching up to be as smart as you :<(

    Either way, I'm excited to get this. I'm also splurging to get a nice case…going with this new case from SLAPPA http://www.slappa.com/HardBody-PRO-Chex

  9. You didn’t mention battery life in your article. The battery lasts 5-7 hours on the new MacBook air. The old one only lasts 2-3 because they didn’t have enough space for bigger battery. That alone makes it substantially better than the old Air. I would still prefer an IPad though rather than the MacBook Air.

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