by Ilya Gavrichenkov
03/19/2008 | 07:47 PM
Apple Company managed to become quite successful in 2007. One of the most convincing arguments in favor of this statement is the fact that their sales volumes increased by 40% over the past year alone. It has evidently happened due to correct strategic decision Apple made: to transfer their PCs to Intel hardware platform. This measure gave them the opportunity to finally get beyond the market niche they have been occupying for a long time and attract new user groups. The inability to use the familiar operating system and software applications has discouraged numerous users for years from working with solutions bearing an Apple logo on them, because they didn’t feel like learning to work with the Mac OS. Now this problem no longer exists: the standard x86 platform makes Mac computers fully compatible with Windows OS, and Apple software developers even offer special applications that allow using Mac OS X and Windows on the same system.
In fact, the new Mac owners may simply give up the brand name operating system completely. As we have already told you in our previous article called Madman Diaries: Apple MacBook Pro and Microsoft Windows Vista, contemporary Apple computers allow “wiping clean” all references to Mac OS X and install Windows Vista so that the member of this different civilization will turn into a typical Wintel platform.
After our article on MacBook Pro with Windows Vista we received a lot of feedback from our readers indicating clearly that although this whole idea may seem pretty strange at first, it aroused huge interest in the user community. The thing is that Apple notebooks, just like the legendary ThinkPad mobile systems, boast a lot of unique features that you can hardly find in the solutions offered by other manufacturers. For example, the MacBook Pro family we have discussed earlier boasts sophisticated exterior design, good performance, high-quality display with LED backlighting, convenient keyboards and touchpad, practical dimensions and relatively light weight. There are a lot of potential notebook users out there, who wouldn’t mind getting a full package like that in one. However, most of them do not even consider purchasing an Apple system, because there is not enough info on how well it operates with Microsoft operating systems. That is why we decided to continue our series of experiments involving “blasphemous” replacement of the original OS on Apple platforms. And what solution do you think we picked to become our next victim?
Yes! It is Apple’s pride and beauty, the most exciting newcomer of the early 2008, MacBook Air. We managed to get our hands on one of the first production samples of this device and we couldn’t help checking it out in our unconventional experiments. That is why if you have come to our site to find just another typical review of a new ultra-portable mobile computer from Apple, you will hardly like this article. In this case, don’t waste your time and look for these reviews somewhere else, especially since there are quite a few available online already. As for us, we are going to first of all target those Windows fans, who are not planning to convert into an alternative religion and are just looking for a new portable computer. Since Apple MacBook Air is a truly remarkable choice from the mobility standpoint. Apple’s powerful marketing campaign stresses that it is the thinnest and lightest solution out there, and it is absolutely true: this solution has no competitors. At first glance, MacBook Air is an excellent mobile companion, in the full meaning of the word “mobile”. However, will those users who prefer Windows OS be happy with it? Let’s discuss this matter now.
Stunning. This is probably the best word to describe all the feelings that run through your mind when you look at MacBook Air for the first time. It is not for nothing that at the very first showcase of this notebook Steve Jobs took out of a paper folder. MacBook Air is amazingly thin, it is the finest notebook of all available in the today’s market. And although some manufacturers try to argue about it, the new Apple solution does look very impressive.
If we turn to numbers, it turns out that MacBook Air is not as thin as it seems. It is 4mm thin only on edges. The thickest part of it is 19.3mm. However its light case made of anodized aluminum and skillful use of smooth rounded shapes creates an impression that the notebook is almost weightless. In fact, it would be not quite correct to believe that the “airy” impression from MacBook Air is just a pure psychological effect. If you compare the new Apple solution against any of the competitors out there, you will see that it is truly thin and light weighing only 1.36kg.
Although the MacBook Air display diagonal is 13.3 inches, it still belongs to the ultra-portable solutions class. It is very convenient to carry around on a roadtrip: it weighs and measures almost the same as most contemporary glossy magazines. Moreover, a man with MacBook Air under his arm will look just as fine as the one with a fresh issue of Vogue or GQ magazine. You can’t take the style away from MacBook Air. A truly airy matt aluminum casing with a glowing white apple logo will make the desired impression not only on Apple solutions fans, but also on anyone who knows what real style is.
