MacBook Air Review Part 5: What I Don’t Like

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

Storage Capacity

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.

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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.

Display

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.

Sealed Battery

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.

Heat

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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.

Comments

    • Xavier Lanier says

      I hardly think the storage capacity and the upgrade costs are trivial. It’ll be tough for a lot of people to spend this much cash on a system that they can’t use as a primary computer due to the small drive sizes.

    • GoodThings2Life says

      When I can spend less money to get more powerful specs, I most certainly do NOT consider the negatives listed to be trivial. Xavier is right… if you’re spending $1000+ on a system, it should have more RAM and storage than is “standard”.

  1. DNel says

    The negatives are always nice however “trivial” they may seem. It gives the reader perspective and shows you’re not just a fan-boy. Thanks for the reviews, I’ve enjoyed all of them.

  2. CLC says

    I agree. Some of these issues might be a make or break for someone, too.

    Besides, especially after reading all of the praise from the last posts, someone might get overly high expectations from all of this.

    • Xavier Lanier says

      @CLC Thanks. These are relatively minor complaints in some instances, but you’re right they may be enough to turn some buyers off in favor of a 13″ MacBook Pro or another machine.

        • Xavier Lanier says

          That’s exactly my point- what might feel trivial to some, may be a deal breaker for others. Completely understand you on the SD card slot issue.

  3. GoodThings2Life says

    Thanks, Xavier. Even though I’m not an Apple fan by any means, I do find the thorough review (pros AND cons) to be informative to see how well Apple is playing and what innovations we can expect other OEM’s to offer through imitation.

    • Xavier Lanier says

      Thanks for the kind words. I can definitely see some of the other OEMs imitating some of the MacBook Air’s features, but to be honest the MacBook Air is more about the complete package, not isolated features. Lots of others, for example, offer pieces of what’s here (thin, light, SSD, metal shel, etc.), but I haven’t seen a laptop assembled as well as this yet.

      The other challenge for PC manufacturers is price. Apple has a corner on the premium consumer
      laptop space. It’s difficult to sell a $1500 machine at Best Buy next to a slew of $400-$800 ones that appear to be the same to most consumers. It’s much easier for Dell, HP, etc. to sell two $800 machines to two consumers than one $1600 machine to one consumer. You can take a look at how the Dell Adamo and HP Envy did vs. the Dell Inspiron and HP Pavilion lines.

  4. guest says

    Hi, Xavier. Thank you for the useful reviews. I’m very interested in getting a full spec MBA as a primary computer but will like to read all your other review parts first. May I know how many more parts are there?

    Although the price is close to an i5 iMac, one of the main reasons for getting a MBA is because I’ve read in other reviews that it doesn’t run very hot other than when gaming. I will be using it for surfing, document, photoshop and coding. Will that cause the machine to run hot? I checked the idle MBA in shops and the whole machine is quite cool to touch, compared to the iMacs.

    • Xavier Lanier says

      It is relatively cool compared to any other Mac that I’ve used, including my 15″ MacBook Pro and 13″ MacBook Pros that I’ve used occasionally. It can heat up at times (highest I’ve seen is 176°F), but that was when watching some Flash videos and when editing video. Some MacBook Pros are uncomfortably hot to the touch- you won’t have that problem with the MacBook Air….unless u compute without pants…

      Not sure how many more parts are left in this review, but at least 10 parts total. I still need to cover software, video performance, etc. I may take it apart if I have time, but I’m not going to do a full teardown as I actually need to use this thing.

      • guest says

        Thank you for the information. I have ordered the ultimate configuration MBA. I’ve read in other reviews that the color gamut for MBA is not very good but I think it is not an issue for me. (I hope)

      • guest says

        Thank you for the information. I have ordered the ultimate configuration MBA. I’ve read in other reviews that the color gamut for MBA is not very good but I think it is not an issue for me. (I hope)

  5. Michael F. says

    Wait…Air can handle Adobe CS5 Master Collection? I had an Apple sales guy tell me it couldn’t handle it. Who is correct and why? Thanks. Really enjoy your posts…

  6. Get Carter says

    So, with all of these negatives how is it that the MacBook Air represent the future of netbooks? Sony Vaio had instant on (Z-Series) long before the Mac, has optical drive and better screen resolution. Sorry, Apple han’t locked me in to their bs yet.

  7. Oro78 says

    Hi Xavier,
    Can you say anything about how the 13-inch MBA you have streams internet video, particularly movies off of Netflix’s website and how the quality of the image is if you connect the MBA to an HDTV via a VGA cable (with the external adapter).
    Also, is having 128GB vs 256GB flash storage a big hit on performance (internet and application speed)?

    Thanks for the info!

  8. Annie says

    Thanks Xavier for the post. I was between the MBA and 13″ Pro. After your post I will buying the 13″Pro

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