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Apple Novelties

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With yesterday’s Macworld Expo keynote behind us, there are several new Apple products to waste money on. While these contain a number of interesting ideas and – it appears – cool engineering, they also have the benefit of not being having ‘must-have’ qualities for me. Still, their specs and ideas are worth a more detailed look. Both for raising hopes and fears concerning the future development of computing on the Mac.

MacBook Air

The biggest thing to come out of the keynote was the MacBook Air with which Apple tries to return to the small portable computer market again. Over all, I don’t really like the machine, but it still seems quite interesting in places. Being the superficial type of person that I am, this comes mainly from the machine’s looks. Let’s just say that if Sony started selling a computer with loads of strange curves all over and with a few ports to ‘fold out’ then I’d just laugh and shrug that off as half-assed design which misses the point. If they started touting a really small number of millimetres as the machine’s thickness (at the thinnest place), I’d consider them to be misleading at least. And if I saw their users fiddle with a handful of adaptors to attach to a screen, a wired network and a camera, I’d snicker. So, just for fairness’ sake, I think I should do the same when Apple release such a machine.

Still, I think it’s good for Apple to give light machines a try again. People have wanted them back since the demise of the Powerbook Duo and 12″ Powerbooks seem to be among the most-liked machines simply because they’re quite small. And at least weight-wise, the MacBook Air with its 1,5kg mass outdoes Apple’s other computers. Just size-wise they didn’t get it. Yes, the machine is thin. But it’s still large. It has the size of a MacBook, rather than that of a novel. That makes a lot of a difference when carrying it.

In my opinion, it would have been preferable to just leave away all those generous bezels around the machine and make it a bit thicker at the edges. Of course, it could be that Apple still remember their ultra-breakable Titanium Powerbooks which tried to go with less bezels and that they still can’t manage to produce such machines. But that’d be a shame. Other computer makers can. And did I say, I think it’s an ugly machine? Now I did…

Then the trackpad. I absolutely love the idea of enabling more gestures on it. Using computers without double finger scrolling already frustrates me to no end and having gestures like Back and Forward in a browser right there without a click is a cool thing (the rotation looked a bit cumbersome to me). I wonder to which extent these new features are a matter of the hardware and how many of them could come to existing machines as well via improved drivers. Just from its proportions, I find the track pad’s button rather ugly to look at. If they wanted to be daring, they could have left it out. But I suppose the machine’s demographic has too unagile fingers for that.

The keyboard looks just like the MacBook’s. So I assume it will be OK but far from the best. It comes with background lighting which is a cool looking but essentially useless feature. A cool looking and essentially useless feature which people love, nonetheless. Particularly what I’d consider the MacBook Air’s demographic.

As for technicalities, from the spec sheet the machine sounds good as far as its processing power is concerned. The fact that speed doesn’t really matter these days helps with that of course. I’d say if they offered the normal MacBook with that slower processor and I’d get less of that annoying fan noise for giving up 20% of the clock-speed, then I’d absolutely take it. Less heat, less noise, longer battery life, probably cheaper and all that for a reduction in speed which most people won’t even notice. What’s not to like? I suppose that the machine’s graphics capabilities will be all right as well. Which means that in some way they suck (Quartz Composer performance can seriously struggle even on simple tasks with the crappy Intel chip sets), for normal situations they’ll be just fine and the gamers will whine anyway.

The machine’s ports are interesting. If I told you that you can have four ports which ones would you choose? Probably the ones for listening to music, attaching your camera, attaching a screen and charging the machine. From that point of view, Apple’s choice of ports is completely reasonable. They wanted to simplify and simplify they did. Leaving out FireWire is forgivable these days (even though I’ll be the first to admit that it beats USB if you need the speed and that it’s essential for charging my old iPod from back in the times when Apple didn’t take USB seriously – but they hardly ever win prizes for consistency or doing the right things do they?). Hardly anybody uses it. And those ‘serious’ people probably don’t want to get the lifestyle MacBook anyway. In addition, I have the impression that FireWire has much stronger power requirements that USB which might have imbalanced the small machine’s power-supply or forced Apple to use that silly 4-pin FireWire socket which all the crappy laptops have.

What really infuriates irritates me, though, is Apple’s port design. Apparently the MacBook Air comes with yet another DVI socket, thus creating maximum confusion and inconvenience. Sure, that may be better for Apple’s bottom line, but at least I am the kind of person who appreciates being able to boot his 1987 Mac SE from his 1995 zip drive, to fire his 1970s flash with a 2003 digital camera or to fire a 2003 flash with a 1970s camera. That stuff ‘just works’. Computer stuff, on the other hand, hardly ever works. And Apple seem to have given up trying just to produce more crappy chargers and make people wonder about the wonderful worlds of Micro-, Mini- and normal DVI on the one hand, with added extras of VGA, S-Video and ‘Composite’.

Of course I can see the size limitations of the MacBook Air. I could even foresee them. And I am pretty sure that Apple – the company who work in secret on future products for years – did foresee that as well. And with that bit of foresight they could have easily cut down the number of different ports they use.