If the fashionable and technological design is a real advantage of the newcomer, then from other standpoints MacBook Air can be considered a victim of compromises. Just look at the side edges of it. At first they seem to be absolutely clear. Of course, it would be a real challenge to place anything on a 4mm edge. That is why the notorious airiness required sacrificing an optical drive, ExpressCard and CardBus expansion slots, card-reader and even the Firewire and Ethernet ports. There is nothing there at all.
Only on the right side of the notebook there is a small cover with a single USB 2.0 port, analogue headphones jack and Micro-DVI connector (the regular D-Sub and DVI adapters are included).
The absence of the usual set of ports and connectors is actually as impressive as its clear-cut shape and small weight. However, there is nothing we can do about it, so the only thing remaining is to figure out how justified the ascetic set of connectors offered by Apple developers is in different life situations.
The most user complaints are about the availability of only one single USB 2.0 port. It is true, having just one port like that is a real mockery for a contemporary notebook. Especially, since its sophisticated location sets certain limitations on the physical size of the USB plug. However, on the other hand, in case of a desktop use, you can always connect a USB hub to it, while on the road you will hardly need that many USB ports at once. However the absence of Firewire ports turned into an even more frustrating omission, because it doesn’t allow connecting any digital cameras to MacBook Air.
The notebook also doesn’t support wired network, because Apple stresses that WiFi is more than enough for a contemporary hi-tech era of wireless technologies. Especially since MacBook Air supports 802.11n protocol with 248Mbit/s peak bandwidth. Moreover, you can always purchase an optional USB Ethernet adapter for MacBook Air for $29.
I would like to say a few words about a DVD drive, to be more exact, about the absence of this drive. MacBook Air is the first mobile computer from Apple that doesn’t have this common accessory. Instead, Apple is offering Remote Disc utility that provides direct access to optical drives installed in other computer systems via local network. It is important to point out that this function works not only with computers running Mac OS X: Widows systems may also become so-called “DVD-donors”. However, this approach has a few limitations, one of the most frustrating ones being the fact that Remote Disc only provides access to data disks and doesn’t work with audio or video disks. However, you can always connect an external optical USB drive to MacBook Air. For example, Apple MacBook Air SuperDrive (selling for $99) or any other drive.
Please understand correctly: we are not trying to convince you that almost no expansion ports and the absence of a DVD drive by MacBook Air is a convenient and acceptable solution. No way. The only thing we are trying to say is that you still can live with that, especially since this notebook is an ultra-portable computer that doesn’t try to replace a desktop system in any way.
The bottom of the notebook also looks very surprising. The thing is that despite all traditions, it has no sections that can be opened. It means that you cannot replace any components in your MacBook Air without losing the warranty, and also cannot use any interchangeable batteries. In other words, Apple ideologists tried to make their solution not only extremely mobile, but also as close as possible to a consumer electronics device that cannot be upgraded or fixed at home. Therefore, even if your battery dies, you will only be able to replace it in the specialized service center.
As for the power supply connector, it is located on the left side of MacBook Air. They use MagSafe magnetic connector that we have already seen on MacBook Pro.
The power supply unit looks quite common, but is smaller and lighter than that of a MacBook Pro. No wonder, since its capacity is only 45W.
Now that we have checked out this notebook from the outside, let’s open the top cover that holds with a very light magnetic clip. 13-inch TFT matrix of MacBook Air makes extremely favorable impression even despite the flashing glossy coating. The screen supports typical resolution for its size of 1280x800 and features LED backlighting that proved extremely efficient in MacBook Pro family thanks to high image contract level. The display in the new notebook is even brighter, it remains bright even under direct sunlight. However despite that, the LED backlighting retained its main advantage – extreme economy. Moreover, it is the LED backlighting used instead of cold cathode fluorescent lamps that allowed Apple to make the top cover impressively thin.
The eye of the iSight web-cam is right above the display. It transmits the video with standard 540x480 resolution. On the right there is a built-in microphone. The lighting sensor is on the left, hidden behind the similar grid. It controls automatic screen brightness and keyboard highlighting.
