The next three points about MacBook Air

As promised recently, the ongoing MacAir report will unfold in compact, digestible three-point installments. (Index to previous installments here.) Today's three points:

1) Is the MacAir suitable as your "real" computer? No.

OK: that's a spoiled-sounding thing to say. What I mean is that this machine is optimized for ease, convenience, and elegance as a portable computer, at the expense of features that would make it better for day-in, day-out stuck at the office use.

Most obvious illustration: this is one of the very few modern computers with no CD/DVD drive at all. (Unlike its closest PC counterpart, the new Lenovo ThinkPad X300.) You can work around that with a convenient utility to read from another machine's DVD drive, over a network -- but that means you have to have another machine. Similarly: you can work around the absence of an Ethernet port (with a separate dongle), and the presence of only one USB port, and the absence of a microphone jack. But they are workarounds, and there is no getting around the limit on the hard drive, which holds a maximum of 80GB. Not a huge amount, by today's desktop computer standards.

The MacAir remains elegant and beautiful; it has stood up well to travel (protected by this neoprene sleeve); I have no complaints about fit or finish or any other mechanical feature. But just as some resort properties are suitable mainly for those who can consider them "second homes," this is suitable mainly for people who can consider it a second computer. Though a nice one....

2) What about that battery life?

It seems to have settled out at three-plus hours of real, dependable working time. That's roughly what I get from one of my ThinkPad T60 batteries -- the difference being that I can take extra TP batteries and swap them during a long flight. The MacAir's battery, like the iPod's, is not supposed to be swappable except at the factory.

But here is an expensive but effective workaround, first suggested to me by Edward Goldstick. The QuickerTek company, of Wichita, Kansas, makes an external ~$300 battery charger that is claimed to provide six to ten additional hours of usable battery life. I decided to get one before a recent 13 hour flight back to Beijing -- and while I didn't work every minute of that flight, there still was plenty of extra juice left when I had to shut down the computer for landing. (It was running for at least eight hours.) The charging device itself is either ugly or industrially-chic, depending how you feel minute by minute. It's a burnished metal square, roughly 5" x 5" and half an inch thick, weighing just over a pound. You connect it to the MacAir and it provides roughly as much working time as two spare batteries do for the ThinkPad. The only real drawback is that it's another thing to be attached to the laptop, rather than fitting inside. Worth at least checking out -- and the cost is not that much more than two additional ThinkPad batteries would be.

3) What about that keyboard?

I don't think I'll ever like the Mac keyboard layout as much as I love the arrangement and feel of ThinkPad keyboards. But I have come to like one Mac feature well enough to miss it on my ThinkPad: "two-finger scroll," which lets you put two fingers on the touchpad and then move up and down through web pages, documents, anything. And I am learning the workarounds for the Mac's various keyboard oddities (no DEL key, different function for F5 and similar F keys, and on down the familiar list) to be less actively bothered by them. Crucially, the keyboard feel on the MacBook Air is good. Apart from two-finger scroll, the Mac keyboard will never be a plus for me; but it's less of a minus.

Some other day, some other three-point list.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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