The Skinny on Macbook Air

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So just how anorexic is the new laptop Apple is touting as “the thinnest notebook in the world?” You can use a manila envelope as a computer case.

That’s just what Apple chief executive Steve Jobs did Tuesday when he introduced the svelte MacBook Air to an enthusiastic crowd at the annual Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco. Jobs pulled the ultra-sleek notebook from a regulation interoffice pouch as the enthusiastic crowd hooted and clapped.

The laptop, which Jobs said took two years to develop, ranges from .16 inches at its thinnest to .76 inches at its thickest. It weighs in at just under 3 pounds. The Air has a 13.3-inch LED-backlit screen, a built-in video camera and a full-size keyboard, one of the most desired features for many laptop users. “This is perhaps the best notebook keyboard we’ve ever shipped,” Jobs said.

The runway-model physique has a price, however. The Air retails for $1,799, hundreds more than other notebooks from the company that provide more memory and features. The Air works solely with wireless Internet connections and has only 2GM of memory, a small space in the era of huge video files and photo archives. It also has no optical disc drive. Buyers can add an external drive specially designed for the Air for $99 or connect remotely to another Mac or PC and use that computer’s built-in disc drive to install programs, transfer files or watch DVDs.

Perhaps hinting that discs and memory-sucking media archives aren’t the way of the future anyhow, Apple debuted the new laptop on the same day it announced a deal with all the major Hollywood studios to offer downloadable movie rentals. iTunes Movie Rentals lets users rent new releases for $3.99 and older films for $2.99. Renters have 30 days to start screening a film and then 24 hours to finish it. After that, the movie is erased from the user’s hard drive.

Reaction to the MacBook Air was mixed with some technophiles hailing it as stylish and forward-thinking and others suggesting it was limited and overpriced. “A swing and a miss,” pronounced one computer enthusiast posting on CNET.com. Disc drives may be on the road to extinction, the author wrote, “but that’s not going to happen before this new laptop becomes a relic.”

A commenter on Slashdot, a tech blog, mused that Apple’s solution to the limitations of the Air was for users to spend more money at the company store. “But how am I going to watch movies? What’s that? I can rent them from Apple, you say? What a coincidence,” he wrote.

Mac Daily News, a site devoted to all things Apple, acknowledged that the Air is “slightly ahead of its time”, but predicted that the laptop’s total focus on wireless “will change the way people think about and use portable computers.” So is the MacBook Air for you?

Writing on Macworld.com, editor Dan Frakes said the Air was ill-suited for those seeking a primary computer, but attractive to a specialized niche. The Air “isn’t designed to be a general-purpose computer; it has, by design, limitations that will be unacceptable for many people. But for a particular market—people who value light weight and are willing to give up other features to get it—it’s an interesting machine.”

So if you spend your life bouncing between cubicle and living room couch, the answer is probably no. The Air seems designed for people who live on the road. Its featherweight has the most value to those who schlep their computers everywhere and whose aching shoulders can register and appreciate the difference between a five-pounder and a three-pounder. Features like five-hours of battery life and a keyboard that lights up in dark places seem geared toward the frequent flier set. Much of MacBook Air’s functionality comes from syncing with a user’s home or office computer so it is not an ideal choice if you only want one machine.

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