Although MacBook Air is an ultra-portable solution, Apple managed to save its full-size keyboard. The secret is that this mobile system has a little fewer keys: there are only 79 of them, while Wintel notebooks have 88-key keyboards. They removed some of the rarely used keys, so in reality you will hardly notice they are missing when working with this notebook.
So, MacBook Air keyboard looks good from both standpoints: ergonomic as well as aesthetical. Large black keys made of warm plastic travel very softly and sink deep enough to ensure comfortable tactile experience. They get highlighted white in case of poor lighting conditions.
The touchpad is even more impressive. Its size is certainly impressive: the diagonal of the work surface measures 12cm. However, it is not just the size of it that stands out. A much more interesting fact is that MacBook Air touchpad recognizes gestures like those one uses on iPhone, for instance. Different finger combinations allow scrolling documents, changing text and image sizes, turning pages forth and back and even rotating images in a very simple way. Of course, this remarkably convenient feature makes Apple touchpad a much more advanced tool putting it way above the manipulators of common mobile devices from other manufacturers. Even the fact that it only has one button doesn’t spoil the impression. The pressing of the second button is emulated perfectly fine with the help of the same “sign language”.
In conclusion to our discussion of the airy notebook exterior design I would like to point out one more thing. It hardly has any of the conventional LED indicators. The only white LED hidden in the front edge of the notebook lights up when the system goes into sleep mode. Moreover, miniature green LEDs indicating the corresponding activity are installed into the Caps Lock key, PSU connector and next to iSight camera. As for all other indication, Apple engineers rely on the operating system to do it.
Well, it is really hard to tell if Apple MacBook Air is a good or a bad solution judging by its exterior design. It is very ambiguous, and the only thing we can say with all certainty at this point, is that it changes completely the traditional perception of an ultra-portable system. Newcomer from Apple invites you to give up a lot of things you are used to for the sake of “airy” thinness and lightness. So, each of you will have to make their own conclusions here basing on what you are ready to sacrifice for extra mobility and style. As for us, we are going to share our opinion about more definite things, such as hardware configuration.
MacBook Air is based on Centrino Duo platform from Santa Rosa generation, which relates this solution to any contemporary mobile Wintel computer. However, Apple made a few corrections to this standard set of components that is why we can’t say that MacBook Air features a typical configuration. The thing is that the main goal to create and extremely thin and lightweight solution required the developers to think not only about the performance and power consumption of the components they used, but also about their physical size. Therefore, the hardware components one finds inside this airy notebook will most likely arouse as many emotions as its exterior design.
First of all, I have to say that the engineers had to sacrifice different slots and mainboards connectors for the sake of thin form-factor. To save some space the CPU as well as memory are soldered permanently to the mainboards and cannot be replaced.
Moreover, MacBook Air uses a not quite standard CPU. Intel ships a special smaller Merom version specifically for Apple.
In a standard configuration it would be a mobile Core 2 Duo with 4MB L2 cache and 1.6GHz clock frequency. This processor can be regarded as an economical modification, its default Vcore has been reduced to 1.25V, and the TDP – to 20W. The standard mobile processor from Intel manufactured with 65nm process features 15W higher typical heat dissipation rate and work at 0.1V higher processor core voltage. There is an option, however, to request a faster processor modification working at 1.8GHz clock speed.
The notebook is equipped with 2GB of built-in quite contemporary dual-channel DDR2-667 SDRAM working at 5-5-5-15 timings. For the reasons described above you cannot change the amount of memory in MacBook Air.
For the system chipset Apple chose Intel GMA965 core logic with the integrated X3100 graphics core. It means that MacBook Air cannot become a gaming platform. It features evidently weak 3D graphics, according to today’s standards. Nevertheless, Intel X3100 works just fine in typical 2D environment. The only limitation is the maximum screen resolution supported by the external DVI port that cannot exceed 1920x1200.
Although Santa Rosa platform may also include Intel’s wireless network adapter, that also supports draft 802.11n protocol, Apple preferred to use an add-on Broadcom controller with the same functionality instead. This could have been done because Intel ships its solutions only as mini-PCIE cards, which cannot fit inside MacBook Air.
