[NOTE: My head currently feels like a group of Fraggles are trying to burrow through my sinus cavities. I’ll try to keep this one brief, so I can lay down and attempt to drain my skull.]
Two weeks ago, Apple (the computer company, not my cat, because that would be ridiculous, right?) (right?) released the second version of the MacBook Air, their ultra-thin laptop. The aesthetics of the laptop meant that some drastic changes to common laptop design had to be made. However, though many may gripe about such changes, I think we may see that Apple is preemptively shedding certain unnecessary things from laptops in the interest of size and battery life. Maybe they’re early to the game, but I think many of these ideas will carry over in the next couple of years, and a lot of the things people are bitching about will be distant memories by then (floppy drive, anyone?).
Where do I stick the DVD?
The most apparent change is that there is no optical drive (something the first-gen Air also lacked). You have something on a DVD or CD, you either need to get an external drive or utilize a WiFi drive-sharing program installed on the Air and put the disc in another computer. Otherwise you’re screwed.
Initially, this seems like a pain in the ass. But think for a moment: when was the last time you used a CD or DVD? It used to be if you installed anything, it came on a CD (then DVD). Now, more and more applications are downloadable, and any updates or patches come through the internet as well. If you’re sharing files between people, you either email the files, upload them somewhere to be downloaded, or use a USB stick, the flash memory in which gets cheaper every day (more on that shortly). “But, Louis,” you might say if you know me, or guessed my name correctly, “what if there’s a bunch of CDs or DVDs I want to rip?” Sure, you got me there. But those are one-time situations, and if you really need a drive, get a cheap USB external and do your business.
My MacBook has a DVD writer, and I’ve used it maybe twenty times in the 3.5 years I’ve had it. Music? Downloaded. Files? Google Docs and/or flash drives. Apple raised eyebrows a decade ago when it ignored the floppy drive on the iMac, but time quickly proved that it was an old technology. I think optical drives are going that way as well. It may not be soon, but give it a couple of years: either applications will be download-only, or you’ll open the box and get a 4GB flash drive with the program on it.
No hard drive?
Initially, the marketing claim on the Air was “no hard drive,” but that’s not entirely accurate. It has flash memory instead of magnetic platters, and that has been available in hard drives for a year or two already. But the difference with the Air is that, rather than using a pre-fab flash drive with chips shoved in a drive-shaped case, it has its flash memory soldered onto the motherboard. It still functions like a traditional hard drive (the OS has to go somewhere), but the space required is tiny by comparison, and it runs a lot faster than the usual spinning drive.
Seeing as it’s soldered on, though, this kills one significant upgrade option: installing a larger hard drive. As the baseline model only has 64 GB of space, this can be a dicey proposition, especially since getting an Air with a larger drive gets costly. This is due to the cost of flash storage: though it has dropped in price over time, that 64 GB costs more than a standard 500 GB spinning drive. But think ahead. The price will drop even further, and soon 256 GB will be a standard option. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an average user who needs access to more than a quarter-terabyte at all times. I see that increase happening in two to three years, and the baseline Air will have that much storage by then. Apple’s early to the game, but the leaps in capacity and drops in cost are happening with flash memory, not spinning drives. And once you get to that 256 GB threshold, few people will need more on hand. Given that, the speed gains from flash memory, and the ability to go more compact, I think laptops in general will go the soldered-storage route soon.
It looks like I could bend it in half!
The Air is more of a novelty at this point in time. It, like other ultra-thin laptops, is more about portability and aesthetics than the actual power within. (And, having messed with the 11 inch model a few days ago, it is a sweet-looking machine.) But, as said before, chips get smaller and more powerful by the minute, and the processing power and speed in today’s MacBook Pro will be offered in the entry-level MacBook in two or three years, and so on down the line. Power users and professionals will always require the larger machines, with top-capacity hard drives and cutting-edge processors, so there will always be a market for thicker laptops to accommodate them.
But I think consumer-level laptops will go in this direction. The average user doesn’t need to upgrade the hard drive or RAM, and will probably rarely use the optical drive, if ever. If you can accept that, why not get it in a 2 lb package? (That is what she said.) If all other things are equal, people will gravitate toward a thinner, lighter form. I think this will be the new way companies separate consumer-grade laptops from pro-grade. The pro models will have the room for customizability, and the consumer models will be small enough to carry everywhere, so students and business travelers can tote them around easily.
One usually doesn’t want to jump on the Apple bandwagon, since so many tech writers do, and so many others bash them for doing so. But I believe the decisions Apple made with the new Air will carry over into future laptops, both within and outside of Apple. I think this form factor, while currently a niche design, will start showing up in “standard” consumer laptops as time goes on, and the more these smaller components’ prices drop, the further designers will move in this direction.
But I might be wrong. What do you think?
[NOTE: I guess I didn’t keep it brief. Sorry. Time for a nap.]
Great post. I couldn’t agree more… And you know me – I’m a huge Apple skeptic.
So you’d say that the Air is more about the power it projects than the power it possesses?
the power it projects….
Isn’t that always the myth of Apple?
Honestly, though, even the baseline 11″ model is impressive. It runs a much slower processor, but because of the flash storage speed, shit opens QUICK. Gussy it up a bit more, put more storage on it, and you’ve got college students’ new go-to laptop. Srsly.
As an example, a video from Ars Technica showing the 11″ Air doing a restart. FAST.
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