15 January 2008

MacBook Air: The G4 Cube Revisited

The MacWorld goodies are out of the bag and I'm rather disappointed:

MacBook Air
Time Capsule

AppleTV (software only)
iPhone (software only)
iPod Touch (software only)
iTunes (movie rentals)

Time Capsule is cool but is not something that is that much different that any of the other NAS devices on the market. I'm certain it is more integrated with OS X than any other device.

The big new for this MacWorld is clearly the MacBook Air. In the first hours after its release into the wild I'm going to make a prediction: the MacBook Air is the PowerMac G4 Cube of 2008. Really cutting edge from a design view, but too much of a compromise in terms of usability and cost. Like the Cube the MBA seems to just miss on a few key things.

Here is my list of misses: (I'm make reference to the Sony TZ throughout because Steve mentioned it and I've used one, I really liked it as hardware but despised Vista and Sony's pre-installed crapware.)

Is it small? It is thin. Really, really thin. But on the other two dimensions (It still exists in three dimensions) it is the same size as a MacBook. This is obviously the result of the screen limiting these two dimensions, but who said the MBA needed a 13.3" screen? (I think I know the answer to that one, and it wasn't his fake persona.) Thin is good but small is better. Reducing the already smallest dimension doesn't do a whole lot to make a notebook smaller. The Sony TZ with an 11" screen is slightly thicker but it is considerably smaller in the other two dimensions, the two that matter in my opinion.

Optical Drive: This is the biggest thing that smacks of the Cube to me. The cube has long impressed me as a machine that was designed from the outside in. Once the appearance and casing are decided on everything has to be shoehorned into that design or it was left out. In the MBA's case that happened to be the optical drive. Optical drives are still a necessary thing, even if it is just to watch a DVD on an flight. Messing around with an external or the virtual drive thing smacks as a totally inelegant solution to "the world's thinnest" computer. The Sony TZ has an available DVD-RW DL drive.

Screen: Glossy only! Need I say more?

RAM and Storage: The 2 GBs is soldered to the motherboard. While the TZ does have removable memory its maximum is also 2 GB. Not much to compare until your memory goes bad (I've never had that happen, I've just heard of it happening). The MBA has only enough room for a 1.8" storage solution. Apple has specified an 80 GB iPod hard drive (presumably there is not enough room for the thicker 160 GB iPod drive) or a 64 GB SSD drive for a cool grand more. The TZ has the same 1.8" but can accept the slightly thicker 160 GB version and has the option to replace the optical drive with a 2.5" laptop hard drive. One can outfit the Sony TZ with several hundred GB of storage on two drives!

Ports: USB and a headphone jack! That's it (I don't consider the "micro" DVI hole a port because it isn't a usable port until you add the dongle which kind of destroys the idea of compact protability). No wired ethernet, no firewire, no audio in, no express card? Without a wireless connection the MBA becomes a gilded cage for your data. The Sony TZ has all of this plus two card reader slots (SD and memory stick), more USB and a normal video port (albeit, VGA).

Battery: This thing has an iPod-like build in battery. Come on, Apple!?!?! Hope you aren't working on a deadline with no access to power when the battery dies. My backup battery for my PowerBook has come in REALLY handy for me. The TZ has a removable battery.

Cost: What do I gain for ~$500 over a MacBook. Besides the eye candy and three pounds vs five, not much. You do, however, lose performance (1.6 vs 2.0+ GHz), ports, optical drive, battery change-a-bility, and storage. Like the G4 Cube where people decided to buy PowerMacs instead and put functionality ahead of design, people will choose the MacBook over the MBA.

To summarize my complaints: The cost of thin is too much, in function and dollars. I would have much rather seen a less radical design with a smaller footprint that included the standard array of ports and drives instead of such a focus on thin. To me this is like VISA trying to sell me on a credit card that is half the thickness of the one currently in my wallet, and to make it thinner it doesn't include the magnetic strip. Ultimately for Apple it doesn't matter if my credit card has a magnetic strip or not, I will not be purchasing anything announced at this MacWorld.


My Fixes: I am always skeptical of critics without solutions so here are mine. While my ideas are pure academic here they are.
- 11" high res screen, matte, with a focus on footprint reduction.
- Optional bay. Let the consumer decide what goes in that spot: optical drive, second HD, or even another battery
- Don't get so hung up on thin
- Include optional 3G wireless data (This seems like the ultimate "MacBook Air" to me).

My Docking Station Rant: If Apple had announced a companion docking station that included a bunch of ports and maybe even a large hard drive, the portability doesn't come as such a sacrifice to performance. Things that could be gained by a docking station:
- Storage in the dock. An iPod-to-iTunes-like relationship between the dock and the computer. You could keep some things synced on the MBA but most things are stored on the dock.
- You could access the dock storage remotely through the internet, just like Leopard does using "Back to My Mac."
- A higher volume fan on the docking station could allow for faster clock speed of the CPU when docked.
-A video card installed in the dock could drive a large monitor connected to the dock.
- A small travel dock could give access to more ports on the road while still keeping a compact form factor.

Let me know what you think. Am I wrong about the MacBook Air?


Ezra said...

No, I think you are spot-on, I think that the lack of ports, and some other design flaws will make this less of a seller than it could be. But it will sell well anyway because it is a mac.
The Macbook Air is actually larger (overall) than my current ultraportable: The Sharp PC-MM20.

I wrote about it in my Blog: http://www.straypoetry.com/2008/01/16/apple-macbook-air-an-apple-i-like/

-Ezra Hilyer

Anonymous said...

Hi Nice Blog .I've made up my mind: I'm gonna buy an MP3 player. I just don't know which one. I like the ipod battery, but do I really need something that small?

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