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The New MacBook Air Is Underwhelming

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Thinner, yes. But better?

I am one of the few, proud MacBook Air (s aapl) (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 (s sne) TZ series. His biggest gripe was that the processor speed maxed out at 1.2GHz Core 2 Duo (s intc), 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 (s nvda) 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 (s goog) perform better? No. Will Photoshop CS5 (s adbe) 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.

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36 Responses to “The New MacBook Air Is Underwhelming”

  1. Are you kidding? Another USB, flash, better battery power. I mean thats not too much of a differnece…but when you compare the MacBook Air with 2.13ghz Core 2 Duo + 256GB Flash + 4GB RAM to a MacBook Pro with a Core i5 or i7 and a regular hard drive (and of corse 4GB RAM) the MacBook Air actually puts up a lot of heat to the Core i5/7 machines and in some cases wins BIG TIME!!! Now a MBP with an i5/i7 and an SSD would be a whole diffent story!!!

  2. For me, the MBA is my sweet spot. I travel quite often and I would prefer a lighter Mac to whip out of my bag in an instant. I want to be able to write light code as well as handle email and documents. I’m curious about Parallels or even BootCamp, but keeping it in context of what I do, the new 13 will be my new MacBook. I also like the increased PPI on the display.

    BTW, in order to get “clearance from the tower,” I tell my wife that my computer refresh cycle is every 3 years because of warrranty reasons.

  3. People!! WTF! You need to think different with the Air than the MBP. It’s not about speed and power. It’s not supposed to be a powerhouse. It’s supposed to be more portable. The new one definitely achieved a “bump” in portability. NO?

    Speed bumps will naturally happen as chip technology evolves and gets cheaper, but this was Apple actively evolving the computer itself, and not waiting for 3rd party component manufacturers to do it for them.


  4. Apple creates great platforms then incrementally improves them. With increased competition, the increments seem progressively smaller. I looked at the shrinking gap between the iPhone and competitive platforms as they each evolve. This mirrors the theme you’ve done a nice job describing here.

  5. You know that I’m also a proud Air owner, so I can speak from experience, too. There’s a couple of big feature improvements you didn’t hit on–the main one for me is battery life. I find my Air’s battery life to be less than ideal; mind you, I have the platter-drive version. Mine also cannot handle more than about 45 minutes using iChat Video–it heats up and the frame rates drop to a dismal level. Also, the battery takes an atrociously long amount of time to recharge–probably twice that of my previous generation MacBook Pro 15″.

    My last beef with the past models has been with USB. The lack of ports I lived with by carrying a portable USB hub, but it doesn’t pass through power when asleep like other Mac portables, so I end up carrying an extra adapter to charge my iPhone and other USB-charged devices, like my bluetooth headsets.

    I haven’t had much screen time with the new one, so I can’t tell you about the charging or the USB power passthrough. However, I appreciate the 2 USB ports and the much-longer battery life. I also like that people can actually afford an SSD-equipped Mac notebook. I certainly couldn’t justify the old-gen’s SSD-equipped pricing, especially considering this is a satellite computer that I don’t use as my main machine.

    In the past, when people asked me about the Air versus a MacBook 13″, I’d always say the Air is an “Executive Computer” and usually recommend the MB or MBP. Now, I think I’d change my tune. With the enhanced graphics performance and heavier duty case design, added to the substantial price/value equation, the new Air is on my recommended list.

    For now, I’ll use my old Air and iPad combination as my field machines, but when the next revision of this new generation comes out, I’ll probably get one. (and probably the little-shooter, using my iPad as a 2nd display when needed)

    • I can’t believe they got rid of the backlit keyboard though. As a current MBA owner, the new one would be a downgrade. (but i don’t think they are trying to attract old MBA owners to this product)

    • It is substantial. Not in terms of traditional hard drive stats, but in terms of feel. Boot time is a huge improvement. Also, launching software feels quick and snappy. When it comes to copying big files, you might even get a slowdown. But for every day use the difference is well worth the price.

  6. New MBA is cheaper than iPad with Bluetooth keyboard.

    Obviously a technology demonstrator. Watch for more miniaturization and move to Flash memory on MacBooks and iMacs, is my guess.

  7. The new MBAs were the only thing in yesterdays presentation that sounded interesting.

    The idea of putting a bunch of iOS eye candy into what is now a damn good OS is a bunch of BS. A new finder would be nice, but otherwise OS 6 is very good OS. Making changes for the sake of making changes not only doesn’t do anything to improve the OS.

    I don’t need or want a screen full of icons to search thru when I want to open an App. The 6 or 7 Apps I use regularly are in the dock and haven’t changed in years, except for updates. ‘

    Ilife may be of interest to those who use iMovie or garage band but isee no reason to update based on iPhoto iWeb and iDVD.

  8. The MacBook Air was originally, and still is, a niche product, albeit for a very large niche (in my opinion). It’s made specifically for people like me. I don’t edit video, or play high-performance games, and I’ve never owned Photoshop. I travel a lot and value light weight and battery life a lot more than raw performance.

