Macbook Air

Like many other techs, the most exciting prospect of today’s Macworld 2008 was either that Apple would release an iPhone with 3G capability (which they didn’t) or a tablet-based notebook system, with the delightful rotating screen that is the hallmark of tablet systems (they didn’t do that either.)

However, besides a few uninteresting software updates and an update to the Apple TV (I don’t know a single person who’s bought one) there was a new product release, the Macbook Air, pictured here levitating using the four magnetic antigravity conduits ingeniously mounted on the bottom of the .76 inch thick frame.

Ha! Ha! Hopefully you didn’t really believe that. However, the .76 inch thick part is totally true, and that’s at the widest point. I believe it’s .16 inches at its thinnest, making it hands-down the thinnest system in the world until something new beats it next month.

But the problem with having such a thin system are the ultimate tradeoffs. And the tradeoffs are what the Macbook Air will provide in spades. The lack of the optical drive is the obvious and expected one, in an ultraportable. But an Apple system missing a Firewire port? How odd! That it’s an ultraportable system that doesn’t have a dock of some kind to connect it to a bevy of other ports? That’s Apple “minimalism” for you…minimizing your options on a daily basis.

The rather horrifying part comes up where Apple merrily totes this being a notebook “for the wireless age” – the only way this system will be able to do pretty much anything is through its wireless features. There is no ethernet RJ-45 jack on this notebook. Let’s have that sink in for a moment. In a country where we still can’t expect standard 802.11g networks to have perfect connectivity, Apple has thrown out the only truly reliable networking method in favor of a method of wireless networking (802.11n) that hasn’t even been fully ratified! Draft-N, as it’s called, consistently receives ho-hum ratings from such magazines as PC Magazine (and we better hope they know what they’re talking about) and this is what we’re to rely on?

One of Apple’s biggest problems is that they magically assume that their computers are living in some mythical future in which hardware never fails. For half a decade, they’ve built their notebooks and desktops so that you have to be either a brain surgeon or a brain surgeon moonlighting as a computer tech in order to get them apart and replace failed components – and yes, they do fail. The parts inside are made by Foxconn, for crying out loud. Steve Jobs was beaten by a screwdriver as a child, and now he has an intense hatred of visible screws on his computers. Everything has to be held together by friction or internal screws. Take one of those things apart and what do you think is inside? Masses of wires, held together by tape. Tape. Your two-grand system, held together with TAPE?!?!

I’m sorry, I got a little off track there. Basically, the Macbook Air, though a beautiful system without a doubt, will fall victim to its own hypothetical “advancement.” Wireless networking is a fickle thing, and this sliver of a system will only have that as an option. You better believe there’s no way to add a PC card or something to expand its options. A USB dongle with an ethernet jack, perhaps, although at those speeds you’d be better off using your cell phone as a modem.

I can’t wait to see the tech support calls we’re going to get on this on. “My wireless isn’t fast enough!” “Facebook won’t load!”…I’m wincing already. Hopefully Apple will at least test this product enough so that its top cases won’t discolor and turn pink, or crack into bits. I love my job.

EDIT 4/14/2008: Well, I just had the dubious honor of taking apart our repair shop’s first Macbook Air. Of course, with a diagnosis like this one’s hard drive failure, we always Netboot (click for explanation) our systems so that we can run in-system diagnostics on them. But how do you Netboot a system without an ethernet port and you can’t Netboot from wireless? With a sinking feeling, my fellow techs and I bought one of Apple’s USB-to-Ethernet dongles. As we suspected, booting up the network volume took about 12 minutes. Comparatively speaking, it takes about 45 seconds to Netboot a machine through normal 100baseT ethernet. To make matters worse, while in USB-powered Netboot, the system is so incredibly choppy to use for testing purposes that it’s almost nonfunctional. The pointer on the screen lags about 2 seconds behind each finger movement. This is ridiculous. Apple; you’ve made a beautiful machine but once again fallen through on the actual function of your system. Now that’s thinking different.