Apple 11″ Macbook Air: No compromise

February 15, 2013

For years I’ve used a 13″ MacBook Air as my primary computer. Before that, a 15″ MacBook Pro. Before that, larger, heavier WinTel machines. It’s a truism that tech tends to shrink and become ever more powerful, an extrapolation of the famous 1965 prediction by Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore that chip performance would double every couple of years. But because I can do so many things now with a smartphone or tablet that only used to be possible with a “real” computer, the threshold question comes down to this: What is the least laptop I can get by with, no regrets?

By “least” I don’t mean going as cheap as I can, or foregoing features that I need. I do mean taking stock of what I actually need, or could use. Most of us probably live by an inflated notion of “must-have”; the new $250 Samsung Chromebook that I reviewed is the prototype for this idea of a stripped-down, bare essential machine, but it still lacks necessary utilities.

To find the sweet spot, you need to use a full-service machine, and the MacBook Air makes a strong case that it is worth the 4-5x premium over the Chromebook.

Now, the question becomes the difference between the two sizes of Macbook Airs. I’ve been using an 11” model supplied by Apple for this review, and my own 13″ MacBook Air side-by-side for a few weeks. My reaction was immediate: Bigger is not better.

I had a similar reaction with the iPad, which I owned from day one. The Mini version instantly made the full-sized iPad — a revolutionary design barely three years old — seem clunky.

The MacBook Air 11” is powerful, fast and smooth. No surprises there. But it’s remarkably light. You would expect it to be more than a ½ pound lighter than the 13” Air. What I didn’t expect is that it is nearly one ounce lighter than the narrower Samsung Chromebook.

In every context where I’d normally grab for my 13” I deferred to the 11”, with no thought that I was compromising. When I had to use the Macbook 13” it suddenly seemed enormous.

From the first iPod to the iPad Mini, Apple has a way of undercutting itself — and profiting from it. “Our core philosophy is to never fear cannibalization,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said on the company’s Q1 earnings call. “If we don’t do it, someone else will.”

That’s a good thing.

Cook may be whistling past the graveyard — I doubt there is zero concern when a company needs to replace a product with a cheaper alternative. But he is correct that the matter is out of his hands. Like Moore predicted, our digital tools will get smaller and cheaper because that is the nature of things.

That said, a $999 Macbook Air 11”(with 64 GB of flash memory; I reviewed the $1,099 model with 128 GB) is lacking only in one, very obvious feature compared to the 13” Macbook Air: a somewhat larger screen. This was a non-issue for me, but for some the smaller screen might seem cramped. Onboard storage is also a subjective choice since we increasingly use the cloud as a hard drive. (If you’re willing to pay a premium for those two things, though, you’re in luck: Apple recently dropped the price of the top-end 13” Macbook Air to $1,299.)

The integration among Apple’s devices is even tighter when the Macbook Air is running OS X Mountain Lion, as iMessage and notifications — which originated on the iPhone — are now on the desktop. Apple surely sells lots of things because you already have some Apple things and because they work well together.

How about the value proposition? The 11” Air is four times as expensive as a Samsung Chromebook, but they are not in the same league; each makes sense in its own way. It is also about the same price as the Surface Pro, scheduled to go on sale later this month.

Still, the smaller Air can be improved upon.

It is very nearly the size of the full-sized iPad. And they are similar beasts — so similar that one could imagine a smaller Macbook Air hybrid which introduces a “missing” keyboard to the iPad and a multi-touch screen to the laptop. Call it the MacPad. Think I’m dreaming? Wired calls the 128 MB iPad a “savvy” response to Surface Pro.

It feels like Apple is about an inch away from this, literally and figuratively. I’m not holding my breath for a MacPad, but I am sure of one thing: When the time comes to replace my 13” Macbook Air, I’ll be downsizing.

7 comments

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I will not be downsizing from by 15 ‘ mac book pro retinal anytime soon. It kicks azz. The 15 display is still small for me but I could not resist a machine with so much power. I have it hooked up to an external monitor, keyboard, speakers and it works great as a development machine. I am a programmer.

Posted by jorge62 | Report as abusive

Wait, Reuters, where’s the boligatory Apple hating? Couldn’t you worm a little in?

Posted by thismarty | Report as abusive

You and your puny Mac. Get a real computer bub. Like the one I use. 8 core 4.7 ghz. 16 gigs of ram, dual crossfire 7970s, three 30 inch screens, 3D desktop. Eat me.

Posted by Cranberries | Report as abusive

Screen size is a pretty important factor for some things which is why I chose a 15″ Retina for my latest laptop. I’m one of those mainframe “dinosaurs” that logs on and uses TSO ISPF to code in Assembler, and I need several TSO sessions (windows) in order to do the things I need to do. I sold my 13″ MBP because even that was too small. IMO a smaller screen makes no difference only if you need to run document apps for basic writing tasks, or sit back and surf the web.

Posted by wthcares | Report as abusive

I’m waiting for a 17 inch Macbook Air!
I’ve had the 13 inch since day one and it’s been great.
I think that you forget the Baby Boomers, the next big consumer wave.

Posted by airr | Report as abusive

I agree. I have no desire for an iPad, mini or large. As far as I’m concerned they’re not for creating. My day to day paperwork involves numerous file formats, cross referencing and editing documents and audio files, running OSX or Win specific software exchanging files where there’s no or limited internet (often wired), various printers means that a ‘proper’ computer is the only way.

An iPad is for consuming…and it can be costly to consume those videos and media. I can view video files in any format on a proper computer, rip my home DVDs to watch on the go. Retail DVDs are often a whole lot cheaper than the iTunes Store, especially TV shows. Often more than 60% cheaper! I don’t want to carry another device, and i can run iOS app on my iphone.

As most international travelers will know, wifi isn’t always available so cloud computing isn’t all that useful. Sometimes only wired internet is possible which isn’t compatible with an iOS device.

I have an old fading 13″ Air and occasionally use an 11″. If only the 11″ had a 256GB SSD as standard!

Posted by Rossthebossi | Report as abusive

Great review. I currently have an MBA 13″ from 2010. As it is, I use an external monitor, bluetooth keyboard and magic trackpad since I multi-task at my desk. Glad to see that they’ve expanded the SSD to 512GB. When I purchased my MBA, 256GB was the highest that you could go. As a result, I’ve had to keep all of my movies on an external HDD, which hasn’t been a big deal, but it would be nice to keep movies on my MBA for travel purposes. The SD slot is not a killer as it’s easy enough to buy an inexpensive SD reader. One thing that I’d love is an HDMI cable. Currently, I’m using a mini-display port adapter to digital. External monitors are getting sharper with HDMI. Retina display is a “nice-to-have”. Anyway, it will be interesting if there are going to be further improvements as CY2013 trudges along. It sounds like updates may be forthcoming?

Posted by Yodabeesh | Report as abusive