The new MacBook Air: The pros and cons

MacBook AirIt seems like every month, Apple's got a new innovation to share with us. Engadget reported that at the the "Back to Mac" event on Oct. 20, Apple unveiled two new MacBook Airs, one 11-inch and one 13-inch, which are even thinner than the last incarnation of the computer.

And like nearly every Apple product, it's definitely got features that some college students are sure to find attractive. Obviously, it shares some features with Mac computers -- a built-in camera, microphone, Wi-Fi capabilities and the same operating system (for now -- Apple also announced Lion, the next Mac OS). But is this one better than other the Apple notebooks? Let's take a look at some pros and cons.

No disc drive
As with the previous MacBook Air, there's no disc drive. Steve Jobs and company are confident that CDs and DVDs are going the way of the dinosaur. With movies, TV shows and music available via iTunes (not to mention the countless streaming music and video outlets online), it's decent logic. But for people who use their computer as a DVD player or who own loads of CDs that they'd like to load on their iPod, perhaps the MacBook Air isn't the best choice.

That said, it's not impossible to load CDs or DVDs onto a MacBook Air. Apple sells a SuperDrive for $79 specifically for the MacBook Air. Also, the Air features the ability to wirelessly "borrow" the disc drive from a nearby Mac or PC.

Obviously, one of the key selling points for the Air is its extremely small size. At its thickest, it's 0.68 inches, and it thins down to 0.11 inches. The thing weighs 2.3 pounds, making it extraordinarily easy to carry. It's built from a single piece of aluminum, which, as the Apple website says, makes it "durable enough to handle the rigors of everyday use." However, the standard MacBook isn't a monster to carry around -- it weighs in at 4.7 pounds, while the largest MacBook Pro (17 inches) weighs 6.6 pounds.

One of the biggest draws to buying a new Air is its brand new iLife '11 package. The new iLife updates the functionality of iPhoto (with Facebook enhancements and new slideshows), iMovie (with professional trailers and easier audio editing), and GarageBand (with music lessons and automatic "groove correction").

The package works with just about any recent Apple computer, but it comes at a price unless you're buying an Air (which is pre-equipped with iLife '11). The package costs $49. However, if you've purchased a computer since the beginning of October, you qualify for a free copy of the software (just $6.99 for shipping, plus tax).

Battery life
The battery life of the Air still doesn't match that of the other models. The 11-inch computer keeps up to five hours of charge, while the 13-inch maintains seven hours of charge. Meanwhile, the MacBook has up to 10 hours of charge, and the MacBook Pro models range from 8-10 hours. However, the Air does implement the "standby" mode of the iPad. The Air can remain on standby for up to 30 days without shutting down. Fairly impressive, but that's still five fewer hours of charge for the 11-inch model.

The new Air uses Flash Storage, which gives each model plenty of space. But it comes at a price. The 11-inch model offers 64GB for $999 or 128GB for $1,199; while the 13-inch model offers 128GB for $1,299 or 256GB for $1,599. The low end of the price range matches the low end for the regular MacBook, which has 250GB for $999. That's 186 more gigabytes for the same price. The high end is $100 more expensive than a 13-inch MacBook Pro, which offers a 320GB hard drive. That's 64GB for $100 less. Which brings us to the last point:

To determine if the price is right, lets compare the 64GB 11-inch Air ($999) with the 250GB regular MacBook ($999).
  • Storage: The MacBook wins out with an additional 186GB.
  • Battery: The MacBook offers an additional five hours of battery life.
  • Size and portability: The Air's definitely got the advantage here.
  • Software: The Air and MacBook both have the latest OS, but the Air barely beats this one out with the latest iLife.
  • Disc drive: The SuperDrive for the Air is going to cost an extra $79, whereas the MacBook has one built in. Advantage MacBook.
  • Multitouch trackpad: Both devices include a multitouch trackpad.
  • Camera: The Air camera is built to support FaceTime, giving it the advantage in terms of its compatibility with new software.
  • Environment: Both computers are eco-friendly -- no mercury, Energy Star requirements met, each have recyclable enclosures.
  • Display: The MacBook wins out with size (13 inches vs. 11 inches), but both use the same graphics processor and have the same output capabilities for HDMI.

With all of those things in mind, the MacBook seems to have the advantage: primarily in battery, storage, and the inclusion of a disc drive. But the Air is a machine that is strikingly similar and hugely functional despite its shorter battery life (five hours is still a pretty long time) and smaller amount of space (64GB ain't bad). Plus, it's remarkably small.

At the end of the day, it depends on the student's priorities. If size and having the latest software are important, the Air is the way to go. Our recommendation? Go to the Apple Store and take one for a spin.
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