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Expo Update: The MacBook Air — Definitely NOT a Desktop Replacement

When the analysts get the essence of a new Apple product announcement essentially correct, you sort of expect that a few of the mainstream members of the press probably got an advanced peek. No doubt you’ll also see some early reviews that clearly not rush jobs, but clearly indicate the author had a lot of face time with Apple’s light-as-a-feather note-book before it was officially unveiled.

What’s clear from the outset is that the MacBook Air is no desktop replacement in the fashion of the other portables in Apple’s lineup. It is designed from the ground up as a computing appliance for travel, and that explains some of the key decisions.

For example, there is no wired Ethernet connection. You are expected to network your MacBook Air via its built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi connection, except for mobile phones that might link up with its Bluetooth radio. What’s more, there’s no internal optical drive either. Using the MacBook Air’s Remote Disc feature, you’ll be able to network wirelessly with a Mac or PC’s optical drive on your network.

If none of that is convenient, you can still buy an Ethernet adapter and an external SuperDrive to attach, but one at a time, since there’s but one USB 2.0 port. The remaining wired connections include mini-DVI for an external display and a headphone jack. These peripheral ports are covered via a hatch so there are no unsightly holes to fret over.

It’s clear that Apple designed the MacBook Air to be otherwise as full-featured as possible, so you don’t need to consider an external docking station. In fact, no such product is provided, although I expect some third parties will jump in with something that includes Ethernet networking and the missing optical drive.

The keyboard is standard-sized, the internal hard drive, 80GB in size, is the same tiny storage device “borrowed” from the iPod classic. The 13.3-inch display is a lot larger than you expect in a three pound note-book computer, and the only fly in the ointment, such as it is, is that there’s no discrete graphics chip. Instead, you’re limited to an Intel GMA X3100 graphics processor with 144MB of RAM that it shares with the main memory. At prices starting at $1,799, you get 2GB, and Apple offers no RAM upgrade option, so that may indeed be the maximum amount engineered for this product. Worse, the battery is not user-replaceable, and Apple claims a five business day turnaround when the time comes for you to swap it out.

But what about the Flash drive, you may ask? Well, the rumor mills have been circulating with various and sundry claims that Apple would dispense with the traditional hard drive. That ends up only be half-true, since a solid state drive is an option, and a damned expensive one at that. Despite the feelings on the part of some writers that 32GB ought to be enough, Apple chose 64GB, a far more reasonable option. But Flash memory of that density doesn’t come cheap. Apple adds $999 to your purchase price if you decide to ditch the mechanical storage. Sure, your MacBook Air might run faster, but not so fast to justify that figure.

For now, you should regard Flash drives of that sort is a harbinger of the future. In a year or two, they will come down in price sufficient to be reasonably affordable. That’s then, and this is now, so consider better ways to spend your money if you opt for one of these note-books.

So just what is Apple’s target audience? Well, it’s not the folks who want to use their note-books as desktop replacements. A basic MacBook, at $1,099, won’t have the sex appeal or the ability to pop into a manila envelope, but it’s more suited for double-duty. What’s more, it’ll probably run somewhat faster, owing to the speedier CPU and faster hard drive.

But consider the plight of the confirmed road warrior, who sees no need to ditch a desktop computer, or is rarely at home or an office to enjoy one. For them, the extra cash they pay for an MacBook Air may be a godsend. Its feather-weight form factor will save the wear and tear on one’s shoulder, and there will be little sacrifice in terms of basic convenience and usability. Other than the need for an external or networked optical drive, you’ll be able to enjoy a complete computing environment.

And this isn’t something you’d expect to consider now. But the MacBook Air is environmentally friendly, so when or if the day comes to toss it away — and that’s an event that will not happen for a number of years — you’ll be pleased to know the aluminum case is, according to Apple recyclable. What more can you ask, other than maybe a lower price?