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MacBook Air reviews: battery life appears a little thin

131583mbair_largeMainstream media has the first overviews of the MacBook Air available today: you can catch the high-level thoughts at USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. These are less of a review and more of a general impression and description of the device, but two of the three hit a key point worth a mention: actual battery life.

Edward Baig at USA Today indicates 3 hours and 40 minutes while surfing and writing; watching a movie knocked it down to 2 hours and 40 minutes. Walt Mossberg got 3 hours and 24 minutes with his standard test of playing loops of music with no power management and the screen brightness at full. As a standard test, I think it’s lacking in terms of pushing the processor, but that’s just my opinion. Steven Levy at Newsweek didn’t offer a true battery run test, which causes me to raise an eyebrow, but he does say he was getting slightly less than the five hours that’s advertised. Unfortunately, we don’t know what he had the machine doing for those nearly five hours.The device is still effective for a segment of the mobile market, but if you’re on the go and can’t plug in, you’ll want to watch the clock… and wish for the basic ability to use a spare battery before you run out of Air. I still can’t get past the decision to implement a non-user-replaceable battery solution. Had the battery run-time been stellar, even better than the Apple claim of up to five hours, then perhaps I could overlook it.

14 Responses to “MacBook Air reviews: battery life appears a little thin”

  1. bill harris

    Not to totally change the subject, but does anyone know what the battery life for the SSD is? I would expect a pretty solid improvement in that option (although, not many are comfortable shelling out $3000, that’s for sure).

  2. Gaurav Sharma

    Remember the original iPod batteries? There were complaints firing in all directions about the non-replaceable batteries on those early iPods. Apple seem to have stuck with that idea to this very day regardless, and it’s certainly not done them much harm. I doubt they’ll ever put a changeable battery in the Air for that reason. In fact I’d say it’s reasonable to assume they’ll carry the “fixed battery” approach over to the Pro line later this year too. The main reason you’d want to swap out the battery is for, say, an extended battery to take its place. Apple’s *never* offered extended batteries. So why let the user remove it? What are they going to replace it with if there’s no other options? The only remaining rational for having a changeable then seems to be “in case it breaks”, but really, that’s Apple’s problem – it’s not something the general buyer is expected to, well, expect in the product, and in the unlikely event that’d happen, you’d do the same as returning a faulty iPod with fixed battery.

    I think the battery life should’ve been better, but the claims being made about the importance of removable battery for other reasons are a bit OTT, it’s as if they just want the ability to dis-assemble the thing just for the sake of it (which is *not* what Macs are known for!).

  3. If you take your device outside the house, there’s always a concern with battery life. I always take an external Tekkeon battery with the Fujitsu U810. Although I can get 5 hrs out of it I’m finding I’m using the Tekkeon quite a lot.

    Once your battery gets passed the 50% left mark, you’re going to worry.
    Going to Starbucks and streaming your favorite Youtube videos for only little over an hour will probably get you to that 50% mark with the Air. For a notebook with no way to swap out a battery, it’s definitely a concern.

  4. I’m with Kevin on this one: I was actually hoping that Apple was overly pessimistic with the battery life estimates, like they are for iPods. But 3.5 hours of realistic usage isn’t anything to write home about.

    Also, I don’t think it’s fair to throw out numbers about how few people carry a spare battery when traveling. Those numbers include 95% of the laptops that were never meant to be used as highly portable computers and their owners rarely remove them from their homes. I would argue that a disproportionately higher number of Air users would want a removable battery. I know that having an extra battery with me at a conference floor for example saved me at times, but more importantly even when it didn’t just the fact that I knew I could use my computer freely let me get stuff done without thinking “I shouldn’t power it on now, I might not have enough juice in the afternoon”.

  5. GoodThings2Life

    Batteries are always a concern among actual laptop users. Anyone who claims otherwise is probably sitting at a desk all day and is always plugged in– in which case, why have a laptop at all?

    If you’re a mobile “road warrior” who is constantly roaming around, you want as much battery life as possible OR have an extended/spare battery to swap out as needed.

    Even if you’re only occasionally mobile, you still have to consider that EVERY battery loses its capacity to hold a charge over time. Li-Ion batteries lose approx. 20% of their battery life per year regardless of how you use it, more if you let it drain frequently and perform full charges all the time.

    Why does that matter? Because at a minimum, you should be able to replace a dead or dying battery without having to ship the laptop in for service or taking it to an Apple Store for “major surgery”. Any time another company does this it’s considered an outrage, but somehow MBA buyers think it’s acceptable. Go figure.

  6. Kevin:

    I have tried, tried and tried again to find a “mobile” device. I’ve owned what seems like every phone under the sun, and finally ditched my Treo since I was tired of constantly rebooting every WM device I have ever owned and have been carrying around an iPhone and sometimes a blackberry as well for work.

