Apple 11″ Macbook Air: No compromise
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.