MacBook Air: How incomplete is it?

Steve Jobs is never afraid to leave out features that come standard on other computers, but how much is the Air missing?

Steve Jobs is, among many other things, the great denier. Second mouse buttons, floppy drives, 56-kbps modems--for decades, he's been perfectly willing to release products that lack one or more features that are standard equipment on everyone else's computers if he thinks they're unnecessary or offend his design principles or aesthetic sense.

Usually, the news that a new Mac is missing a feature is met by yelps of protest. But then, sooner or later, the rest of the industry follows his lead. (Okay, usually--I haven't seen any one-button mouses on PCs lately.) Jobs, in other words, tends to figure out that we can live without something before the rest of the world does.

I'm not sure if he's ever denied Apple customers as many features as he will with the MacBook Air, the super-thin notebook that he unveiled at this morning's Macworld Expo keynote. In introducing the Air, Jobs said that manufacturers of other thin-and-light laptops made too many compromises to make their machines sleek, like using small keyboards and screens and wimpy CPUs. But nobody else in the industry would dream of making some of the compromises that the Air makes.

So what's missing? And how big a deal is it?

An optical drive

Mildly annoying omission

This is the one thing everybody assumed the Air would leave out, although I was holding out hope that Apple would take its cue from Toshiba's optical-bearing featherweight Portege 500. There's a long history of subnotebooks skipping the optical drive to shave weight and space, so the Air doing so won't strike anyone as shocking. And Jobs is right that a lot of things people do with optical drives-such as watch movies and install software-can be done these days without one. (Apple's new Remote Disc feature will help in the latter instance.)

Me, I mostly use my MacBook's Superdrive for two things: ripping CDs into MP3s and making data CDs and DVDs to distribute files to friends and colleagues. I guess I could do the former on another computer and then move the MP3s to an Air-sorry, Steve, I'm not ready to buy all my music from iTunes. And cheap thumb drives can probably do most of the work of letting me hand out copies of files. Still, if I were to buy an Air, I suspect I'd spring for the US$99 external Superdrive.

Ethernet

Seriously annoying omission

In the old days, no notebook had built-in Ethernet; you had to futz with external adapters. Then it became standard equipment. The fact that the Air lacks it makes the machine a throwback.

Jobs spoke of the Air being a machine built to be used wirelessly. But most of the hotels I stay in assume my computer has Ethernet. It's also damn handy at work. I can't imagine there are that many people who can spring for a US$1799 Air who won't need Ethernet at least from time to time. Apple sells an external adapter, but If I traveled with an Air, I'd probably just toss my Airport Express travel router in my briefcase, giving me a form of Ethernet compatibility that doesn't actually make me plug an Ethernet cable into the Air.

Multiple USB ports

Mildly annoying omission

I'm not sure when I last owned a computer with only one USB port, but it's been a very, very long time. On the other hand, it's rare that I want to plug two USB devices into my MacBook at once, and at least one of the ones I use (a SanDisk MicroMate card reader) blocks access to both of the MacBooks ports when I use it anyhow. So I wouldn't not buy an Air because of its solo USB.

More AWOL Features

Firewire

Significant omission for some folks

If you have scads of Firewire peripherals, or a DV camera that only does Firewire,, get ready to replace them if you make an Air your primary machine. If you don't, count yourself as lucky. I think Apple probably made the right decision when it removed Firewire from the Air...but then again, I speak as someone who doesn't own any Firewire-based accessories.

Big hard drives

Majorly annoying omission

I like the fact that Apple was clever enough to use a 1.8-inch hard drive to keep the Air trim, but it's only offering an 80GB configuration, and that's just not enough space if you have a lot of media and like to install lots of applications, or want to install Windows for use with Boot Camp or Parallels or VMWare Fusion. There's a 160GB iPod Classic; I'm not sure why the drives inside those aren't being used in Airs, too.

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Harry McCracken

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