I wrote earlier this week that new 13″ MacBook Air is the best laptop I’ve ever bought or used. But that doesn’t mean its perfect. In this portion of my multi-part MacBook Air review I’ll tell you about some of the things I don’t like about the MacBook Air and things that I hope Apple addresses its next version.
There’s no question that the MacBook Air has a ‘gotta have it’ appeal. After writing the first parts of my review I received several notes from friends and readers alike that said they just had to buy a new MacBook Air. I highly recommend getting a new MacBook Air, but you should first take a deep breath and consider some of the negatives. While it’s quickly become my primary mobility machine, it still doesn’t have everything I need to make it my only machine.
It might sound like I’m whining in this part of the MacBook Air review (I am). If you want to read something positive about the MacBook Air, click on one of the below links or check back for the next part of my review:
MacBook Air Review Part 1: The Best Laptop I’ve Ever Used
MacBook Air Review Part 2: It’s Like Driving a Mercedes Benz
MacBook Air Review Part 3: Keyboard and Trackpad
MacBook Air Review Part 4: Blazing Fast Boot, Usable Browser in Less Than 15 Seconds
I was initially drawn in by the MacBook Air’s relatively low $999 entry price. That’s a lot of cash for a consumer laptop these days, but it’s at the low-end of the MacBook spectrum, with only the standard MacBook sharing that price tag. One of the biggest problems with the base model is that it only comes with 64GB of storage.
It wasn’t that long ago that 64GB was considered a whole lot of storage. But in the age of HD video downloads, 18MP cameras and $100 HD video cameras, that isn’t much room at all. For most consumers, 64GB is simply too small if they plan on using the MacBook Air as a primary laptop.
Of course you can upgrade to 128GB 11″ MacBook Air, but $200 is a pretty steep price to pay for 64GB of flash memory. At that point, you may as well pay $100 more for the 13″ MacBook Air with the 128GB SSD, faster processor, larger battery and higher-res display.
Moving up to 256GB of flash memory from the base 128GB in the 13-incher costs $300. The solid state memory in the $1,599 MacBook Air isn’t any speedier than in the $999 one, which means you’re paying several hundred dollars for capacity.
The relatively limited storage capacity will keep many users from being able to use the MacBook Air as their primary machines as the drive is simply too small to handle large multimedia libraries. Most consumers will likely end up with the 128GB drive as that looks to be the retail SKU default. That means they’ll still synch their iPads, iPhones and other mobile devices with their bulkier machines with larger, but slower hard drives.
The 13″ MacBook Air display has a slight gloss finish to it. Fortunately, it doesn’t have a glossy glass cover, as is the default on the 13″, 15″ and 17″ MacBook Pro. But it’s not completely matte (anti-glare). This isn’t much of an issue indoors or when plugged in because the display is quite bright, but you still get some reflections in dark parts of the screen, especially when sitting with the display facing a window.
The result is that the MacBook Air’s display is less usable than the optional anti-glare display found on higher-end MacBook Pros.
Another bad MacBook trait that the MacBook Air inherited is the aluminum bezel that runs around the display. The metal sure looks nice, but it’s like a mirror when outdoors or near a window. I wish Apple would give the bezel a matte black finish.
Too Few Ports
Some users will find that the MacBook Air has too few input/output options. If your computer needs are relatively basic being limited to two USB 2.0 ports, an SD card slot, Mini DisPlay Port and a headphone jack won’t be a problem, but it may become an issue if the MacBook Air is your only computer or if you are a multimedia maven.
There’s no FireWire 800 port to copy over several gigs of photos quickly and efficiently. Instead, I have to use a USB CF card adapter, which isn’t exactly the end of the world, but it is a tight fit. My CF adapter, for example, has to be bent to the 90-degree position since the bottom of the MacBook Air’s USB ports are so close to my desk’s surface. I can’t use my Mini Display Port adapter with the CF card adapter since the ports are so close together and the display adapter is rather bulky.
You can forget about a USB 3.0 or eSATA port as Apple doesn’t support those on any of their machines.
