The Apple MacBook Air tries to fill a niche that doesn't exist

The Apple MacBook Air is the current poster-child for the effective combination of design and engineering. Apple should be commended for how well the Air is built. But I still cannot figure out who would actually want to buy and own a MacBook Air.

TechRepublic purchased an Apple MacBook Air so we could take it apart as part of our Cracking Open series. There is no doubt that the MacBook Air is a testament to the technical ingenuity of Apple's engineering and design teams. They were able to squeeze substantial computer power into a very thin space. Check out Cracking Open the Apple MacBook Air for details.

However, while we can admire the technical achievement, it is impossible to ignore the shortcomings of the MacBook Air in terms of the hardware sacrificed for the sake of space and power consumption. At a price tag of $1,799, consumers should expect much more.


Our Apple MacBook Air is the standard $1,799 model, which is made up of these parts:

  • 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU
  • 80GB Parallel ATA Drive running at 4200 rpm
  • 13.3-inch widescreen LED backlit display (1280-by-800)
  • 802.11n WiFi (draft specification)
  • Bluetooth 2.1
  • 2GB RAM (not upgradeable)
  • 1 USB port, 1 mini-DVI out, a headphone jack
  • Weighs 3 pounds

With hardware like that you are limited to a notebook that can surf the Web, check e-mail, and play an occasional video. In other words, basic computing and not much more.

And while those aren't bad specs for a $500 notebook, they just don't cut it for one that is retail priced at $1,800. Those are the kind of hardware specifications I generally expect to see in Sunday's newspaper ads for HP or Dell notebooks. Those notebooks are good for general computing and cost a lot less than the Apple MacBook Air.

Take note that the Air also does not have an optical drive. This is by design -- the Air was built to take advantage of an increasingly wireless world (according to Apple's marketing).

So if you want to watch a video, you'll have to download it. Of course you could buy the MacBook Air SuperDrive for a mere $99, which will play CDs and DVDs and allow you to install software. But again, for the price tag I would expect an optical drive (the notebooks from HP and Dell have DVD burners). I would also expect a Gigabit Ethernet port just to keep my network connection options open.

Not all bad news

But the verdict on the Apple MacBook Air is not all bad. What you do get for your $1,800 is a great looking, albeit small, LED display with a high resolution and a battery life approaching five hours under normal Web browsing conditions.

You also get a light-weight and extremely thin notebook that is easy to carry around. With Bluetooth and 802.11n WiFi, wireless connections are a snap. However, there is no support for 3G wireless, which would have been a nice feature for a notebook that emphasizes the benefits of a wireless world.

Your $1,800 also gets you a notebook that will score style points with the commuter crowd or the gang at Starbucks, that is, if you are into that sort of thing.

Bottom line

The Apple MacBook Air is quite a technical achievement. The extraordinary thin shape and crisp LED display are fantastic and deserve praise. But the rest of the hardware specifications leave me scratching my head. Considering the small, slow hard drive, the lack of an optical drive, the lack of an Ethernet port, and the minimal interface ports, the MacBook Air is just too expensive for what you get.

For $1,800 I can get a darn good gaming notebook (NoteMagix C90 Ultra from Velocity Micro) and for about a thousand less than that I can get an HP or Dell that can handle my needs for basic computing. And if all I need is a device to surf the Web, check e-mail, and download and watch an occasional video, I think I'd rather have the iPod Touch. The Apple MacBook Air seems to be filling a niche market that doesn't really exist.