Review: MacBook Air Enhanced by Cloud, Microsoft Live

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When Apple launched its updated line of MacBook Air notebooks, the company effectively went to war with every way we've come to use Windows-based mobile PCs for the past 15 years. In many ways, it's untying us from the past and linking us to the future of cloud computing.

Weighing in on our scale at 2 pounds, 5 ounces, even the lowest end of the MacBook Air family will change the way you think about using a laptop. Apple clearly has examined the way the market has begun to incorporate smartphones into our computing lifestyles and redesigned the product to speed up those changing use patterns.

In the CRN Test Center lab, we examined the 11-inch, 64-GB MacBook Air. The notebook was built with an Intel Core 2 Duo u9400 processor at 1.40GHz and 2 GB of RAM. It's the lowest-end MacBook Air, and it ran up a score of 2,028 when performance-tested on Primate Labs' Geekbench 2.1.10 for Mac OS X.

The performance measurement was far below similar Windows-based notebooks with equal hardware. However, on further inspection, the system is clearly greater than the sum of all of its thin-and-light (and sleek) parts. Here are some reasons why:

While the performance benchmark is lower than competing products, the Macbook Air's Flash-based storage, rather than drive-based, enables virtually "instant on" capability from sleep mode and 10-second boot time from being completely off. Snow Leopard, the current operating system, also provides a more intuitive navigation than even Windows 7, making switching between applications faster as well.

Apple offers a MacBook Air with 13.3-inch screens, and Windows-based notebooks with 15.6-inch screens can be found for lower list and street pricing. But even with Apple's 11-inch MacBook Air, the display is bright enough and clear enough to make viewing for long stretches easy on the eyes and a strength, not a weakness.

Apple's traditionally springy and comfortable full keyboard just works. A downer is that Apple has done away with the lighted keyboard in this crop of MacBook Air notebooks, a feature many have said they had come to love and now feel let down about its absence. Still, for prolonged periods of typing, the keyboard is comfortable and easy to use.

NEXT: Multitouch Functionality, Battery LifeThe MacBook Air's trackpad brings the multitouch functionality Apple has delivered to its iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad products -- but with a twist. Saying that notebook users aren't comfortable moving applications and objects around on the screen itself (as they are with smartphones, for example), Apple executives explained that they incorporated multitouch capability into the MacBook Air trackpad. It was the right move. We found the trackpad's multitouch function is a terrific way to view and handle images and some objects without the sometimes-aggravating need to wipe off the display (as you need to do constantly with the iPad and iPhone).

Battery life is fine. Using the CRN Test Center's standard battery life test for notebooks, we turned off all power-saving options in the MacBook Air and ran a video from the device's storage, continuously, until the battery died. This gave us just less than three hours of battery life, which is on par with competing hardware in this class. Using the MacBook Air for basic productivity (e-mail, writing, accessing calendar and contact lists, etc.), it does get the five hours of battery life that Apple says it gets. (It fully recharged in about 90 minutes.)

So what's the big deal? It's almost as much as what the MacBook Air doesn't have as what it does: There's no optical drive, no hard disk drive, no Ethernet port. Apple designed the product with Flash storage rather than drive-based storage, and the Flash storage is installed in a space-optimized layout to provide room for a bigger battery. But because the storage drives work with no spinning parts that means the notebook is quieter, boots faster and is thinner and lighter.

While the absence of an Ethernet port could create challenges for those who want a MacBook Air for a hard-wired business environment, the absence hasn't hindered sales of smartphones or devices such as the iPad. With that in mind, Apple has clearly designed the MacBook Air with the true and strengthening mobile use pattern in mind.

For those who still require an optical drive, significant amounts of built-in, spinning disk storage and a lower acquisition price, traditional MacBooks -- and notebooks like Toshiba's Portege R700 or Lenovo's ThinkPad X201 -- remain options. But for those who are either early adopters, who have begun transforming the way they get the most out of a PC or those who simply eschew Windows, MacBook Air will no doubt be a major part of the discussion.

NEXT: MobileMe, Microsoft Document Connection

Beyond the hardware, though, is how Apple has woven its cloud computing strategy into this product. MobileMe, which launched a couple of years ago and was billed as "Exchange for the Rest of Us," should now be looked upon as "Cloud for the Rest of Us."

MobileMe is integrated into the MacBook Air in a way that makes its iDisk hosted storage service as seamless a part of the MacBook Air as an HDD is to another notebook. That means that saving or accessing documents and data from MobileMe iDisk is as easy and snappy as accessing them from a PC's C Drive. Because the low-end Air only comes with 64 GB of storage, having the option of quick, easy, cloud-based storage at the ready makes a big difference. (MobileMe is a separate purchase. It lists for $99 per year for an account that includes a Me.Com email address and 20 GB of hosted storage via iDisk.)

But integration with MobileMe also allows for instant and wireless synchronization of contacts and iCal-based calendaring information between the Mac, iPhone and iPad. This is eye-opening efficiency.

And beyond MobileMe, there remains a friendly relationship with the Microsoft environment as well. After unboxing and starting the MacBook Air, we installed Office for Mac 2011. Not only do the basic Office applications work great in the Mac 2011 version, but the included Microsoft Document Connection function is a champ. Here, too, the technology allows for Microsoft Office documents, PowerPoints and spreadsheets to be accessed from and saved to a Microsoft Office Live account via Microsoft's hosted (and free) Sky Drive offering. Again, with 64 GB of storage on the notebook, the ability to seamlessly use online storage as part of the file system is just beautiful.

Microsoft Document Connection appears on the application bar at the bottom of the Mac screen; clicking it open cues a console to open directly to a user's Microsoft Sky Drive. This feature also integrates with Microsoft SharePoint -- meaning an organization wouldn't need to undermine an investment in that collaboration platform by shifting to MacBook Air.

The upshot is this: Apple has noticed how millions have integrated the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch into their lives and careers and have placed their bet on a shift to a different pattern of storing data. Does this mean death to HDD and SSD storage? No, but it provides a new use model for that, too.

NEXT: Competing In The Enterprise Market

Case in point: Time Machine, the Mac OS X-based feature that allows for simple software backup with the push of a button. While having only 64 GB of storage on a PC could come with the obvious downside of low capacity, the upside is that you can back up everything quickly and easily with, for example, a low-end Western Digital Passport USB drive. In fact, on the horizon are lower-priced, easier-to-find 64 GB thumb drives, which will make data backup as much a part of daily computing as clicking on a Web browser.

Can the MacBook Air compete in a broader enterprise market against Windows-based notebooks? That will depend on your definition of "compete." For many, a $1,000, $1,300 or $1,800 price point for a notebook is not part of the budget -- and won't be any time soon. And still too many enterprises are hooked into the decade-old Windows XP. (Although Windows performance on Mac-hosted virtual machines has long been a simple, inexpensive and powerful option, this simply hasn't caught on in broad numbers.)

Overall, though, Apple is gaining mind share and market share in the mobile PC space -- if by "mobile PC" you're also including iPads, as does research firm DisplaySearch. Using that methodology, Apple is No. 1 in the U.S., and No. 3 worldwide, in mobile PC shipments. If Apple can continue to build upon the integration of iPads and iPhones with MacBook Air, that might be enough to overcome the higher price point.

The bottom line, though, is that the MacBook Air is simply a best-of-breed, forward-looking notebook that creates a great user experience, delivers snappy enough performance and works with enough cloud-based utilities to make it relevant today. The return on investment will be found in the absence of malware threats, the increased mobility through its form factor, integration with Microsoft Office and simplicity of client backup.

The MacBook Air isn't hot air.


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