The SD Card slot is more like half a slot. Like with SD card slots on the MacBook Pro, SD cards cannot slide completely into the MacBook Air’s. This means your precious memories are dangling about as you transfer them into iPhoto or your favorite media application.
The built-in microphone is located on the side of the computer, next to the headphone jack. This is not an ideal placement ince it could pick up keyboard and fan noise. It should be located up by the webcam, like on Apple’s MacBook Pro
The relatively few number of ports is a tradeoff you should consider,or you can just plan on picking up a USB hub of some kind.
Is it TOO Thin and Light?
The slimmer a gadget is the better in general. But there can be some negative things about being too thin and light. When typing with my (very large) hands, the MacBook Air moves a bit when using it on my lap. It simply doesn’t have enough weight to remain rock steady like my 15″ MacBook Pro and most business-oriented notebooks.
The MacBook Air feels pretty solid, but I do hear the occasional worrisome creek when moving it around. I’ve also become paranoid about damaging the display. There just doesn’t seem to be enough material on the lid of the display to protect it from much of a ding.
The transparent Apple logo on the laptop lid is visible on the screen when the screen is dimmed to the minimum. When using my MacBook Air outdoors for the first time I thought my display was defective. With screen brightness at a normal level the logo doesn’t shine through. The logo is clearly visible on the display when the display is asleep. This probably won’t bother you on a daily basis, but it feels off.
Lack of an Optical Drive
The MacBook Air doesn’t come with an optical drive, which is just fine for a lot of users like me. It can be a challenge however for those without an external DVD drive or another computer with a disc drive.
When I get a new computer I generally sit with it for quite a while, loading a bunch of applications onto it via DVD. Most of my software was boxed up since I got the MacBook Air while in the midst of a move. I ended up downloading most of my software, including Adobe CS5 Master Collection, Aperture and iWork. Downloading Gigabytes of data isn’t exactly fun, especially if you don’t have a speedy ISP.
I think that a lot of consumers still expect to get an optical drive with their laptops and Apple could please these people with a cheap external drive.
One thing that I dislike about all of Apple’s current MacBooks is the fact that the battery is not user serviceable. Sure, they last a lot longer than they used to, but this puts a major limit on mobility. I was just fine flying cross country with the MacBook Air as it lasts well over its 7 hour spec with a few minor tweaks, but what happens when I need more than that? The lack of swappable batteries gives me battery anxiety, despite the fact that battery life is excellent. The sealed battery also means you’ll have to bring your MacBook Air in for repair once the battery wears beyond what you’re comfortable with.
Relatively Slow Processor
If you’re like me and do a lot of multimedia work the Intel Core 2 Duo processors are going to be too slow to do heavy lifting. The MacBook Air utilizes the NVIDIA 320M graphics for a lot of things, but the processor can still be a choke point for processor intensive tasks. If you run apps that need straight processing horsepower you may be better suited with a Core i5 or Core i7 equipped MacBook.
No Remote or IR
Not having an IR sensor to work with a remote control might not matter to some users, but those who present slideshows and media will miss the feature, which is found on Apple’s full-sized MacBooks. You’ll have to use a presenter mouse with a USB dongle or a Bluetooth radio instead.
No Memory Upgrades
I opted for a MacBook Air with 4GB of RAM , which is a must-have if you’re running multimedia applications like CS5 Photoshop. By default the MacBook Air comes with 2GB of memory and it’s not upgradeable. As you may know, having extra memory speeds up any system. Besides allowing you to have a whole bunch of apps open at one time, a surplus of memory reduces the number of bits and bytes that have to be sent back and forth between RAM and the storage drive.
You can never have enough memory and offering just 2GB with most configurations is a bad thing. At these prices 4GB should be the standard offering.
The MacBook Air is relatively cool compared to Apple’s MacBook Pros with beefier offerings.When the CPU and GPU are cranking the case can still become hot though. The bottom of the MacBook Air is completely sealed, which may be for cosmetic reasons, but Apple should offer better ventilation to keep the MacBook Air as cool as possible. The highest CPU temperature I’ve observed is 176-degrees Fahrenheit. As I write this it bounces between 115 and 131 degrees. The enclosure is 93 degrees and the left palm rest is 90 degrees.