The MacBook Air: Designed From the Top Down?

February 6th, 2008

You know that Apple will never reveal all the down and dirty details of how it actually designs products. After all, they don’t want the likes of Dell and Microsoft to learn any of the intimate details. On the other hand, if you can believe Steve Jobs, the MacBook Air went through some 100 prototypes before the final version was approved for manufacturing.

Now I’m not saying those 100 prototypes, if they existed, were full-blown working models. Perhaps there was some CAD sampling on computers before physical models were built.

So what decisions did Apple make going into the project? While my tea leaf reading doesn’t work so well these days, I think I have a pretty good concept of some of the marching orders Apple’s engineers had to consider. It’s pretty clear from the way it turned out.

But the actual conversation that took place is a fable. So what if Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive got together over tofu burgers and salad and decided to take the standard MacBook and make it two pounds lighter? In order words, the five-pound note-book becomes a three-pound note-book, but has to retain the very same screen size and keyboard style.

In other ways, designed from the top down, more or less. This, however, makes the MacBook Air highly different from other thin and light note-books that have somewhat smaller screens and keyboards. But it also means that some serious compromises had to be made to get it all of this to fit into a slimmer case. I also suppose Apple didn’t want to reduce processor horsepower too much, and certainly they wanted decent graphics capability and battery life, so you can run your digital lifestyle applications without making a huge sacrifice.

How much circuitry can they cram into that thin case before there’s no more room? Certainly there has to be sufficient space for proper cooling. Now as far as the processor is concerned, Apple somehow jawboned Intel into delivering a new design customized, say they say, for Apple’s needs. This isn’t to say that the same ultra-miniaturized circuitry isn’t going to be available to the competition, but Apple got first digs, which is why Steve Jobs was able to introduce his new best friend, Intel CEO Paul Otellini, at last month’s Macworld Expo keynote.

Obviously, Apple had to throw something out? The optical drive, for example, but how can its functions be replaced? What if you have to reinstall the operating system or software? Sure, having an accessory drive is a decent solution, but it also defeats the aura of ultimate portability. A docking station may be a possibility — as it is on Windows note-books — but that just means another large and awkward appendage that you either from to drag along or leave at the home or office. That certainly doesn’t fit Apple’s design goals of having a system that’s as self-contained as possible.

So they had the Mac OS X team build Remote Disc, which allows the MacBook Air to get its data from a networked Mac or PC. The latter is quite an achievement, because it means that the Air can coexist nicely in a mostly-Windows environment, which is a perfectly normal situation in the business world.

What about wired networking? Again, there was no room for the chips, and the word “Air” connotes a product that is largely untethered from wires. With 802.11n becoming more and more prevalent in Wi-Fi setups, Apple was still able to provide the means for adequate throughput, even when transferring normal-sized files. Yes, there’s a USB adapter to add 10/100 Ethernet, but that’s something that should seldom be needed, unless the Wi-Fi router is offline. Let’s call that an emergency solution.

The rest of the design considerations probably followed in a logical fashion. There are just three ports, for headphones, USB and external video. Even if you need more ports, another appendage, a USB hub, would do the trick.

Yes, there are some loud criticisms you can make about the tradeoffs. Take the lack of FireWire, for example, which is still required for linking to most camcorders. But as circuits get smaller and smaller, and hence lighter, perhaps Apple will be able to restore some of those missing features in a future version.

Indeed, the Air, like the iPhone, is basically a 1.0 product, with room for improvement. So if today’s model doesn’t suit — and it’s not on my shopping list either — perhaps its successor will be more in tune with your needs and desires.

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4 Responses to “The MacBook Air: Designed From the Top Down?”

  1. Dana Sutton says:

    Another possible way of looking at the Air is that it is a kind of “proof of concept” design: let’s see how far the idea of wirelessness can be pushed? Is it possible to build a consumer product which is almost entirely wireless? Like those concept cars one sees at auto shows, the Air probably won’t be a commercial success, and maybe isn’t intended to be one. Rather, it’s a large-scale design experiment, and a fair amount of its technology, and what Apple learns from producing it, may later show up in more viable products. Using the Air is only feasible if you also have a more traditional computer, desktop or laptop, so you can use wireless communication or the USB port to move data in and out of it. So the Air is really designed to be an ultra-portable extension of your other computer. And the total package of computer + extension gets to be a pretty hefty investment, outside the reach of the average consumer. But if Apple could make a similar extension device that would be about halfway between the iPhone and the Air and could figure out how to keep the cost within reason, that might indeed be The Next Big Thing.

  2. Andrew says:

    After seeing the Air in person, I think Apple will sell every one they make. Once its been on the market for a few months (and assuming no glaring design defects) I’ll be buying one myself.

  3. Bill says:

    The hard drive clearly has room for improvement.

    Reading ARS’s review of how happy he is that the SSD model eliminated “90%” of the beachballs he had with the hard drive MBA shows that even the newest, cutting edge 1.8″ hard drive is no match for the cheapest conventional 2.5″ hard drive.

  4. Dave Barnes says:

    We (our 2-person business) have owned an AirBook since Wednesday (13FEB2008) evening.
    I think Apple created a great product.

    1. It is very sexy. When you visit the Apple Store, the appropriate verb is: fondle.

    2. It is light and yet feels rigid.

    3. The Remote Disc feature works very well. I bought the USB-Ethernet adapter and connected to our LAN. I then installed: MS Office 2008 (only took 20% longer than on my iMac), iWork and Adobe Creative Suite (which took forever; as it did on my iMac). I did not try using Remote Disc in a wireless mode because that just seems silly.

    4. Only one USB port. So what. This is our travel computer. On the road we will use the USB port to connect to the wired hotel LAN or our camera. Don’t need both at the same time. We use a Kensington Bluetooth mouse so we don’t need USB for that. From our perspective, a single USB port is enough.

    5. We don’t take DVDs on the road so we don’t need a built-in DVD device.

    6. The screen is bright and has a wide viewing angle. This was THE deciding factor for us to sell our MacBook get the AirBook.

    7. The backlit keyboard is a very “nice to have” feature.

    8. It seems very responsive. I have not run a lot of tests, but it did not seem sluggish (except when launching Word 2008 — what is with those MS people?). i was very surprised by how quickly Safari launched. Photoshop and Illustrator appear to launch at “normal” speed.

    9. Could I wish for improvements? Of course. 4 GB of memory. More is always better. A 160 GB hard drive. More is… But, overall, I think the AirBook is well designed and well suited to its niche as a secondary computer.

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