Why Apple has redefined the laptop with the new MacBook Air

So I’m a few weeks into owning the new MacBook Air. I had this feeling from the start – but now I’m certain of it. The new Air defines a changing point for Apple and for the laptop business as a whole. Here’s why:

Technology Innovation

There’s nothing new in the Air – I mean that. There’s no technology innovation here – all the components are commodity and all were available before. What Apple has done is to put them together at the right time in the right place. And crucially, Intel has made its new i5 and i7 processors available in low-power forms, which allow performance which is sufficient for most people, whilst giving excellent battery life.

The old Air had good battery life (5h) but poor performance, and had a habit of overheating. Apple have added SSD storage (low power, great performance), a screen big enough for most uses, backlit keyboard etc. etc.

Price Point

The next point is price. To get good performance on the old Air, you had to pile on the extras, and when you did this, it went near the $2500/£2000 mark. With the new model, the base configuration is sufficient for most people – and that is just $1299/£1099. It’s true that you can get a netbook for less than half that, but I think they’re rubbish.

More to the point – let’s compare with its serious competitors. An equivalent Dell E4310 is £1650 – compared to the base Apple i5 Air. The equivalent Sony Vaio SA is £1379. The Lenovo Thinkpad X1 is £1699. Apple wipes the competition clean.

Build Quality

The old Air felt a bit fragile, it has to be said. Mine went into repair for the hinge after a while. The new one feels just as well built as the MacBook Pro and feels like it should last its 3 year service life with me. And if it can do that, it will last most people just fine – I travel a lot and use my laptop more than most.

I’ve not used equivalents from Sony or HP but I have used the Dell E4310 and it feels flimsy by comparison. The battery hangs out the back and feels like you could snap it off with 2 fingers and a thumb. I’ve seen the new Lenovo X1 and that is well built – but very expensive.

Battery Life

And here’s the killer blow – battery life. On my old Air I got 4 hours when it was new, and more like 2.5-3h after 2 years. What’s more, it took hours and hours to charge, which meant it was always hard to keep topped up. I’ve just been using this laptop for a good few hours, and i have 65% battery left. In real terms this means I don’t need to carry a charger with me for an average day.

Compare this to the Dell E4310, where you have to have a battery with a bit that hangs out the back of the laptop to get a decent battery life of 4 hours. Or worse the Sony Vaio SA, which claims 7 hours, but owners complain they are lucky to get 2-3h.

And then there’s charging the new Air – an hour gets you 80% charge, which means you are never without. Plus the battery saving features of Lion mean instant-on and deep sleep, so you can leave it in sleep for up to 30 days. nice.

Gestures

The new Lion gestures on the touchpad are worth a short paragraph because it makes using the Air like using an iPad. You can browse and use the computer generally, faster than any device before it. It’s all slightly counter-intuitive to start with (scrolling is back to front for example) but once you get going, you won’t stop.

Criticisms

There will always be critics, and no doubt there are those who say that the lack of expandability – no upgradeable RAM, hard disk or battery, are a problem. For me I’d rather have the better build quality and lower weight that comes from having a sealed unit. I’d also like the option of GPS and 3G wireless integration – Apple seem to expect you to tether it to an iPhone, which I find inconvenient.

Other than that there’s the matter of my iPad2. It’s been lying unused at the bottom of my bag for 2 weeks, which I find troubling. More on that some other time.

Conclusion

Apple have taken technology elements together and blown the market wide open. The MacBook Air will be the killer selling laptop this year. It’s all the computer that someone like me that travels a lot and needs a powerful computer can want, and my Dell laptop is confined to the back of the cupboard.

There is the wider question of the future of the laptop market, as tablets and laptops converge and authoring and consuming content becomes blurred – but I don’t think that will hamper sales.

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One Response to Why Apple has redefined the laptop with the new MacBook Air

  1. Pingback: Why Apple has redefined the laptop with the new MacBook Air | People, Process & Technology | Paul's Insight

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