The hard drive in the MacBook Air seems to be a bit of a downer. Perhaps its limitation to a 80GB iPod size drive suggests that space inside the machine is so scarce that they couldn’t even fit in the 160GB version used in large iPods today? But the main issue will of course be speed rather than size. Mac OS X loves using its hard drive. Situations where the machine feels sluggish appear all the time. And hardly ever that is due to the machine actually doing a lot of work, it’s mostly due to swapping being slow or several applications trying to use the hard drive at the same time. And iPod size drives tend to be even slower than their laptop size siblings. Which makes me wonder how fast the MacBook Air will ‘feel’. I’d guess that the slower hard drive will have a bigger effect on this than the reduced clock speed.

Apparently you can solve that problem by dropping another thousand bucks on a 60G flash drive instead. That’s a hefty price, but someone has to start going down that road. And I’ll be curious to hear about the real world performance of these. They should be faster than mechanical drives. And what about their failure rates (my impression is that failures with mechanical drives have gone up in the past decade, could this be a solution)? And what about them only being writable a limited number of times? Is that number high enough to support activities like swapping over years?

I’m quite happy to see Apple do the natural thing and drop the DVD drive from the machine as I had hoped for a while. It looks like they made a real effort there. And lets hope that this spreads to their other machines. To overcome resistance of DVD drive lovers, Apple offer what looks like a reasonable pretty external USB powered DVD drive. It is sold with a MacBook Air (only?) for just a hundred dollars. That’s the kind of money Apple usual charge for a 60G upgrade of your internal hard drive and the price seems competitive with that of other manufacturers. It remains to be seen whether the drive can actually be used with non MacBook Air machines or whether Apple managed to go all ass-y on this one.

What’s much cooler – if not exactly practical for people who don’t want more than a single computer, and who in their right mind would want that kind of a nightmare? – though, is the disk sharing that Apple seem to have developed. This simply lets you share an optical drive over the network. I will be curious to see how far this support goes. Will it work (for simple file sharing, not for booting, perhaps?) with their other machines as well? Will it work for hard drives? Will it work for importing CDs and playing DVDs. There are good chances that the answer to all of these questions will be a sound ‘no’. And, once more, that’d be a shame.

Finally, the battery. Making the battery non-customer-replacable will certainly make the MacBook Air a no-go compute for those who are away from wall sockets for a long time. But those aren’t many. It will also make the obligatory battery replacement after a few years and the not-so-unusual warranty battery replacements (both my MacBooks had bad batteries that needed replacement) more expensive and more hasslesome than they need be. Will you be keen on giving the machine away for a week just to swap the batteries? In particular if you like your data enough to fell compelled to do a full backup, delete and restore of it to ensure that Apple can neither abuse nor lose any of it? To me it looks like Apple bought simpler engineering at the cost of the convenience of their customers here.

But the great thing is that this won’t matter. I see the MacBook Air’s demographic with people who could perhaps be stereotyped by the machine’s acronym as MBAs or as bloggers or ‘Scobles’. People who just ‘need’ the newest flashy stuff because – uh! – its new and flashy. And! totally! amazing! of course. They don’t create data they need to keep anyway, so all the fuss about that is a non-issue. And surely enough they’ll already have needed to upgrade to a newer, shinier machine before the issues with the machines might hit them. With everybody having iPhones already, this will be their new opportunity to ‘shine’.

And in a way, I have to congratulate Apple. Take all the money from these people that you can get your hands on. Perhaps try to spend it on a few good designers and engineers. Kthx.

Airport Time Machine

Cross an Airport extreme station with a hard drive and you get Airport Time Machine or whatever they called it. It seems a very logical thing to do and people may even need it. If you don’t have a wireless base station, the price (for the 500GB model at least) even seems reasonable. But if you do have a wireless base station already – and who hasn’t? – I’d consider it a bit overpriced.

The interesting point here of course is that with the Airport Time Machine, Apple will have to enable some sort of network-based backup. This feature was originally announced for Mac OS X.5 but allegedly dropped out before the release [That’s what I read on the internet, anyway. Oddly, when using File Sharing between two Mac OS X.5.1 machines recently, I noticed that the shared volumes were offered in the Time Machine preference pane. Of course I had to try that out and it seemed to work just fine with the backup going to a disk image. So I’m not really sure what to make of those reports.]. The Airport Time Machine would mean that the feature finally makes it to OS X.5. Which in turn lets us speculate again whether that will be for Apple’s own Airport Time machine drives only or a generally working solution.

