On Monday afternoon, I posted a Backstage story discussing my experiences with the 2010 13” MacBook Air and my conclusion that—for my personal needs, at least—it wasn’t the right fit given the similar experience and greater value offered by the same-sized MacBook Pro. At the end of that day, the $600 price premium the top-of-line 13” Air represented over a better-equipped base model Pro just wasn’t justifiable given that its virtues were solely in weight (2/3 of the Pro) and thickness (roughly 1/3 or 1/2 of the Pro). Neither was enough to really change the experience of carrying a 13” screen, keyboard, and the like around in a bag.
So I did something that I’ve never done in the past six years of buying Apple laptops: I downgraded. Significantly. I swapped the 13” Air for an 11” model with half the storage capacity and a slower processor, falling from 2.13GHz down to 1.6GHz not because I wanted to, but because that’s all that Apple offers in its top-of-line 11” Air. The result was an immediate savings of $435 between the MSRP and sales tax, the single most obvious positive difference in the systems, though I had to give up the SD card slot, some speaker performance, and two stated hours of battery life, too. If the 13” Air didn’t feel like a replacement for a full-fledged laptop, the 11” Air is on paper even less so.
But you know what? As completely counterintuitive as this may sound, I’m very close to thrilled with the 11” Air in a way that I wasn’t with the bigger and more powerful model. It is so much smaller that, for once, it feels like a real volumetric reduction over my outgoing 13” MacBook Pro. The screen has the same serious color gamut issue I noted in my prior Backstage post, but it doesn’t feel like as much of a step back as it did with the 13” screen at that higher price. And apart from the aforementioned limitations, which feel far less obvious than they look on paper, the little Air seriously does not sacrifice anything that really matters to me.
Let me step backwards for one minute and attempt to explain why downgrading actually made sense here in practice. With a 13” Pro—a computer I relied upon as a standalone alternative to a desktop machine, with a screen I could mostly trust when editing photos and creating publications—there are certain expectations for performance at given prices that made sense. Apple sells the 13” Air at Pro prices, but underequips the machine as a true alternative, at least for my personal “pro” needs. All you really get for the extra dollars is a reduction in physical space with a few oohs and aahs when you show up at Starbucks. That the 13” looks, sounds, and performs so close to a Pro given its diminished size is impressive from an engineering standpoint, but to saddle end users with a price premium for a diminished overall experience has never really struck me as sensible. Sony, Apple, and others have tried this before with earlier slim notebooks, and yes, they had a niche, but ultimately failed to become major players in the marketplace.
Apple’s approach with the 11” is substantially different. Some have called it an Apple netbook, but that’s really not true in any way when you go to use it. This machine’s physical profile is like an elongated iPad, not as small as most netbooks, yet also nowhere near as large as the 13” version. For whatever reason (well, superb design), it seriously does not feel like a compromise relative to the 13” Air. The screen resolution is a little lower and the screen itself is wider, but in practice, those differences are not very pronounced. Because the 13” Pro has nearly the same screen resolution, it takes only a brief period of adjustment to go from using the 13” Pro to the 11” Air. Apple has also done such a superb job with the 11” model’s keyboard and trackpad that you can barely even tell that anything has changed between the devices unless you put them side by side; who cares if the F keys are smaller? The experience is so unlike using cramped netbooks, even the best of them, that we wouldn’t even put them in the same league. Only the need to add a SD card reader (and, for my camera’s needs, a CompactFlash reader as well) feels like something of a bummer, but you otherwise gain so much over a netbook that it’s hard to mind. One is a full-fledged Mac; the other is under the best of circumstances a dodgy little wannabe.
Of course, the Air starts at a $500 price disadvantage relative to higher-end netbooks, and only goes up from there as the storage space, RAM, and processor get bumped to the levels inside the machine I purchased. It’s obvious that the price-to-performance structure is still not what it needs to be in order for the Air family to completely supplant the base model MacBook or MacBook Pro yet, so if you’re amongst those thinking that the Air is about to become the MacBook—something that we’ve believed from the beginning was its eventual destiny—realize that such a thing is still likely to be a year or more off. Some people will get Airs instead of plastic MacBooks today, but they’ll likely feel a little short on storage space and either speed or memory as a direct consequence. Apple will offer both options until it no longer makes sense, from its perspective, to do so.
And what about the 11” Air’s other potential rival, the iPad? Well, that’s a different story. We’ve spent the last few days going back and forth between them and have come to the conclusion that they just don’t overlap to the extent that some people might assume—they’ll both have places in our travel bags. The iPad’s touch interface, battery life, and integrated 3G (if you have it) work so well for gaming, mapping, some web sites, and some types of apps that we’ve come to prefer it as a primary “fun” take-it-anywhere computer. An iPad is something we’d hand off to a child without even really thinking about it, or use for 10 different things in rapid succession. By contrast, the MacBook Air is a real computer. It feels delicate, unsafe to leave around young kids, and there to do everything the iPad can’t—serious typing, true multitasking, photo management and editing (screen limits aside), and other sorts of “real work.” It is a better piece of hardware at a higher price, but it has limitations, too. In our several days of testing, the battery life on the Air is just not up to snuff with the iPad’s, so keeping the power supply around is important. The lack of 3G and the absence of an on-screen touch interface create other situations in which the iPad can be handier, too.
Having both might be a luxury, but it’s one that is worth considering. Even with both the 11” Air and iPad inside, a travel bag can be smaller and lighter than with a 13” MacBook Pro as an alternative—with just one, the space savings over the 13” machine is downright incredible. From my perspective, the overall experiences one can expect from using both devices rather than just one will be better, so that’s what I’ll be doing for the time being. Given their potential to overlap, it’ll be very interesting to watch what Apple does over the next year to either consolidate or differentiate the Mac and iPad product lines: the winning strategy for consumers would be to let these computers continue to overlap as much as possible so that users can choose which one is best for their needs, but history has suggested that companies in Apple’s position most often try to artificially maintain product line distinctions until competition forces a change. Apple has shown some signs that it might not get caught in this trap, but then, who really knows at this point. Your thoughts on this topic, and the Air in general, are welcome in the comments section below.