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Microsoft Pri0

Welcome to Microsoft Pri0: That's Microspeak for top priority, and that's the news and observations you'll find here from Seattle Times technology reporter Matt Day.

January 16, 2008 at 2:40 PM

Macworld: Lighter than Air, but hard to catch

Glenn Fleishman, one of the contributors to our Practical Mac column in the Personal Technology section, writes from the Macworld Exposition.

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s been 27 hours since Steve Jobs announced the new MacBook Air, and the crowd surrounding dozens of the laptops on tables on the show floor are still stacked two to three deep waiting for a chance to touch the new device. Two hours after the keynote, the line was six to eight people deep — perhaps 800 people in a clump around long tables — so this is an improvement.

I was fortunate enough to have an Apple product briefing in a quiet room draped in black Tuesday, and was able to spend some time with the soon-to-be-released subcompact notebook. It’s rather remarkable: Like the iPhone, from which it borrows some of its fit, finish, and features, it seems rather impossible even when I’m holding it.

The 3-pound laptop is thin, emphasized by the tapering wedge design, which starts at three-quarters of an inch at the hinge and decreases to one-sixth inch, or less than three stacked pennies. In launching programs and performing tasks that involved still and moving images, the MacBook Air didn’t lag.

The 1.8 GHz Intel Core 2 processor in the model I was examining isn’t much slower than the 2.0 GHz CPU found in the inexpensive plain old MacBook.

The keyboard is quite good; Apple says it’s the best laptop keyboard it has ever designed, and I’d put it among the better ones I’ve used, too.

The price — $1,799 — seems to have earned the MacBook Air a label already: “the executive laptop.” Several different longtime Apple users, journalists, and information technologists independently used that term, often as part of the phrase, “I wouldn’t buy one, but my boss probably will.”

The reason is that most of us are willing to tough along with a machine that weighs 2 pounds more (a whopping 5 pounds), but which costs as much as $700 less for similar features. (The MacBook has a CD writer/DVD reader in its $1,099 configuration, or a CD/DVD burner or SuperDrive in its $1,299 model; a USB SuperDrive is $99 extra for a MacBook Air. The MacBook has 1 GB RAM in those two cheaper configurations; the Air, 2 GB.)

An “executive” might trade weight to jettison ports they never use — there’s no Ethernet jack, FireWire jack — in favor of a slim unit that has great battery life, works well even in (gasp) coach airline seating, and has the cachet of being the sexiest computer on the market. For the next few minutes at least.

One item that raised a lot of interest at the show was Apple’s inclusion of a solid-state drive (SSD) as a $999 upgrade option for 64 GB of storage. There’s been a lot of interest in SSDs as prices of various kinds of flash memory have precipitously dropped. SSDs are supposed to use much less power, generate less heat, and work faster than the equivalent hard drive.

Trouble is, Apple doesn’t want to make any of those claims. In a briefing, I pressed an Apple product manager about the advantages of an SSD, especially at a thousand bucks additional, and received a very weak defense, rare for Apple. Battery life would be longer, right? Not so much. Heat would be less? Maybe.

Less noise? Sure.

The only real advantage was in the lack of moving parts. With no optical drive and no hard drive, the MacBook Air with an SSD would have a fan that would spin and no other moving parts of any kind. This potentially makes it more robust and resistent to shocks while in motion. But it’s not designed to be a “rugged” laptop, a category that includes computers that can survive immersion in water and being run over by a Humvee. So the SSD’s allure is rather mysterious.

The only hint as to why an SSD is at all interesting comes in the fact that prices continue to drop. Which means that a thousand dollars today might be a few hundred dollars in just a few months, at which point Apple might warm up to the idea.

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