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MacBook Or MacBook Air?

September 8, 2008
By Dave Hecei, dhecei@post-journal.com

The beginning of 2008 brought us the thinnest and lightest Mac laptop ever, the MacBook Air. While most of the Mac addicts were predicting an ultra-portable Mac to be shown at the 2008 MacWorld Expo, the Air was not quite what most had pictured in their minds. The Air is the same width and depth as the MacBook except that it's super thin. The Air and the MacBook are so close in performance it makes it difficult to choose one over the other.

Let's take a look at the MacBook. This was, and still is, Apple's entry-level laptop computer priced at just under $1100. It is fairly small at 12.78 by 8.92 inches and just barely over an inch thick. This small size is due to the MacBook using a smaller 13.3-inch LCD screen (the MacBook Pro and most Windows PC laptops use 15.4 inch, or larger, screens). The MacBook weighs in at 5 pounds, which is still considered light.

The new MacBook Air is clad in a sturdy aluminum shell that looks more like the new iMacs than the other Mac laptops. The Air has the same outside dimensions as the MacBook, except for that it's amazingly thin - 0.76 inches at it thickest point and 0.16 inches at its thinnest. The rounded/tapered edges give it an illusion that it's even thinner. This thinness comes at a price, which starts at $1799, $600 more than the base MacBook.

The Air uses the same size 13.3-inch glossy LCD screen, but has been updated to use the newer LED backlight technology. This uses less power than the usual florescent type backlight, and should last much longer. Using LEDs for the backlight gives a more consistent, evenly lit, look to the screen that seems to light up instantly.

So what are the main differences between these two MacBooks? One big difference is the processor. When Apple was designing the Air, they went directly to Intel and asked them to redesign the processor chip used in the MacBook. Amazingly, Intel did just that and came up with a version of their Core 2 Duo chip with a smaller package, 60% smaller. One of the tradeoffs to get a smaller, and cooler running chip, was a reduction of speed. The Air is available in a 1.6 or a 1.8GHz version. The MacBook is available with a 2.1 or 2.4GHz standard sized Core 2 Duo processor.

Another big difference between these two MacBooks is the ports. The MacBook has plenty of ports to connect to all types of peripherals (scanners, printers, hard drives, etc.). The MacBook has these ports along the left edge: Gigabit Ethernet, Mini-DVI video, Firewire 400, two USB 2.0, audio line in, and audio line out. The MacBook Air has a small fold-down port holder on the right side (folded up, it keeps the ports hidden and keeps the sleek and smooth profile). There are only three ports here: Audio out, USB 2.0, and a micro-DVI port. This is truly just the bare minimum that a laptop should have and will make you compromise on what you connect to. Since there is no built-in Ethernet port, Apple includes a USB-to-Ethernet adapter. Of course, using this adapter means that you now have no USB port. You can get around this by using a USB hub, but then that's just one more thing you have to carry around.

The other main difference between these two MacBooks is the optical drive. The MacBook comes with either a slot-load Combo drive (a combination CD-burner and DVD player), or a SuperDrive (what Apple calls a DVD burner). The Air has no room for an optical drive. To make up for the missing internal drive, Apple sells a reasonably priced portable USB 2.0 SuperDrive that only works with the Air ($99). For those who don't want to mess with an external drive, Apple includes software with the Air that allows you to ''borrow'' another computers optical drive. This is a pretty ingenious idea. You install this software on either a Mac or Windows PC computer that is on your network. Now the Air can see this drive and it will act, albeit quite a bit slower, like it's a built-in drive. This is useful for the occasional software install, but you're not going to be able to watch a DVD movie this way.

The Air's track pad is much larger than the one on the MacBook. This is due to the Air having multi-gesture capabilities. What multi-gesture gives you is the ability to manipulate things with one, two, or even three fingers. As an example, if you are looking at a photo in either Preview or iPhoto you can use two fingers (your thumb and forefinger) in a pinch or spread motion. This gesture lets you zoom out or zoom in on the photo. With these same two fingers, you can twist left or right to rotate the photo in that direction. Swiping across the pad in Safari allows you to go forward or back a page in a web site. Gesturing is in its infancy, but its power is easily recognized and will eventually be in all laptops someday soon.

Since there is no room inside the Air for an optical drive, it's no surprise that a standard laptop hard drive (HD) doesn't even fit. The Air uses the much smaller 1.8-inch HD similar to what is used in the iPod Classic. These drives are nice and thin, but are a bit slower than most 2.5-inch drives. The MacBook uses a standard 2.5-inch HD with your choice of 120, 160, or 250GB.

The Air has two HD options available, a 1.8-inch 80GB hard drive or a new 64GB SSD drive (SSD stands for Solid State Device). An SSD drive is made with flash memory chips so it has no moving parts inside. While it may use a bit less power than a spinning hard drive, the main benefit is reliability. Since the SSD drive has no spinning platter inside so it's resistant to most shocks and just plain wear. The SSD drive is a very new technology so be prepared for sticker shock.

The idea behind the Air is ''true lightweight portability,'' while the MacBook is more ''power without the higher price.'' If you were to buy an Apple notebook today, the MacBook is a much better deal. It has more of practically everything - hard drive, ports, battery, and processor speed. The only thing missing is the multi-gesture track pad, which will probably be in the next revision of the MacBook. For those who need ultimate portability and can deal with the compromises, then the Air is a winner. The Air is definitely unique and still very powerful. It will turn heads and start conversations. If you need a powerful laptop minus the bulk, and several ports, then the Air is a great choice.

 
 
 

 

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