The New MacBook Air Is Underwhelming

Thinner, yes. But better?

I am one of the few, proud MacBook Air (s aapl) (MBA) owners in the world. Every article you’ve seen from me in the past was written on the petite beauty. In one last month, I wrote:

I’m only here to make a case that anyone that hasn’t used one should give it a shot and that Apple needs to throw some marketing dollars behind it so everyone else knows what we MacBook Air owners have known for a long time: It’s the best notebook Apple makes and it also happens to be the smallest.

This is exactly what Apple did yesterday, and yet, I was severely disappointed. It seems as if Apple is finally throwing marketing dollars behind the MBA, and I watched my Twitter stream as thousands of geeks’ heads exploded at how thin it is. But I felt a little weird reading this on my MacBook Air and thinking out loud, “I know. It’s been that way for years.” It’s thinner, yes, but not significantly. That’s the whole story in a nutshell.

Pricing & Marketing

On the whole, the reason Apple’s MacBook Air wasn’t a hit before now was price. Imagine the iPad started at $999. Fewer people would own one, and those that did and sang its praises it to friends would be immediately be greeted with the response that it was simply too expensive for a tablet. Basically, Apple just dropped the price. The MacBook Air of today is largely unchanged from what we had before, and that’s disappointing.

11.6″ Model Versus the Sony TZ (circa 2008)

Consider Engadget’s live-blog from Macworld 2008, when the Macbook Air was introduced. Steve initially compared the MacBook Air to Sony’s (s sne) TZ series. His biggest gripe was that the processor speed maxed out at 1.2GHz Core 2 Duo (s intc), and the display was only 11 inches.

The 11.6-inch MacBook Air is “too cramped” and “too slow” according to the Steve of 2008. To be fair, the Air isn’t the same as the TZ in every way. I haven’t used the new keyboard, but Apple claims it’s full-size and the body is still a bit thinner.

Let’s Talk Speed

Current MacBook Air owners won’t see a significant speed bump if they own the Revision C model (1.8/2.13GHz) released last year. In fact, not much has changed about the machine at all.

MacBook Air Revision C (Jun. 2009)

  • 1.86 ($1499) or 2.13GHz ($1799)
  • 3.0 Pounds
  • 6MB of L2 Cache w/ 1066Mhz Frontside Bus
  • 120GB HDD or 128GB SSD
  • 2GB RAM (DDR3-8500 at 1066Mhz)
  • 13.3-inch screen w/ 1280×800 resolution
  • NVIDIA GeForce 9400 (s nvda) w/ 256Mb of VRAM (shared with main memory)

MacBook Air Revision D (October,2010)

  • 1.86Ghz ($1,299) or 2.13Ghz ($1699)
  • 2.9 pounds
  • 6MB of L2 Cache w/ 1066Mhz Frontside Bus
  • 128GB SSD or 256GB SSD
  • 2GB/4GB RAM (DDR3-8500 at 1066MHz)
  • 13.13″ screen w/ 1440×900 resolution
  • NVIDIA GeForce 320m w/ 256Mb of VRAM (shared with main memory)

Of course, I’m only comparing the 13-inch models, but you’re getting a machine that’s basically the same speed with an option to add more ram and more storage,  plus a high-resolution screen which isn’t something I’d recommend to everyone. Some (especially those over 50) will prefer a lower resolution. Even I had trouble using a 17-inch MacBook Pro and eventually sold it.

What you are getting is a drop in price. Last year, a 2.13GHz machine with 2GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD would cost $1799. Today, that same machine costs $1699 with double the storage, and it’s only $100 to upgrade to 4GB of RAM.

Real World Performance

Will HD Flash movies on YouTube (s goog) perform better? No. Will Photoshop CS5 (s adbe) filters apply faster? Maybe with a RAM upgrade. Nothing about this upgrade is impressive if you’re a current MacBook Air owner looking for more speed.

Why can’t Apple squeeze more juice out of this machine? Apple didn’t talk speed at all. They didn’t throw their famous “2x Faster” graphic up on the “buy now” page. Apple does tout the 2.9x faster graphics card, but I can guarantee you the Air released yesterday is only marginally faster than last year’s model, despite the introduction of the 320M, because that’s a video card using shared RAM, meaning the graphics performance goes down as you open more applications.

I was underwhelmed by today’s announcement, but the MBA was already a good notebook. I was hoping Apple would make it even better. It didn’t. “One more thing” was simply a minor evolutionary product refresh, and that’s too bad.

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