MacBook Air as "big iPod"

I've gone through the three stages of Apple-announcement processing on the MacBook Air: lunatic enthusiasm, sticker shock and acceptance. I wanted to think out loud about this product and hear other people's thoughts on it too. I don't promise magnificent insight in what follows.

The first reaction I had, watching the keynote, was surprise and enthusiasm for the product. It looks beautiful and is clearly pushing the design envelope pretty far. The Air represents a number of bold moves: deprecating optical drives, minimal wired capabilities and SSD storage. For those three things alone, the Air is a landmark product for Apple.

My second reaction, when I saw the tech specs and price was disbelief and my feeling quickly moved to "this product makes no sense for anyone except the mega-rich" (I now disagree with that thought, so please read on before jumping to leave a comment). Let's face it, all engineering is about the balancing of trade-offs and the Air, like any other Apple laptop, is a machine of trade-offs. It's just a different bag of decisions from other machines.

My 17" MacBook Pro gives up a lot of things to achieve the things that it achieves. It achieves performance, storage capacity, an optical drive and a good range of wired ports but gives up on size, weight and price. The standard MacBook trades off screen space and performance (mainly graphics performance) to gain something in size, weight and price. The MacBook Air prizes size and weight over all other things.

I've written before that the deprecation of the optical drive is well overdue, but I was genuinely surprised at how few wired ports there are on the MacBook Air. At the very lest, I did not expect FireWire to completely disappear and I'm doubly surprised that they didn't even try to squeeze in a four-pin FireWire port just to give people access to their existing FireWire devices. Primarily, I'm thinking about hard drives, but I guess a four-pin FireWire port wouldn't be much use anyway for most of the bus-powered portable drives that people have. At least a second USB port would have been nice.

I'm also more than slightly surprised that Ethernet has been dropped. I suspect that market research shows that few laptop users use it, but I use it every day at work. There also remain plenty hotels with hard-wired ethernet ports in their rooms. Yes, you can get a USB-Ethernet dongle, but it's only 10/100, there's only one USB port on this machine and what happens if you need to use that for, say, an external hard disk?

Speaking of storage, I'm both impressed and curious at the decisions Apple made about storage on the Air. I think the use of the 1.8" iPod drives made a lot of sense, despite their relative slowness. They've proven themselves reliable and, if you're prizing size/weight over everything, getting 80GB at 4200RPM in a 1.8" box is a great trade-off to make. I am, though, surprised that they're not offering the 160GB option from the iPod Classic. I know they're fractionally bigger but, given how unlikely it is that the Air's drive will be feasibly replaceable, I would have liked to see a slightly larger option.

The SSD drive is a landmark in that Apple decided to offer it at all. I suspect this is more about sending a message to the flash manufacturers that Apple is going to grow their market, rather than having a serious expectation of shipping a lot of these things. For the price of the upgrade alone, you can practically buy another computer. That part of the Air really is for the mega-rich, or those with a provable, immediate and critical need for a no-moving-parts storage device.

So, it's clear that the MacBook Air is, at least, space-constrained. I wouldn't say cramped, but it does not have big storage and it doesn't look like it will be easy to upgrade. I appreciate I am not a typical user, but I carry around 160GB on my MacBook Pro. Yes, 100GB of that are iTunes and Aperture libraries, but /Applications takes another significant chunk (6GB on my machine), /Library is eating 5GB, /Developer is taking 2.5GB and /System is taking 3.5GB. That's 18GB just for installation of the OS, Apps and support files. The fattest apps turn out to be iWork, Office, Photoshop and FileMaker Pro, in that order.

My feeling is that unless you only use 'big apps and small data' - by which I really mean iWork/Office, or maybe you're a developer with middling source repositories - the Air is not a machine to live on. If you're into media of any kind - music, photography, video - the Air is probably going to be too tight to even consider as a main machine.

This brings me to my main thinking about the Air: it might just be that the Air makes the absolutely ideal companion to a desktop machine. The MacBook and MacBook Pro are, I think, both perfectly good desktop replacements for most people. The only segments not well-served by one of Apple's existing laptops are those with extreme storage or processing requirements and, given the processors in today's laptops, you would have to be a prolific RAW-shooting photographer or video editor to find it hard to squeeze onto a MacBook Pro.