    My iPad has been a constant companion since the day it came out and on most days it completely replaced my need for a “real” computer (and I’m talking about actual business use, not just “content consumption”). But there are some days when I need a full computer so the new 13″ Air will be a nice complement to the iPad.

    I think Apple will sell the new Airs as fast as they can make them.

    • I suspect you’d see a reasonable speed increase. It would predominantly come from the SSD which increases speed (or the feel of speed) by a lot. Video performance would get a huge boost though the tangible benefits of that is hard to understand. And if you go with 4GB or RAM that is gonna speed things up as well. You’d get substantially better battery life. I think it is a worthwhile upgrade. You do downgrade from one perspective. That is the keyboard backlighting. The new Air does not have it. Personally, I am waiting for the next iteration as that will come with a reasonable CPU increase as well among all of the above. I hope by then they’ll figure out how to light up the keyboard once again. So I am not upgrading. If it is not urgent, I would not upgrade if I were you either.

  9. Whine all you want. We are in the same shoes. I am also not upgrading. But I did like what I saw. The whole idea of buying a computer with a last generation processor (and no CPU upgrade) is not appealing. But we knew that the current generation of Intel CPUs were hated by Jobs. He probably has good reason. Dedicated graphics eat battery. Built in one is a downgrade. Sandy Bridge is not out. AMD alternatives were unlikely.

    But it is coming. No worries. As soon as there is a Sandy Bridge LV, it is coming. And I like the 2 USB, 4GB RAM (finally) the 256GB SSD (at less than a $500 upgrade), form factor, much better battery life.

    Yes, the weight is a bit disappointing but you know that it is because they needed to fit more battery in there. I can live with that trade off. Yes, CPU upgrade is not there but short of some serious trade offs in an upgrade, Apple just decided not to really upgrade. Fair enough. I just need to wait a bit longer. Cool.

    You know what my biggest disappointment was? No security lock.

    But you people need to stop bitching and realize Apple can’t do magic. They might have you believe they can, but they can’t. They made an awesome upgrade. At the next bump they will offer the computer I want. I can wait for it.

    As for the 11.6″. Cool. They will grab some market share. It might be my next machine as well.

  10. But if you look at the base 13″ model, you see a $200 drop in price and the replacement of HD with SSD. I’d say this makes MBA worth considering for many more people. Plus, you get one more usb and a sd card reader with a better screen. The texts are not necessarily smaller on a higher resolution screen. You can adjust that on a mac, can’t you?

    Also for the 2.13Ghz model, ‘double the storage’ is not cheap, considering what’s the market price for a 128GB SSD ($200+).

  11. jeo4long

    If you are coming from the performance perspective, it is indeed underwhelm, nothing new. However, people seeking MBA and Netbook are not looking for performance. Instead, we are looking from mobility perspective, and Apple finally learns the lesson and gets this MBA right this time.

    I’ve been in ultra portable business since we call them “subnotebook” and I have to say the new 11 inches option may finally give me the option of best pal Sony TZ laptop. Combine that with 4-5 hours batter (for 11 inches) or 6-7 hours for 13 inches, this is a perfect “mobile computer”.

    And one more thing Adam forget to mention is the reduce in weight. In ultra portable world, every 0.1 pound is count in the mobile laptop. My Sony TZ weighs 2.7 lb. The fact that new MBA 11 inches only weigh 2.3 lb, that is going to win a lot of Subnotebook and Netbook lovers. With the non-compromising spec and very attractive price, this is finally a real contender to the Netbook market, especially to those who seeking for top notch quality hardware at Netbook size!

  12. Paul Charlesworth

    I just do not see how much different they could have made it, but when you look carefully it really is a lot different. The magsafe is now a standard version, it now has a standard mini display port like the iMac, it has normal USB ports instead of the flappy door versions, it has a standard SD slot, which is nice, and it has an 11 inch model which is amazing. You might also want to consider that the Macbook design has not changed much in years either. To a casual observer the Powerbooks and Macbook Pro’s all look like and inch thick slab of aluminum.

    The major issue for me is still the speed of the Air, which is supposedly slower than my 2.4GHz Black Macbook of old. I do not know if I want to give up the speed for the weight. I’ve always wanted small and light Apple notebook, and came close to making a Hackingtosh, but now I have the option of a real 11 inch Air, I am hesitating because my Macbook is serving me well (except the bad drive sectors, broken case, temperemental Optical, and clicking trackpad that I need to use Applecare on).

  13. It’s the 11-inch that is the interesting consumer choice here. I can understand if you already have an older Air how these new models are disappointing, but if you are looking for a truly portable laptop running OS X, the 11″ is it. You can almost think of it as a big iPad with a real OS. I don’t understand these people who want to use their Air to do processor-heavy tasks. These things are for taking to meetings, travelling, hanging out in coffee shops and pretending to write a screenplay. If you want to process video, do it at home on your desktop.

  14. Alex Stephens

    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.

  15. 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

  16. 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.

  17. AlleyGator

    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.

  18. 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.

    • Adam Jackson

      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.

  19. 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.

    • 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!

  20. 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).

  21. 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.