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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

MacBook Air at 10: The definitive laptop of our era

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

Ten years ago, Steve Jobs and Apple pulled a laptop out of an envelope, and the MacBook Air was born. Stephen Hackett writes about it in great detail over at MacStories, and also created a nifty video about it.

I have used the MacBook Air since the very beginning. In fact, I reviewed the first model and most of the subsequent ones.

The MacBook Air ended up as the Mac laptop with the broadest appeal, but it sure didn’t start out that way. The original Air, thin enough to fit in that envelope, was full of compromises. Start with the weird flip-down port door, which concealed a single USB port, no FireWire, and a nonstandard video port that wouldn’t ever make its way to any other Mac model. We early MacBook Air users could carry our laptops with confidence—we knew we wouldn’t be attaching them to any external display or projector unless we brought the adapters with us.

Then there was the processor itself, so underpowered that the MacBook Air was slower than Mac laptops released several years before. I believe we clocked it as the slowest Intel Mac laptop ever, despite the fact that the Intel transition was long over. Worse, the processor had the unfortunate trait of turning off one of its two processor cores when it got too hot, making the entire system unresponsive. There were obscure utilities to change the processor timing in attempts to make it more usable, but the fact was, if you were using the MacBook Air in a warm room—and this happened to me every afternoon in my office at Macworld, which had west-facing windows—it would start to slow down. It was a great laptop to use in a meat locker, though.

The storage options were ridiculously small. I had to delete a massive amount of data from my previous Mac before I could migrate my data to the original Air’s 80GB hard drive. (There was also an optional 64GB SSD model, for an extra $999!) There was no internal optical drive. The battery wasn’t removable. And of course, the original price tag—$1799—brought bottom-of-the-line performance to the top of the price charts.

And yet my affection for the MacBook Air was legitimate! It was so much thinner and lighter than any laptop I’d used before. It felt like the future. And the truth is, this is the biggest legacy of the MacBook Air: It predicted the future of laptops and then brought that future into being. It created an entire category for PC laptops, Ultrabooks, which was loosely defined as “PC laptops kind of like the MacBook Air.”

Today’s Mac laptops look an awful like the MacBook Air. Fortunately, the Air also evolved in the intervening time, adding ports and losing that drop-down door in a second-generation hardware redesign that introduced the ultimate form of the device, the 11- and 13-inch MacBook Airs that most people think of today when they think of the MacBook Air.

But in turning every Mac laptop into a MacBook Air, the Air made itself obsolete. The new MacBook is clearly its spiritual successor, and its days seem numbered. But when you chart the history of the laptop from 2008 to 2018, it’s hard to argue that the most influential model during the past ten years is anything other than the MacBook Air. Happy birthday, little buddy.

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