Review of Apple's MacBook Air

Early in my writing career, I had an assignment to follow around a mohel--the guy who does ritual circumcisions in the Jewish tradition. My subject learned the trade by watching his dad, a renowned figure in the field. One day, father told son he was ready to handle the tools himself. Why now, the son wanted to know. "Most students ask me how much to take off," the senior explained. "You asked me how much to leave on."

Apple faced a similar question when designing the MacBook Air, the subnotebook computer that goes on sale next week. The category--ultraportable laptops weighing less than four pounds--has been known for sharp compromises in price, performance and features, all in service of the high-tech equivalent of a crash diet. What to leave in and what to take off?

Certainly Apple has fulfilled its goals in terms of thinness. The Air is a lithe sheath of aluminum so slim that it can slide under my office door. Packed inside the shell--which is three quarters of an inch at its thickest point, trailing off to a wispy 0.16 inches--is two gigabytes of memory, a bright 13.3-inch screen (lit by cutting-edge LED technology) and a full-size keyboard. This is a top-of-the-line array for a subnotebook. And, of course, it runs the Macintosh Leopard operating system, which you know, if you've seen the ads, is superior to Microsoft's competing Vista OS. (The commercials are right.) Did I mention that it's really skinny? When I slip it in the sleeve of my backpack where my six-pound MacBook Pro usually travels, the pocket still looks empty. Surely this is salve for the shoulders of anyone who springs the $1,799 it costs to buy.

The Air shines most, of course, when it's out in the open--on an airplane seatback tray, on a conference table, beside your latte in a Starbucks and on your lap when you're sprawled on the sofa. (Bonus: the Air doesn't run as hot as Apple's other laptops--it's actually possible to work for an hour with the device on your lap without the feeling that your fertility is at stake.) The gentle curves and the absence of protrusions make this an instant object of techno-lust, another notch in Apple's belt of design triumphs. Most importantly, its diminutive dimensions pretty much evaporate the eternal quandary of whether or not to take your computer along with you.

The compromise story is more complicated. Apple was unstinting in including an excellent keyboard with its great automatic backlighting feature, which radiates illumination in dim conditions. Its brain is the powerful Intel Core 2 Duo processor (though running at a lower clock speed that Apple offers in other laptops). It's got a built-in video camera for conferencing. The screen is big for a subnotebook, and quite bright. And the battery life is quite acceptable--I didn't have time for a definitive study but was getting only slightly less than the five hours per charge that Apple promises.

Also, the Air also breaks ground in being the first Apple computer to integrate some of the multi-touch technology introduced on the iPhone. Apple's smallest laptop also sports its biggest trackpad, the better to perform digital (in the old sense) tricks like the three-finger swipe (to flip through photos or to page back or forward on the browser), the two-finger scroll, the pinch-and-stretch (to resize Web pages) or the rotate maneuver (easier to perform than to describe). All are preferable alternatives than doing those common screen manipulations the way you used to do them.

But in service of slimness, something had to go, and depending on how you use computers, these compromises might either be negligible or deal killers. To maintain its Zen-like profile, the Air has a minimal selection of ports--one USB, one for video output to a bigger screen, and a single jack for earphones. That's it. Many people will choose to pay $29 for a "dongle" that plugs into the USB port to allow the Air to be plugged into Ethernet. There's no slot to plug an EVDO card for cellular broadband, so if you want that, you must use a different USB dongle connecting to a card for that purpose. No Firewire port either. Since so many things may vie for the single USB port, it might be wise to buy a hub that multiplies a single USB socket to many, even at the risk of spoiling the Air's sleek figure.

Another red flag for some is that, like the iPod, the Air has a fixed battery that users can't replace. Apple says that all but the heaviest users won't need a replacement for years, and that when you do need one, Apple will instantly replace the battery at its retail stores for $129.

There's also no built-in optical drive (that's the component that reads and writes CDs and DVDs). Apple downplays this omission partly by saying that in many ways the optical drive is obsolete (why watch DVDs when you can now rent movies with iTunes? Good one, Steve.) But its main compensation is a new feature called Remote Disc. This allows you to borrow the optical drive of a different computer so you can play homemade DVDs, install software, and, most importantly, use a boot disk to revive a damanged operating system. Clever idea, but trickier than it sounds--for instance, it only works on Macs or Windows PCs equipped with fairly recent operating systems. It also took me a session with Apple technicians to deliver this important hint to you: when using Remote Disc (and the Migration Assistant program that lets you wirelessly move your previous computer's files to your MacBook Air), set your firewall at the lowest security level. In any case, those solutions aren't as effective as what they're replacing, and MacBook Air owners would be nuts if they didn't buy Apple's new external disk drive, the $99 Superdrive. (Of course, that's one more suitor for that lone USB port.)

More disturbingly to power users, the maximum built-in storage option--the only one--is an 80-gigabyte hard drive. Apple insists that if it used the 160-gig hard disk drive it offers in its high-end iPod classic, it would blow the profile of the MacBook Air. Eighty gigs isn't much these days; you can get a bigger drive on even Apple's low-end MacBook. In one sense, this is a prescient look forward to the day when people will store their all-digital assets remotely, "in the cloud" as this concept is called. But since it's still a couple of years before my voluminous iTunes collection of movies and songs will be stashed in the ether, I need a computer with a standard-size drive, and the MacBook Air will work for me only as a second machine, a luxury item for on-the-go use.

These omissions are troubling--especially to someone in a down-turning economy deciding whether to spend a premium sum for a computer with subpremium storage. Still, simply using the MacBook Air, as I'm doing right now in writing this review, is rather copacetic. Though I can quibble with a few of Apple's choices of what to take off, the product's dimensions and design make the case that the losses were not in vain. The things that Apple left on were the ingredients for a quality computer. And did I mention how thin it is?