Besides wireless network, this notebook supports another popular wireless interface – Bluetooth.
The hard drive installed into MacBook Air deserves our special attention. In a standard configuration it is a 1.8-inch Samsung Spinpoint N2 hard disk drive with 80GB storage capacity. The main advantage of this HDD is certainly its small size despite sufficient capacity: it is only 5mm thick. However, you shouldn’t expect any serious performance from it: the spindle rotation speed is only 4,200RPM and the average access time – 13ms. Moreover, the hard drive uses almost forgotten Ultra ATA-100 interface. So, no wonder than even 8MB buffer cannot help improve things here.
An alternative solid state hard disk drive with 64GB storage capacity can certainly ensure much better performance parameters. It can be installed into Apple MacBook Air upon the customer’s request. Besides, it is also much more economical prolonging MacBook Air’s battery life by about 10-15%. The only disturbing thing is the price: SSD will cost you additional $999.
The integrated sound solution uses Realtek’s dual-channel codec. Frankly speaking, this notebook produces very poor audio quality. It has only one speaker located on the right beneath the keyboard. So, you will hardly be able to listen to anything other than OS beeping through this audio system. As for the external audio devices, there is only one analogue stereo output port for those.
MacBook Air battery was also selected as small and lightweight as possible. That is why this notebook uses lithium-polymer battery with 37Wh capacity instead of lithium-ion one. A high-capacity battery for an ultra-portable notebook like this is claimed to provide up to 5 hours of operation time. This is partially true: MacBook Air does really run on battery for quite a long time. However, it also takes a while to charge: it may require more than 5 hours to charge fully.
The table below offers basic specifications of Apple MacBook Air. This is exactly the configuration we got into our lab:
Apple MacBook Air
Core 2 Duo 1.6GHz (65 nm, Merom, 4MB L2)
2GB of dual-channel DDR2-667 SDRAM
Samsung HS082HB (80GB, 4200RPM, ATA-100)
WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n: Broadcom 802.11n
1 x USB 2.0
Dimensions and weight
325mm x 227mm x 19 mm
Now that we are through with the brief introduction of the new Apple notebook, let’s see what the Microsoft operating systems fans will have to face if they decide to go with the MacBook Air beauty. You see right away that Windows Vista is a foreign environment for this computer system. As you may have already guessed, the notebook comes with Mac OS X preinstalled and it is not a trivial task to replace it with Windows Vista, because there is no DVD drive in this computer.
Even the brand name BootCamp utility that should create a second folder with Windows on the system hard drive cannot help: it also requires a system restart followed by booting from an installation Windows DVD disk. Remote Disc utility that allows using optical drives of other computer systems on the local network and thus should make up for the absence of DVD ROM drive is also of no help in this case. It works only with Mac OS X and allows booting from an installation optical disk only if it is the disk with Mac OS X distributive.
That is why the bad news is that you need an external DVD ROM drive connected to the USB port in order to install Windows Vista on your new MacBook Air. The same is true for the installation of an alternative operating system using BootCamp, which is also written on Apple’s official web-site.
The good news in this case is the fact that you don’t need to buy brand name MacBook Air SuperDrive to install Windows. The notebook can work just fine with third-party external DVD ROM drives, too. However, our experience proves that not any drive will do. For example, we checked out three devices, and although all three of them were recognized by the OS, the notebook agreed to boot only from one of them: Plextor PX-608CU. The other two external drives from LG didn’t work right with MacBook Air.
Since we intended to install Windows Vista as the primary and not the secondary operating system, we faced one more problem. Standard Vista installer refused to delete the Mac OS X partition on the hard drive. I believe that those users who decide to install Microsoft OS together with Mac OS X using BootCamp will not have this problem, because it creates an NTFS partition for Windows installation. If you decide that two operating systems on a 60-80GB hard drive is too much luxury for you, you will have to repeat the same trick we described in our MacBook Pro Review in order to install Windows successfully. Namely, before installing Windows Vista you will have to launch Windows XP installer that will remove HFS+ file system from the hard drive without any hesitation.
