- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A chance visit to the Apple Inc. retail store in Columbia, Md., on Sunday revealed some interesting behavior: Many customers - three to five whom I could see during my time there - were walking out with the firm’s recently relaunched MacBook Air, a portable computer whose price starts at $999.

A friendly staffer there, unnamed because this was an informal chat, confirmed my suspicion that this new portable was moving quite nicely. Some of this was back-to-school buying (and no sales tax holiday in Maryland that day), but much was just, well, buying. Such sales may well be part of the reason Apple briefly surpassed Exxon Mobile Corp. as the country’s most valuable company in Tuesday’s trading, as media reports indicated.

I digress. The MacBook Air is the main thing here, and a more agreeable portable may be difficult to find. It’s not “perfect,” however that word may be defined, and it’s not for everyone. But as noted last week in this space, Apple’s orientation is to build a product for a wide swath of the buying public, and in this particular product, it has succeeded spectacularly.

Here is why: The MacBook Air, of which I tested a 13.3-inch display model with a 1.7 GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM and a 128 GB “flash” (or solid-state memory) drive, came in at 2.96 pounds. It’s so light you could forget it’s there. The smaller model, with an 11.8-inch display, weighs all of 2.38 pounds, Apple says, though I would not necessarily recommend that model for reasons to be explained. Standard on all models is a backlit keyboard, the Mac OS X “Lion” and a “Thunderbolt” connecting port for fast data transfers and peripheral support, including a new monitor I’d love to try.

This puts the MacBook Air in the same bantamweight class as many “netbooks,” but with far more in the way of features, capabilities and just plain style. With a height of 0.68 inch at its tallest and 0.11 inch at its narrowest, the MacBook Air stands out, much as the original did.

Such small size means some compromises, which some may view as too many. Want an optical (i.e., CD- or DVD-ROM) drive? Fuhgeddaboutit, as they say in parts of Brooklyn. Care for an Ethernet port? Prepare to sacrifice one of the only two USB ports on the device for connecting via an adapter. Want more storage than 256 GB of flash memory? Not onboard the computer, fella.

These strictures may be too tight for some, such as folks needing to work with optical media in the field or worrying about losing that network “dongle” while traveling. If you really need 500 GB of disc space, or even 1 terabyte’s worth, the MacBook Air isn’t for you, at least not now.

For the rest of us - and that “remnant” is a big honking swath of the populace - getting the 13.3-inch model with, say, 256 GB of storage, a $1,599 proposition, might make a lot of sense. One key feature on the larger MacBook Air model is an SD card slot, useful for shifting digital photos onto the machine for editing and sharing. The larger disc space should accommodate many needs, and the larger display is easy on the eyes without creating a machine too large to carry easily.

Performance? It’s amazing - there’s just no other word. You’re up and running in an instant. It was literally 15 seconds from pressing the start button to the time my “desktop” appeared, versus 2 minutes, 5 seconds for my 2010 MacBook Pro. Documents are saved in the blink of an eye; recalling files is equally fast.

Moreover, Apple’s recent launch of its App Store for Mac OS-based applications is another important feature. Whether it’s Apple’s own applications or, one can hope, “standard” applications such as Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac (not available there now), once you buy an app, it’s recorded as “yours” forever. If something is damaged, a quick reconnection with your account information brings it back. A memo to Microsoft and every other major apps maker: Get on board, guys, and quickly.

Tablet computing is great, and you can approach many of the MacBook Air’s features - but certainly not all - with an Apple iPad, a keyboard/cover and some other accessories. For those who need real, on-the-go computing power, from “C-level” executives down to the rest of us, there’s no finer, more instantaneous or more elegant solution on the market today. All of this explains why that store in Columbia isn’t likely to get less crowded anytime soon.

E-mail mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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