COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Apple's new Air notebook is a traveler's dream

Business travelers have been searching for as long as I can remember for that "perfect notebook": a notebook that's lightweight with a long battery life, has a full-size keyboard, great display, and can withstand the rigors of the road.

But almost everything has been a compromise. Thinness resulted in a shorter battery life, and a full-size keyboard has meant a larger and heavier structure.

Over the years, I've tried notebooks of all sizes and shapes including the ThinkPad X series and then the Sony Vaio 505. There was the brief excitement of a pocket PC from OQO that promised the power and utility of a PC that could fit in your pocket. But that proved impractical because of the inability of Windows to work on a tiny display, the small keyboard and the high cost of the product.

Many thought netbooks were the answer, but while lightweight and compact, they had slow processors, short battery lives, mediocre displays and undersized keyboards.

Some have tried using an iPad as a notebook substitute, but for many who do extensive work on the road, it's too limiting with its less-capable OS and no physical keyboard.

So it was of great interest when Apple announced its new line of Air notebooks that packed a powerful computer in a skinny form factor. Two series were introduced, one with a 13-inch screen and a second with an 11.6-inch display. These were the long awaited sequels to the original Air, itself a breakthrough, but compromised by its short battery life and high price.

Apple has created the best traveling computer ever.

I've been testing the 11.6-inch Air with 128GB memory. It has a retail price of $1199. (The 64GB version costs $999). It weighs just 2.6 pounds, less than half the weight of a 15-inch notebook and a fraction of its size.

To also make it so thin, while keeping it rugged and rigid, the Air's housing is machined out of blocks of aluminum that provide a stiff and unyielding structure. The Air's profile is wedge-shaped with its thickness tapering from 0.11 inches at the front to 0.68 inches at the rear.

Apple has replaced the hard drive with a solid-state drive (SSD) that's a row of memory chips. While this has been done before, notably on the ThinkPad X300 and the original Apple Air, these notebooks were too expensive for the mass market and suffered from short battery life.

Apple says that this is the direction it will follow on future MacBooks, replacing hard drives with SSDs. By removing the hard drive, often the first component to fail, it provides more room for batteries, reduced energy consumption, and a quicker startup time. Even when the computer is not used for hours or days, and it enters into a deep sleep mode, it wakes up within several seconds.

The new Air's full-size keyboard is essentially identical to the keyboards on other Macs, except that the function keys are smaller and the keys are not backlit as on some of its other models. There's a huge trackpad that also supports multi-touch, letting you zoom in and out, pan and scroll.

The display is gorgeous, as sharp and vibrant as the displays on Apple's top notebooks, with a resolution of 1366 by 768. That means you can display the same amount of information as on many 15-inch displays. Although the text is slightly smaller, I had no problems reading it.

While not the most powerful processor in Apple's stable, it's more than adequate for most needs. The Core 2 Duo processor with Nvidia graphics was very responsive with no slowdown in any of the activities I tried. In fact, most things seem quicker because there's no hard drive that needs to start up.

The Air also has a built-in camera for video calls, using Apple's new FaceTime for Mac. Its speakers sound really good, in spite of my not being able to figure out where the sound is coming from. There are two USB ports on opposite sides. The two omissions are the lack of an Ethernet port and an SD card slot for moving your photos into the notebook. You'll need to use a USB cable from your camera or an SD-to-USB adapter.

The 11-inch Air can serve equally well as your sole computer or as a second one, depending on your needs. Its only limitation is the 128GB of memory, but that's becoming less of an issue with the ability to storing more documents in the cloud at very low cost.

In my testing, doing mostly writing and surfing on the Internet with the display at full brightness, battery life was about 4.5 hours.

One of the joys of a Macintosh is how easy it is to set up. I used Apple's Migration Assistant; a utility built into every Mac that lets you move contents from one computer to another over your wireless network. I chose to move everything, with the exception of my music and photos, from the 13-inch MacBook I had been using. Four hours later the new computer became a replica of the first. Most of the applications opened without any need to re-register and all of my files were duplicated on the Air. I connected the Air to Mobile Me to keep its contacts and calendar synced with the first computer and my iPhone.

So after two weeks with the Air, much of it on the road, my conclusion is that the new Air is that computer we've been searching for, the perfect solution for the business traveler. Its lighter weight and smaller size has allowed me to leave my heavy wheeled briefcase at home and carry a much smaller shoulder bag. That's real progress for the business traveler.


Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," holds 30 patents and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Phil can be heard on KOGO AM the first Sunday of each month. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Phil's blog is blog.philipgbaker.com.


First cases for Apple Air, Made in USA

Accessory companies love it when Apple introduces a new product like the Air. First out with a protective case is WaterField Designs. It has introduced two new laptop SleeveCases and Suede Jacket Sleeves for the MacBook Air 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch notebooks. The form-fitted SleeveCase combines a ballistic nylon shell with a neoprene interior to absorb shock and cushion the MacBook Air against bumps and bruises. The Sleeve Case is available in a horizontal or vertical orientation. Both versions are manufactured in San Francisco. $25 to $40. (sfbags.com)

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Phil Baker 9:52pm November 5, 2010

The Air is almost half the weight without sacrificing battery life. I also find the screen to be much brighter and more neutral in color than the most recent ThinkPad X machines I've used. But I'm also influenced by the MacOS that really lets this be an instant on and instant off notebook. While I don't think any notebook can match the ThinkPad's keyboard, those on MacBooks comes as close as any. The X machines do have some advantages. More ports, an SD slot, an Ethernet connector, accessories docks and extended batteries. If you use Windows it's hard to do much better than the ThinkPad.

William Bramley 6:32pm November 1, 2010

Why do you think the Apple Air notebook is superior to the Thinkpad X series. I have been using the Thinkpad x series for some time, and have been happy with it. However, I am interested in knowing if this product is superior. Thanks.