I was never a fan of netbooks. The minuscule screen resolution and miniature keyboards made most of them virtually unusable. The 11-inch MacBook Air was the first mini laptop that I tried and thought, "Okay, I could actually use this thing."
In my review of the MacBook Air 11-inch, I said that it's a great machine for people who need superior portability, can access all of their business apps on Mac, don't need to do too much heavy processing, and are willing to pay a little bit of a premium for the superior build quality.
However, the biggest hangup for many is Mac OS X. It's not that there's necessarily anything wrong with Mac for business users, but most of them have important apps tied to Windows. Sure, you can use Bootcamp or virtualization to run Windows on Mac hardware, but that adds too much complexity for the average business user.
For those infatuated with the 11-inch MacBook Air's svelte form factor but still tethered to Windows, I've got two nice alternatives that are worth considering: The Sony Vaio X1 and the Acer Timeline X. I've put together a gallery of unboxing and product photos of both machines, along with some comparison shots next to the 11-inch MacBook Air.
While the Sony Vaio X1 and the Acer Timeline X are both worthy competitors to the 11-inch MacBook Air, they are two very different machines that will appeal to different sets of users. Here's my quick take on the two of them.
Sony Vaio X1
Sony is known for its stylish PC hardware, but it often comes at a premium price tag -- similar to Apple. However, in this case, the 11-inch MacBook Air and the Sony Vaio X1 have similar price tags to the Acer Timeline X. All three systems have a base price of roughly $1000. At that price, the three of them have remarkably different hardware profiles.
The Sony Vaio is the lightest of the three machines, and it's also the most lightly powered. It runs a 2.0GHz Intel Atom processor, the same one that powers many netbooks (compared to the speedier 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo that powers the 11-inch MacBook Air). Here are some of the additional specs of the model we tested (VPCX131KX/B):
- 2GB of RAM
- 11.1-inch display with LED backlight and 1366x768 resolution
- Integrated Intel graphics
- 64GB of flash storage
- 2 USB ports, VGA port, Ethernet port, SD card slot
- 3 hours of battery life (standard battery) or 12 hours battery life (expanded battery)
- Weighs 1.6 pounds (with standard battery)
The Vaio X1 is even a little smaller than the 11-inch MacBook Air. A business professional could easily slip it into a padfolio. Its portability and weight (or lack thereof) are its greatest assets, and it's a solid machine for email, Web, and basic business apps. The tradeoffs are that it's not a very fast or powerful machine and it feels a little overpriced for what you get.
My other concern with this machine is durability. Unlike the MacBook Air, which is made almost entirely of aluminum, the Sony Vaio X1 is totally plastic and not an especially durable blend. That makes it light, but also makes it feel very flimsy. I had the sense that I could have almost broken it in half with my bare hands if I twisted it hard enough.
Still, if you're not too concerned about performance and you need a super-portable system, then the Vaio X1 is pretty impressive and worth a look.
Acer Timeline X
The Acer Timeline X can't match Sony or Apple for style or thinness, but it packs a lot more power under the hood. The model we tested (1830T-68U118) was running an Intel Core i7 processor (1.46GHz) and offered very zippy performance for just about any task. The rest of the specs for the Timeline X included:
- 4GB of RAM
- 11.6-inch display with LED backlight and 1366x768 resolution
- Integrated Intel graphics
- 500 GB hard disk storage
- 3 USB ports, VGA port, HDMI port, Ethernet port, SD card slot
- 8 hours of battery life
The Timeline X can keep up with a lot of desktop machines. It's that fast. This is the system for someone who needs to pack a lot of performance but wants to do it in as small a package as possible. The Timeline X is certainly a little more heavy and bulky than the MacBook Air of the Vaio X1, but it is far smaller than most of the other laptops in its power class.
My beefs with the Timeline X are mostly qualitative. The touchpad is just too small to be very useful. The 11-inch MacBook Air is literally about three times the size of the Timeline X -- and although I'm not a fan of touchpads in general, the one on the Air is one of the few that are useful in a pinch. With the Timeline X, make sure you have a good notebook mouse and plan to use it most of the time. On a related note, the keyboard on the Timeline X is not great either. The keys are huge but they are very close together, which makes it easy to hit the wrong key. The keys are also stiff and shallow, which isn't very friendly for typing. This is one of the main areas where the Timeline X doesn't match up very well with the MacBook Air, and to a lesser extent, the Sony Vaio X1.
However, if you want a lot of power in a small package and you want it to run Windows, the Timeline X is one of your best bets.
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Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.