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Correction to This Article
A Jan. 24 Business column about the MacBook Air misstated the functions of its Remote Disc feature. It does not burn CDs. Also, it can play DVDs, though not commercial ones with copyright protections.

The Slimming of the MacBook

As with any sub-notebook, features were discarded in the service of slimming.
As with any sub-notebook, features were discarded in the service of slimming. (Photo: Paul Sakuma / AP)

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By Steven Levy
Thursday, January 24, 2008

Early in my writing career, I had an assignment to follow around a mohel -- the guy who does ritual circumcisions in the Jewish tradition. My subject learned the trade by watching his dad, a renowned figure in the field. One day, father told son he was ready to handle the tools himself. Why now? the son wanted to know. "Most students ask me how much to take off," the senior explained. "You asked me how much to leave on."

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Apple faced a similar question when designing the MacBook Air, the sub-notebook computer that goes on sale next week. The category -- ultra-portable laptops weighing less than four pounds -- has been known for sharp compromises in price, performance and features, all in the service of the high-tech equivalent of a crash diet. What to leave on and what to take off?

Certainly, Apple has fulfilled its goals in terms of thinness. The Air is a sleek sheath of aluminum so slim that it can slide under my office door. Packed inside the shell, which is 3/4 inch at its thickest point, trailing off to a wispy 0.16 inches, are 2 gigabytes of memory, a bright 13.3-inch screen (lit by cutting-edge LED technology) and a full-size keyboard.

Did I mention that it's really skinny? When I slip it in the sleeve of my backpack where my 6-pound MacBook Pro usually travels, the pocket still looks empty. Surely this is salve for the shoulders of anyone who springs for the $1,799 to buy it.

The Air shines most, of course, when it's out in the open. The gentle curves and the absence of protrusions make this an instant object of techno-lust. Most importantly, its diminutive dimensions pretty much evaporate the eternal quandary of whether to take your computer with you.

The compromise story is more complicated. Apple was unstinting in including an excellent keyboard with its great automatic backlighting feature that radiates illumination in dim conditions. Its brain is the powerful Intel Core II Duo processor (though running at a lower speed that Apple offers in other laptops). And the battery life is acceptable -- I didn't have time for a definitive study but was getting only slightly less than the five hours per charge that Apple promises. Also, the Air breaks ground as the first Apple computer to integrate some of the multi-touch technology introduced on the iPhone.

But in service of slimness, something had to go, and depending on how you use computers, these compromises might be negligible, or they might be deal-killers.

To maintain its Zen-like profile, the Air has a minimal selection of ports -- one USB, one for video output to a bigger screen and a single jack for earphones. That's it. Many people will choose to pay $29 for a "dongle" that plugs into the USB port to allow the Air to be plugged into Ethernet. There's no slot to plug an EVDO card for cellular broadband, so if you want that, you must use a different USB dongle connecting to a card. No Firewire port either. Because so many things may vie for the single USB port, it might be wise to buy a hub that multiplies a single USB socket to many, even at the risk of spoiling the Air's sleek figure.

There's also no built-in optical drive. (That's the component that reads and writes CDs and DVDs.) Apple's main compensation is a new feature called Remote Disc. This allows you to borrow the optical drive of a different computer so you can burn CDs, play DVDs and (most importantly) install software to restore a damaged operating system. Clever idea, but trickier than it sounds. Macbook Air owners would be nuts if they didn't buy Apple's new $99 SuperDrive external disk drive. (Of course, that's one more suitor for that lone USB port.) More disturbingly to power users, the maximum built-in storage option -- the only one -- is an 80-gigabyte hard drive. Apple insists that if it used the 160-gig hard drive it offers in its high-end iPod Classic, it would blow the profile of the MacBook Air. Eighty gigs isn't much these days; you can get a bigger drive on even the low-end MacBook.

In one sense, this is a prescient look forward to the day when people will store their digital assets remotely, "in the cloud," as this concept is described. But since it's still a couple of years before my voluminous iTunes collection of movies and songs will be stashed in the ether, I need a computer with a standard-size drive, and the Macbook Air will work for me only as a second machine, a luxury item for on-the-go use.

While these omissions may be troubling -- especially to someone in a down-turning economy deciding whether to spend a premium sum for a computer with sub-premium storage -- the fact is that simply using the Macbook Air, as I'm doing right now in writing this review, is rather copacetic. Though I can quibble with a few of Apple's choices of what to take off, the product's dimensions and design definitely show that that the losses were not in vain. The things that Apple left on were the ingredients for a quality computer. And did I mention how thin it is?

Steven Levy, a senior editor atNewsweek, can be reached atsteven.levy@newsweek.com.


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