Apple’s new 11-inch MacBook Air is astonishing. It’s unbelievable. It’s the most exciting consumer PC that’s come out for years. It’s a netbook, but it’s not a PoS. It’s blazing fast. It’s unbelievably light and thin. It’s beautifully made. Really beautifully made.

It has an older CPU and skimpy RAM, but it is NOT underpowered. For users like me, who aren’t editing Hollywood movies, it’s more than adequate. Heck, it’s a huge leap forward. Like Jobs said at the launch, this is the future of notebooks. Extremely thin and light, yet capable of running dozens of applications without bogging down. There are compromises, of course, but the most important things — portability, durability and functionality — are very much in place.

Last year, I bought a 13-inch MacBook Pro, which I loved. But in comparison to the 11-inch Air, it looks like a bloated old relic. It’s positively primitive: a porky throwback to a previous computing era.

I know what you’re thinking, “Cult of Mac. This guy’s a zealot. He’ll buy anything Steve Jobs tells him too.” I admit, I’m a fan. But the Air is important. It’s different. It’s right up there with the iPad and the iPhone. This is a breakthrough product.

PORTABILITY

The machine’s as light as a feather and almost as thin as an iPhone. It weighs just 2.3lbs. It feels very, very light. It sits weightlessly in your lap. Holding it up, it feels as light as an iPad. I had to check the specs. The Air is actually 1lb heavier.

If it wasn’t 11-inches wide, it would easily slip into your jeans pocket. Compared to my old 13-inch MBP, it’s a like a piece of paper. Where the MBP becomes heavy in your backpack, you could tote the Air all day and it would be no more effort than wearing a wristwatch.

POWER

The biggest revelation about the 11-inch Air is its power. On paper, it looks weedy. Most people, us included, figured the processor is too slow and the RAM too little.

For reasons unexplained, Apple is using older Intel Core Duo chips (1.4GHz or 1.6GHz) instead of the latest i3 or i5 processors, which are found in the MacBook Pro.

It’s also skimpy on ram. The base model has just 2Gbytes. Bumping it to 4-Gbytes costs an extra $100. The MacBook Pros can take up to 8GBytes.

I picked up the low-end model: 2GBytes of RAM; 1.4GHz chip and 64GBytes of storage. I thought it would be underpowered. Big shocker — it isn’t.

In an initial test, I opened up 17 applications and launched more 40 tabs in Safari and 24 tabs in Google’s Chrome browser (each is its own separate process). A funny thing happened: nothing. It kept on cranking. There were no spinning beachballs, no stuttering in the music I was playing.

I opened three more Safari windows and 40 more tabs. At this point the RAM was completely overloaded. The Air had carved out 1.76GBytes of drive space for virtual memory. Now the music started stuttering. But then it resumed.

At this point, switching tasks caused the machine to pause for a few seconds as the new task swapped into memory. But it took only a few seconds, and the machine went back to normal.

This is in stark contrast to my MacBook Pro. When the RAM is full, it’s a beachball party until applications are quit or the machine is restarted. On the “underpowered” 11-inch toy computer MacBook Air, it was plain sailing.

In normal us, I often have a dozen or more apps open at the same time. I can easily have 50 or more tabs open in various browsers. It’s how I work, and it’s not changing. My Mac Pro at work is usually OK with this, and now my portable is too. Amazing that it’s half-an-inch thick.

WRAP-UP

The MacBook Air is a polarizing machine. Many critics, especially in the tech community, say it doesn’t do this or that. It doesn’t have a DVD drive. It doesn’t have FireWire or Ethernet. It’s not powerful enough.

But for the vast majority of consumers, it is powerful enough. And its compromises — the lack of an optical drive, for example — are irrelevant. If you haven’t moved on from optical media, you soon will be. It’s a streaming world these days.

At the rollout event, Jobs said: “‘We asked ourselves, ‘What would happen if a MacBook and an iPad hooked up?’ Well, this is the result. … We think it’s the future of notebooks.”

Jobs is right. This machine is suitable for a wide swath of Apple’s customers. In 2008, the first MacBook Air was a high-design machine aimed at a narrow slice of the market. It was style over substance — a machine for reception desks at art galleries.

But the new Air is a mainstream machine. It’s suitable for students to take to classes all day, or a businessperson attending a week-long conference. For an information worker like me, it could be a main work machine. I can run my business on this.

This is what Apple does best: driving high-end technology down the line and superseding old products with better new ones.

This is the future of notebooks. The 11-inch Air blends extreme portability with surprising power.

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7 Responses to New MacBook Air Is Surprisingly Powerful

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