    Computerwise, I go back to the days of the Kaypro (which still remains one of my all time favorite machines). I have bought and etiher sold or returned a UX, Q1 and OQO – each for various reasons, but in large part due to battery issues. There were portions of each machine that I liked very much – but carrying around such a small and cool machine is only good if I can actually get to use it, rather then take it out, turn it on and then shut it off as quick as possible due to battery fears.

    Although I gave up my TC1000 about a year or so ago, the most “mobile” machine that I use while not a UMPC, is one of the older Sony TX models. It is less then 3 pounds, with a built in optical drive, very decent sized keyboard and which still routinely gives me 5+ hours of battery no matter what I am doing on it. In fact, tomorrow I am traveling and I have downloaded 2 rental movies from iTunes at least one of which I will watch while flying cross country.

    I still long for a real computing device that I can carry around with me all day in my suit pocket and use with minimal compromise, but I don’t believe that day has come yet. I was truly hoping that Apple was going to release some type of large form iPhone as a true subnotebook and I would have pre-ordered that immediately. The Air looks great, but knowing my needs, I’m going to have to stick with the T series for a while longer. 3 houts on an $1800+ machine doesn’t cut it for me.

  7. I’m with Lee on this one. I’ve seen at least one OQO use case where the owner carried a Tekkeon battery pack, the Tekkeon’s Air/Auto adapter, and the OQO’s Air/Auto adapter in order to patch together an external power solution that *weighs more than the computer itself.*

    I’m sure that’s great when you’re on the road, and just want to top off the main battery, but we have to remember how spoiled we truly are. Back in Ye Olde Days, we had truly ultra-mobile computers which lasted for days (sometimes weeks!) on a pair of alkaline batteries. The oldschool Palm devices come to mind, along with the great granddaddy, the HP LX series.

    No, they didn’t run the same exact apps that ran on your desktop. No, they didn’t have big colorful screen. And of course, no, they didn’t even have radios in them!

    At the end of the day, though, that’s where we all seem to want to be. 2008 high-powered features, with the advantages of 1994’s low-powered designs. I would *love* a system that could last for days, if not weeks, in standby, and still deliver 8+ hours of real usability before even warning me about plugging in. I like the overall idea of being able to forget to charge something for a single night, without having to change my usage profile the next day.

    How often, after all, did someone walk around with a dead PalmOS device prior to the advance of color screens and ultra-thin luxury models?

  8. Lee, I’m not overlooking the same limitation I find on other mobile devices I use. I simply have a choice with them that I wouldn’t have with the MacBook Air: extended or spare batteries. I’m willing to accept that as a less-than-ideal solution with those devices; I don’t have that option with the Air. That’s the point of this shortcoming on the Air in my opinion.

    Unfortunately, battery technology and hardware requirements aren’t in a position to accommodate your mobile device requirements, although I wish that weren’t the case. Based on your comment though, you have me curious: do you not use a mobile device?

  9. Changeable battery concerns are overblown, IMHO. Most people who buy a machine like this will not give a stuff about extra batteries, and for the minority who do, external battery packs are easily available for the odd occasion it might be needed.

    A normal MacBook gives about the same battery life – I would bet that most MacBook owners do not carry an extra battery.

    Let’s keep it real – you shave a good chunk of weight by making the battery smaller. If it gives the same battery life as a MacBook on a smaller battery, with corresponding weight saveing, then that is an achievement.

    Fortunately, if such thing bother the buyer, the rest of the Apple range is their to provide alternatives.

  10. I find it more then curious that you have no problem with the limitations of the majority of UMPC’s with regard to battery life – whether it’s the OQO, UX, Q1, etc., and are willing to look past those shortcomings, but you have no problem pointing them out about the Air. Quite frankly, if the battery reports are accurate, that makes the Air only slightly better then most UMPC’s – but the Air is no where near a subnotebook in my opinion.

    And as far as I am concerned (and I have said it before), if I have to start worrying about conserving battery life from the moment I turn a device on, or am forced to carry extra batteries and/or the charging cable, then the device is not really a mobile device – it’s merely transportable.

  11. Patrick Perez

    Not that it is a deal-breaker for me as I presently need to get rid of, rather than aquire, computers; I was hoping the 5 hour surfing battery claim was realistic. I do think it is fair that the maximum power savings be enabled to achieve for comparison’s sake.

    The fact that Apple specifically said 5 hours while browsing to me is a higher standard of proof than the typical run time claims that qualify performance based on usage. Apple is stating the usage, so 5 hours should be achievable.

    One thing that troubles me is that in addition to the battery being not replaceable (for the 3% of travellers who actually need a second battery with them) but the heavily patented mag-safe connector prevents using external batteries like BatteryGeek’s (I could be mistaken here).

    However, for how I use a laptop, neither the mag safe nor integral battery are keeping me from jumping on the Air. I think it is going to be a hit in the base configuration (I think the processor and SSD upgrades won’t sell many units). Maybe in a year I will be ready for a new laptop, and the Air will be high on my list.