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  • Is the MacBook Air the Future of Portable Macs?

    December 2nd, 2010

    There are published reports that Apple’s once moribund MacBook Air lineup has begun to sweep the sales charts after the recent upgrade. Apple’s store isn’t showing sales rankings these days, but Amazon was listing the $999 entry-level model as bubbling under the Top 10 when I wrote this article.

    Of course such figures change from day to day, hour to hour. There’s no certainty how they even relate to the overall global sales, although it’s clear that the MacBook Air’s slick, elegant form factor and reasonably affordable price has made it a compelling choice, despite the known limitations.

    I won’t get into detail about those things, other than that 64GB of solid state storage can be severely restrictive, and not having onboard Ethernet can slow you down. I’m on the fence about the missing optical drive — I realize you can get an external one to dangle from one of the Air’s USB port.

    But you have to consider the overall picture, which is whether a MacBook Air can replace a MacBook or MacBook Pro. While slim and trim is useful, and a trimmer 17-inch MacBook Pro would be a tremendous value, is Apple ready to deliver such a product?

    Honestly, SSD has some really attractive features, such as lower power consumption, and freedom from the mechanical limitations of traditional hard drives. And I haven’t even begun to consider the vast performance increase. Since so much of what you do on any personal computer is based on a hard drive’s speed, a supposedly underpowered computer equipped with SSD suddenly becomes a near-equivalent of a model with a standard hard drive with a much speedier processor.

    The biggest limitation, however, is price. Consider that SSD can cost ten to twenty times as much as a regular hard drive, and you can see where you have to scrimp on space or be prepared to raise the limit on your credit card. In these shaky economic times, that’s not a pleasant prospect.

    But when a product is harbinger of the future, don’t assume it means next year, although there have been some rumors about a MacBook Pro equivalent of the MacBook Air next spring. While I can see the larger screen and perhaps elimination of an internal optical drive, I wouldn’t see giving up the gigabit Ethernet port, nor FireWire and maybe the extra USB hookups. One report even suggested that Intel’s new Light Peak peripheral standard would be in the offing, although it now appears that ultra-fast protocol won’t arrive so quickly. Besides, unless there’s some sort of extreme backwards compatibility, you’ll be waiting an awful long time to find gear to which it connects.

    When it comes to SSD, it may take several years before production techniques become more efficient, and manufacturing yields expand to a point where it will come even somewhat close to being competitive with mechanical storage devices. So I don’t foresee an immediate adoption of SSD across the board on Apple portable Macs, although you’ll see more and more of them in specially equipped models.

    Now my MacBook Pro has a 500GB hard drive, which is more than sufficient for my needs. I could survive with 256GB and have space leftover. I tend to leave most of my stuff on my 27-inch iMac, which includes a 1TB drive.

    As some of you realize, Apple currently offers three solid state storage options for the 17-inch MacBook Pro, and they can really set back your budget. 128GB costs an extra $200. To get a reasonably useful 256GB, it’ll set you back $650.00. You have to wonder why Apple seems to manage a more affordable offering for the high-end MacBook Air, at $1,599 with a similar SSD. However, it doesn’t come in a standard drive enclosure, but as chips attached to the logic board. Perhaps that’s one reason why it seems more cost-effective, or maybe Apple made a special deal that will result in lowering SSD prices across the board come next year.

    Oh, and in case you asked, 512GB SSD drives add $1,300 to a MacBook Pro’s $2,299 purchase price. Dream on. But, as I said, I expect that loads of MacBook users can survive nicely with a 256GB maximum, and 128GB might even be sufficient for some of you.

    Aside from ditching mechanical hard drives, Apple’s huge new data center may make it possible for you to store more and more of your stuff in the cloud. You won’t see any “to the cloud” spots from Apple, but consider how much some of you have invested in iTunes and iPhoto libraries. Hundreds of gigabytes of stuff that could be left on a backup device, and, in large part, duplicated online so you don’t have to store them locally.

    That cloud-based approach, though, depends on having extremely fast broadband hookups, so the typical slowdown compared to a local network won’t be so severe. With millions of people in the U.S. saddled with dial-up connections, relying strictly on the cloud isn’t possible. Even the average broadband connection of five to megabits won’t make the cut. It has to be faster — lots faster, and that may not come for at least several years. But cable companies are now experimenting with the new DOCSIS 3.0 standard that has a potential of 50 to 100 megabits, although the price of admission can be fairly high.

    I can agree with Apple’s vision of future MacBooks and MacBook Pros inspired by the MacBook Air, but the sums of the parts do not add up, at least not yet.



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