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Review: Hands-On With The MacBook Air

We had a few minutes to play with Apple's new, sexy notebook computer at Macworld Expo. It looks like a machine for people willing to pay a premium for style, and who don't care that much about computing power.

The remarkable thing about the MacBook Air is how unremarkable it is. If you've used notebook computers, you won't find much different here; it's got a full-sized wide-screen display, full-sized keyboard, and nice, big trackpad. It's a complete, full-sized notebook computer -- but a relatively lightweight one.

And it's razor-thin and looks great. Don't forget that. Apple is going to sell a gazillion of them. It will sell them to people for whom light weight and good looks are a priority in choosing a notebook.

The rest of us, however, will find the MacBook Air is underpowered and high-priced, with limited expandability.

I had a few minutes to play with the Air Thursday afternoon. Apple has at least a dozen of them laid out on a big table at its booth at Macworld Expo. Trying to get access to the machines on Tuesday and Wednesday was like trying to get a seat on the Tokyo subway during rush hour. But I only had to wait a few minutes on Thursday.

It's really a gorgeous machine, just as thin and sleek as it looks in the TV commercials and ads. The display is nice and bright and the colors are crisp.

The keyboard is the same one used on other MacBooks and the iMac. It's slightly larger and easier to use than the keyboard on the PowerBook G4 that I'm typing on now, with the keys spaced apart from each other a little bit more than on the older machine. Keyboard feedback is good, slightly better than on the G4.

The trackpad supports multitouch gestures. Many of the gestures are the same as those used on the iPhone. I'm an iPhone user and I found the gestures quite natural on the Air. I also found the gestures quite natural when I first picked up the iPhone -- so I expect new MacBook users who aren't also iPhone users will find that Air trackpad gestures are easy to master.

While Apple didn't have to compromise the user interface to get the Air to be thin and light, it did have to compromise power and expandability.

It has one, and only one, USB 2.0 port, so if you want to attach more than one USB device to your Air while on the road, you'd better pack a USB hub, which adds weight and volume to your computer setup. It doesn't have a FireWire connector. External video is limited to a mini-DVI port, so you can hook up an external 20- or 23-inch display but not a 30-inch display.

The Air also is a bit scant inside the case, with a 1.6 MHz or 1.8 MHz Intel Core 2 processor, 80 GB hard disk drive with an optional 64 GB solid-state storage, and 2 GB memory.

It doesn't have built-in Ethernet or FireWire support, and it doesn't have an onboard optical drive. On the other hand, the Wi-Fi support is the new, fast, 802.11n standard, and you can use the optical drive from another computer on the network running Mac OS or Windows, by installing special software on the remote computer.

With those kinds of specs, you won't be doing a lot of graphic design, video processing, or gaming with the Air. But hordes of salespeople, marketing people, managers, and consumers will buy the device anyway. They'll have to be willing to shell out for it, though -- this not-so-high-powered device has a starting price of $1,800, or $3,098 with the faster processor and solid-state drive.

My colleague Antone Gonsalves compares the Air to Windows notebooks with comparable specs. He found that comparable products from Windows vendors are lower-priced, higher-powered, and more expansible, but they're also bigger and weigh more.

What do you think? Do you plan to buy the MacBook Air?

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