Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Air ball

Today Steve Jobs only a few of the things predicted for Macworld Expo: a new laptop, iTunes movie rentals and a better AppleTV. They also came up with Time Capsule, a wireless backup server that should prove popular with price-insensitive buyers who don’t want to build their own out of commodity products. But the iPhone update was pretty minor, and there was no news on DRM-free iTunes music.

I’ve been waiting for the new laptop for more than a year, and aspects of the MacBook Air are compelling. 13" x 9" x 3/4" is a nice size, and 3 lbs is the lightest Apple laptop ever. The screen (1280x800) and keyboard are full-sized, it comes with a built-in camera and claims a 5 hour battery life. As expected, it uses an external CD drive to keep weight down, but apparently there is provision (“Remote Disk”) to remotely access the CD drive on some other Mac or PC.

The rumored diskless Mac was just a rumor — at $3100, nobody’s going to buy the 64gb flash RAM model, but instead the Air will be sold in an $1800 configuration with a 80gb iPod disk drive (even though 160gb drives are shipping now).

The MacBook Air shows the power of positive network effects from joining the Intel ecosystem. In PowerPC laptops, Apple was the only company interested in ultrasmall CPUs, but Intel has developed a smaller (“off the roadmap”) CPU that presumably will be offered to other vendors.

But beyond this, the tradeoffs are pretty disappointing:

  • no built in Ethernet — only available via external dongle
  • no FireWire at any price
  • only one USB port (shared by the mouse, disk drive, CD drive and Ethernet)
  • no expansion slot (ExpressCard) for cellular modems
  • no user-changeable battery (forget swapping batteries over the Pacific)
  • video cables (micro-DVI instead of mini-DVI) incompatible with any existing Mac out there
To me, the most serious omission is this is the first Apple laptop since the very beginning (1991) that does not have “target disk mode”. Originally in SCSI and later in FireWire, TDM has been a unique and invaluable tool for fixing hard disk problems on Apple laptops, and it’s hard to see how certain problems can be fixed without it.

Some are calling it another “Cube”: too defeatured in the name of style. (Since I bought a Cube, too, that would be appropriate.) If so, that would be another example of the problems not having checks and balances on Steve’s tastes

It’s a very portable laptop, and I may buy one. However, it’s not nearly as useful or innovative as (for its day) the 4 pound Duo 280. Mine's still in a desk drawer somewhere, but I’d still be using it if you could get software that ran on a 24 Mb 68040 OS 9 machine.

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