 TV

The  TV seems to have gotten an update as well. And a downgrade on its price, perhaps. Which is probably good. Let’s hope they finally managed to turn it into less of an energy waster. I remain unenthusiastic about this device. Not only because I don’t even have a TV I could attach it to, but also because it’s so iTunes centric. Simply ignoring all the other stuff people might want to enjoy.

iPhone / iPod touch updates

Probably nice for the people who have those toys. Charging iPod touch owners for new widgets seems a bit mean, though. Next we’ll have to wonder what Google do with the data they gain by tracking people via their Apple toys.

iTunes Movie Rentals

Uh, well, whatever. Apparently people want that. I still suppose it’s a nightmare software-wise. Software should be made for the users rather than for some lawyers. And that’s what playing ‘rented’ films seems to be all about. Let’s just hope, Apple finally managed to get film playing in iTunes right with the newest version. Ever since they introduced film playing to the application I found that it was the non-smoothest QuickTime playback I had ever seen. Even simple interactions with iTunes could get it to drop frames in playback.

I suppose this will be like printing money for Apple and the copyright cartels. Their price is higher than that of a normal hardware video store. And they don’t need to rent a large room in each town, hire as much staff and deal with the problem of idiots scratching the DVDs. Yet they want to charge more than a dollar per rental.

Convergence

None of these Apple updates seems compelling to me. I might find a really small notebook interesting. I might even find a pretty, open and easy to use media centre interesting if I were really open minded. And I can appreciate a wireless network drive, just not in Apple’s way of bundling it. In each of these devices/gadgets/machines/toys there are interesting ideas, but Apple always manage to package them up with enough bling, crud or other things I don’t want, that I can’t like them. Currently they seem to have many ideas but they seem to lack a clean direction. They also seem to want to sell many different devices to you all of which have to be connected via their infrastructure. That seems a bit mean. More openness would feel a lot more comfortable there.

One thing I don’t get, for example, is how all their square boxes (Mac mini,  TV, Airport Base Station, Airport Time Machine) are slightly different in size, design and setup. Each of them comes with a power supply of its own as well. Which, in a way, just cries for moving these things together. Buy a square box for your network, one for your TV and one for backups. Just stack them on top of each other and they’ll only need a single energy wasting power supply and they’ll be set up to share their features before you even had to open iTunes. Wouldn’t that be neat? I thought so.

And once you thought thus far – or actually a few paragraphs above already – you start wondering why the MacBook Air’s DVD drive comes with a USB cable. Where is the WLAN support in there. MacBook Air, you remember? The computer can boot of a wirelessly shared drive. So this should at least be an option. Going a step further, I can also see it turn the  TV into a DVD player: ideally the  TV just ‘sees’ a shared DVD drive on the network and then offers to play the DVD if one is inserted. Just saying…

January 17, 2008, 0:39

Tagged as hardware.

Comments

Comment by Simone Manganelli: User icon

I think you’re completely discounting a certain demographic for the MacBook Air. To say that it’s only for the Scobles of the world who just want something that looks flashy and get attention is missing the point of the new laptop.

My mom is someone who is perfectly positioned for the MacBook Air. She currently has a year-old MacBook, but she hardly ever uses the optical drive, she hardly ever uses FireWire, she hardly ever uses Ethernet since wireless is so ubiquitous (at least where we live; we have it at home, and all over campus where she works and I’m a student), and she doesn’t have an extra battery so she doesn’t even care about that. What the MacBook Air does have over her MacBook is a lot less weight. Those two pounds are significant to her; she complains a whole lot about 5 pounds of MacBook, and in my experience, even I experience pain due to the weight of that computer. The shedding of the 2 pounds is extremely important, and it’s enough to make me take a second look at the MacBook Air despite some of the drawbacks for me, and I know it’d be a slam dunk for my mom when/if she’s in the market for a new computer.

The MacBook Air is not just for the bloggers who want the latest and greatest. It’s positioned to people who want a good computer but don’t actually do too much with it, or for someone who has a main desktop computer but wants a secondary machine for the road. (Gruber in particular noticed this positioning of the MacBook Air potentially as a secondary computer.) The only downer, perhaps, is the price, but I’m not surprised that something that is engineered to be so small and light is more expensive than something that has everything and doesn’t have nearly as many space constraints.

January 17, 2008, 2:31

Comment by ssp: User icon

Obviously I don’t know your mum, but if mine is anything to go by: Yes, all the ‘missing’ features in the MBA wouldn’t matter to her. But she totally wouldn’t drop almost another grand just for the lighter weight. She managed to travel around the world with her Pismo just fine so far.

I’d say that for the mum market you mention, a cheaper, less ‘exciting’ variant would be more helpful. Take a MacBook, shave off 5mm left, right, front and bottom, leave out the DVD drive and a port or two, bang! Nothing exciting, just a small bit of no-nonsense plastic. And I do suspect that many people who actually travel with the machines would much prefer such an approach to the MBA as well.

Another way to put it would be to say that – ignoring the shoddy design/manufacturing for the moment – the weakness of Apple’s laptop lineup was the lack of a machine that is small and light just like those tiny IBM machines are. Apple addressed the ‘light’ gap in their line-up but didn’t do anything for the ‘small’.

At least my mum would appreciate a machine that takes less space on her desk more than a machine that is thinner. YMMV (your mum may vary), of course.

January 17, 2008, 14:16

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