After the troubles we had to go through during the installation procedure, no driver issues seem something absolutely fantastic. Although Windows Vista distributive and Windows Update service do not have all the drivers your MacBook Air might need, Apple decided to take care of their users here. One of the disks that come with the notebook contains all the drivers you might need for Windows OS. By the way, together with the drivers you will also install a small Boot Camp Control Panel utility that allows changing some system parameters. For example, display brightness or functional keys work mode.
Now that you’ve done all that, the Microsoft OS is officially installed. According to our experience, Windows Vista doesn’t have any evident compatibility issues with MacBook Air. Moreover, although you have a completely new operating system installed, a lot of brand name features of this system keep working just fine.
Even the price of MacBook Air – its touchpad – works in Windows exactly the same way as it does in Mac OS X. it recognizes all the specific finger moves, although their interpretation depends on the particular application you are working with. Even the availability of only one key doesn’t cause you any trouble: right click emulation works perfectly fine, too.
The keyboard also gave us no causes for concern. You barely notice that it lacks some of the traditional notebook keys. The only thing you may sometimes be frustrated with is the absence of the traditional Del key: you need to press Fn+BackSpace instead.
However, it would be not quite fair to say that MacBook Air has absolutely no ergonomic issues when working in Windows Vista. For example, the screen brightness adjustment doesn’t work here. Although the operating system should use brightness adjustment to extend the battery life and the notebook knows to adjust screen brightness in Mac OS X depending on the ambient lighting conditions, none of them can actually do it under Windows Vista. Therefore, the only way to change the screen brightness in Windows Vista is to adjust it manually in Boot Camp Control Panel.
Keyboard highlighting also doesn’t work right. Sometimes it turns on, off or changes brightness absolutely chaotically, without any link to the actual lighting conditions. It must be the driver issue, so we hope it may be resolved in the future. However, you should keep in mind that Apple doesn’t post new drivers for Windows Vista on their web-site, so you will need to put some effort into locating the appropriate driver update in the World Wide Web.
Also, Apple software developers didn’t bother to enable Remote Disc function for Windows. That is why those who decide to go with this OS will either have to live without optical media at all or will have to go for an external DVD ROM drive.
Our tests showed that Apple MacBook Air works OK with Windows Vista operating system. We encountered no serious compatibility issues, so you do not have to use this exclusive ultra-portable computer with its native operating system.
The performance rating demonstrated by MacBook Air is quite good, since it is equipped with pretty up-to-date hardware.
Of course, MacBook Air cannot be used for gaming because it features an Intel integrated graphics core. However, it should perform quite well in most contemporary applications. At least the operating system thinks so.
However, we have a somewhat different impression of the notebook performance. The thing is that during our subjective tests the system would occasionally slow down showing absolutely inadequate performance numbers for the type of hardware inside. And we did discover objective evidence backing up these observations: some test applications reported suspiciously low results. However, we all know from our desktop experience that a fully-fledged dual-core processor on Core micro-architecture working at 1.6GHz frequency and 2GB of high-speed RAM should be quite enough for pretty good performance in Vista. All this indicated that there evidently were some problems with notebook’s hardware.
First of all we suspected the hard drive used in MacBook Air since it was a 1.8-inch HDD that is initially intended not for notebooks but for more portable miniature devices. However, the results of its performance measurements confirmed that it was not the one to blame for system slowness.
Although Spinpoint N2 HDD installed in MacBook Air cannot boast extreme performance, it is not that slow as well.
Therefore, we continued looking for bottlenecks in our configuration. And it turned out that the problems were hiding where we least expected them to. It was Enhanced Intel SpeedStep technology that worked very poorly in Windows Vista. Once the processor clock speed was reduced to 1.2GHz in case of low workload, the notebook was very uneager to increase it back to its nominal level and hence the system kept working under full workload at slower CPU speed. The only reasonable explanation could be some firmware issues. In case of MacBook Air it is not the traditional BIOS, but a more advanced EFI system (Extensible Firmware Interface).
I have to point out that even conventional MacBook Air users working in Mac OS X complain about the firmware issues. Namely, there is a lot of evidence showing that one of the processor cores may get disabled under heavy workload. In other words, although Apple engineers paid so much attention to the exterior design and hardware components, its EFI still needs some work done.