Is the MacBook Air a great photography machine? Not for daily use. Its glossy screen pretty much disqualifies it from being used for serious colour-critical work and the aforementioned storage limitations disqualify it from being used for long-term photo storage. Think about it: I carry 8GB of CF cards on a shoot and can easily fill them in a day. When installed, the Air has capacity for about a week's serious photography.

What the Air, along with a couple of USB hard drives, might be just ideal for is taking on a photography road trip. When you're carrying two bodies, eight lenses and a tripod, size and weight start to matter a lot. I estimate that my 17" MacBook Pro weighs just less than or about the same as my entire camera and lens kit. Add a couple of USB drives to an Air and you've got a pretty decent compact system if you have your masters referenced on an external drive and backed up onto the second external. The only question is how do you back up one external drive to another on a MacBook Air? It's tricky, since you only have one USB port. This is why I thought two USB ports, or one USB and one FireWire would have been a better compromise. I guess you'll have to take a small USB hub and let the drive backups run through that. It will likely not be very fast, but as long as it can complete while you sleep, it shouldn't be too bad.

The more I think about the Air, the more it feels like an iPod mini moment for Apple laptops. The analogy is not absolutely perfect, since the iPod mini was actually priced below the standard-capacity iPods at the time, but bear with me. The key point for the iPod mini was that its design broadened the appeal of the iPod line to people who would not feel the pain of the trade-offs that were made to get to that design. Most people don't have 50GB iTunes libraries. I think I heard once that most people's iPods aren't full and, when "most people" have iPod nanos, that suggests that "most people" don't have massive media libraries.

Even for those who do have big libraries, the smaller iPods were made appealing by the fact that iTunes could be set to manage it for you. I have a 47GB iTunes library and an 8GB iPhone. It turns out that the content I want with me at all times - my latest podcasts - fits easily into the 8GB available on the iPhone. All I have to do is tell iTunes to sync all unwatched episodes of all podcasts, plug it in and I have a good deal of confidence that my iPhone will always have what I want on it.

Unfortunately, no such technology currently exists for an arbitrary set of files. If it did, I would already have pre-ordered a MacBook Air. If I were able to define a core set of applications, some directories and, crucially, some rules about the managed data libraries (iTunes/Aperture/Yojimbo) on my system, and then have my desktop machine sync my MacBook Air similarly to an iPod, I swear I would be spending the next two weeks camped in Buchanan Street waiting for the first unit off the truck at the Apple Store. Certainly, one could build such a tool set out of Subversion/Git, rsync and .Mac but that takes smarts and it takes care and maintenance not to accidentally blow something away. If there's one technology that I want in Mac OS X 10.6, this is it.

As it stands, though, the Air is still a very nice machine. It's clear that the people who really love miniature laptops will pay almost anything to get one and Apple has probably already sold all of those people. For others Apple is probably hoping that the design will win over many converts. I'm looking forward to holding an Air just to get a feel for whether the design is really that compelling. I suspect it might be.

Am I getting an Air? Not this generation. I'm going to sit out the first revision in the hope that they'll be able to squeeze a 100+GB drive in there for the next update. I also want to see how reliability goes, particularly with the case, and how well the wireless reception works. Is the Air a fit for me? Well, I thought about how I use my MacBook Pro, and I realised that I'm doing less and less on it as time goes by. I have my Mac Pro for anything that is storage- or processor-intensive. I primarily use my MacBook Pro for a few things:

  • Communications: Email/Web/RSS/Twitter
  • School: various iWork tasks and sysadmin with Remote Desktop and Terminal
  • Downloading photos on trips and uploading the odd one or two to Flickr
  • Giving slide shows to people
  • Very light development tasks
  • Storing my iTunes library

I could easily move my iTunes library to the Mac Pro, which shaves 50GB off my storage requirements immediately. The Air is perfectly capable for the Communications, School and Development applications. It would also be fine for a couple of days away shooting too, if I'm careful to keep the drive tidy. Over a longer trip, a couple of hard drives would make it just right. The machines at the extremes of size - the 17" MacBook Pros and the ultraportables - are always a matter of personal taste and fit as much as spec-sheet comparisons. They either feel right for you or they don't. I can't wait to hold some Air in my hands and see.