Forget the presidential race — Yesterday’s really exciting news came out of Macworld 2008 when Steve Jobs introduced the two new Apple products that will further solidify and extend the quintessential Apple brand. Macbook Air and Time Capsule are prime examples of what Apple is becoming best known for: extremely well engineered and executed products that emphasize function, embody elegant design and reduce environmental impact. In the midst of a crisis that is the revolt against adoption of Windows Vista, Apple stands to gain even more converts and valuable market share with this power play duo.
The Macbook Air addresses all of the major flaws that prevent most from adopting an ultra-portable laptop. While other manufacturers fall short with ultra-portable offerings that skimp on screen real estate, run out of battery too quickly and cramp hands with tiny keyboards, Apple has crashed the party with the largest screen, a battery that lasts 5 hours and a keyboard you can actually type on. Apple has hit a bulls eye and they know it; you can be sure that these features will be at the top of a long list that will sell the Macbook Air in obscene numbers.
Not content to simply edge out the competition, Apple is blowing the doors open with a slew of other features that make every geek drool. First, the unit weighs in at a measly 3 lbs — super light for a powerful computer by any standards. A multi-touch trackpad allows users to interact with the Macbook Air exactly the same as they do their favorite gadget, the iPod. This migration and improvement of a tremendously cool and intuitive feature from the iPod to the Macbook Air goes to show that Apple engineers know what works for users and they can transfer that knowledge between product teams.
Addressing the problem that many users see with ultra portables, Apple insures that optical media is accessible via a very cool piece of software they dub Remote Disc. This software can be loaded on Windows or MacOS, allowing a DVD or CD-ROM drive to be wirelessly shared with the Macbook Air. It remains to be seen if you need to be an administrator on a PC to load and use Remote Disc; this could be a show stopper for many corporate users.
Standard equipment of course are the MagSafe power adapter, a light-sensitive backlit keyboard and a built-in iSight camera. All of this equipment comes with a base price of $1799, which is nothing to sneeze at, but the price is still extremely competitive. Throw in the facts that the Air’s components (including display) eliminate some very harmful chemicals from the manufacturing process and can be more easily recycled and this thing practically sells itself.
Of note are a few downsides for the MacBook Air, most notable of which is the enclosed battery which makes user servicing impractical if not impossible (without marring the case and voiding the warranty). Apple is reassuring that batteries will be well-priced at a competitive $129 and free installation can be performed at any Apple retail store free of charge. Out of luck will be those unfortunate souls not close to a store and this could be a huge issue for rural users, not to mention power users who may go hours on end with no power; I, for one, carry two charged batteries with my laptop when on the road.
My biggest gripe though has to be the 4,200 RPM hard drive that comes standard with the unit. Processing power will do nothing if your system is bottlenecked waiting for I/O to complete and no manufacturer should still be using 4,200 RPM drives. To say that manufacturers are guilty of pushing faster and faster processors while refusing to address real performance issues would be an understatement, but that is for another discussion. In short, keep your eyes open for the DIY instructions on replacing your hard drive and plan on an upgrade to 7,200 RPM; your battery life will not suffer dramatically and the performance increase will be phenomenal. Solid state disk (SSD) hard drives are available for the Air, but at a very hefty sum, almost doubling the cost of the laptop.
Lastly, on a unit this thin, a full size DVI port has to be sacrificed. Those users that routinely connect to VGA, S-Video and DVI outputs will be forced to carry three separate adapters with their MacBook Air.
Time Capsule is a pretty sweet all-in-one package delivering 500 Gigabytes to 1 Terabyte of network attached storage (NAS), 802.11 a,b,g and n wireless connectivity, three wired Gigabit ethernet ports and a USB port for printers or external hard drives. Time Capsule is Mac and PC compatible. The price point on this unit is surprising, coming in at just $499 for the 1 TB model. Considering that a decent wireless n router, USB print server, Gigabit switch and 1 TB external hard drive would easily run you $450 and the fact that Apple has squeezed all of this into one package, you are bound to see the Time Capsule everywhere in a matter of months. Essentially, Time Capsule is giving you all of the software and functionality for free when you consider the cost of the hardware enclosed. Hopefully it works better overall than Time Machine and does not have some of the same issues I have been reading about the past several months.
Proprietary hardware and software is the game that Apple plays and this is not something that those of us advocating for openness in the industry are thrilled about. With the latest offerings out of Apple, we see this trend continuing. There is some hope that the tide is changing from within with the upcoming iPhone SDK due in February, but it is abundantly clear that Apple does not intend to let loose the reigns just yet and I am not convinced that there is anything wrong with that. I contend that Apple does an incredible job producing hardware and software that “just works”; integrating your Apple with Windows, Linux or other Macs is a snap in most all cases and this is exactly what the enterprise user demands. As proven with Vista, Windows becomes increasingly more difficult and annoying to integrate. As well as Linux is doing on the desktop (I am using Ubuntu now), there are still a lot of caveats and gotchas there as well. While their platform is not as open and standards-based as one might hope, Apple continues to deliver high quality products and software that play nicely with everyone else. At the end of the day, that is what sells and Apple will be doing a lot of selling in the new year.