When we completed the tests, Apple released a firmware update that was claimed to eliminate some problems with the cooling system. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to check how this update affects Windows Vista performance. We also couldn’t do it because we needed Mac OS X to install the update, which we gave up in the very beginning of our test session. However, the user response suggests that this update doesn’t in fact affect the performance in any way.
Besides performance, we have one more complaint to make: the notebook case heats up greatly during work. The hottest spot is in the farther left corner of the case behind the keyboard (it is right above the processor). We detected its temperature of 46ºC under heavy workload. The thermal mode of other hardware components is also questionable. For example, the CPU temperature stays around 70-75ºC during normal work, while under heavy workload it may hit 85ºC, which is dangerously close to the maximum acceptable temperature value.
Luckily, high CPU and case temperature doesn’t affect the thermal conditions for the hard drive. The right part of the MacBook Air case remains at an acceptable level of 33-34ºC, and the HDD is located in this particular part of the system.
Despite not the most positive feedback regarding the practical aspects of MacBook Air, we have to admit that this ultra-portable computer can work on battery for a pretty long time. The manufacturer claims that it can run for up to 5 hours, we got slightly lower numbers. However, it still looks very attractive against the competitors’ background.
The battery life tests were performed with disabled WiFi and Bluetooth, screen brightness was set to two modes: maximum and medium that can still guarantee comfortable working experience. We tested the system with MobileMark 2007 with eliminated DVD playback test, because MacBook Air has no DVD ROM drive. We measured the playback time for an MPEG4 video loaded from the hard drive instead. The results are given in the table below:
Maximum Display Brightness
Average Display Brightness
Almost 4 hours in read mode is a pretty good result for today. The battery also lasts long during regular office work in Productivity pattern. However, the video playback time turned out a disappointment, as it could last a little over 2 hours. The only thing we can say in Apple’s defense, is that our tests were performed under Windows Vista and maybe the results turn out better in Mac OS X, because MacBook Air firmware version for Microsoft OS is definitely not impeccable.
Although there has been a lot of discussion going on around MacBook Air, our verdict is quite certain. This notebook is beautiful, innovative, mobile and quite functional and hence is very appealing to users. We can definitely recommend it to many advanced users, but not to all of them. The thing is that MacBook Air is only good until you start looking at it as at a fully-functional universal computer system. This is where the new Apple solution cannot compete against other products with more ports, optical drives, wired network support, better balanced hardware configuration, etc.
In other words, Apple MacBook Air is not a notebook in the common meaning of this word, but a gadget with notebook functionality. That is why you should consider purchasing it only if you already have a computer that can satisfy all your needs. The developers have evidently seen it as a second computer system, however traditionally high interest towards Apple products misled a lot of users and reviewers. It resulted in wrong expectations and, obviously, disappointment. In reality, MacBook Air is not a mainstream solution at all. It is an expensive specific toy for techno-maniacs with futuristic views.
However, we didn’t intend our today’s discussion to judge the new initiative of Apple ideologists. We checked out an alternative approach and tried replacing the operating system on the new MacBook Air with a more traditional Microsoft Windows Vista. And all in all, this experiment turned out a success. The OS installed and worked just fine without any compatibility problems. In other words, the airy ultra-portable computer from Apple can certainly win some of the Windows fans, too.
However, at this time we cannot claim that the new Apple system works flawlessly with Microsoft operating system. Our practical tests revealed that “raw” firmware leads to not quite adequate performance specifically in Windows Vista. And Apple doesn’t really take the “Windows for MacBook” concept seriously enough, so you will not be able to update the firmware from Microsoft OS. So, the Windows users will need to have both operating systems on their MacBook Air, which may not be a good thing considering the hard disk drive capacity.
Summing up, we have to admit that MacBook Air is not the best choice for an ultra-portable Wintel solution. Luckily, Apple’s system is not the only one in this market. We see quite a few new solutions with similar weight and dimensions designed for Windows Vista, like the recently announced ThinkPad X300. So, if you are looking for an airy design and Microsoft OS, then this might be the best way to go.