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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

20 Macs for 2020: #4 – MacBook Air (2nd generation)

Apple’s first attempt at the thin, light laptop of the future happened a couple of years too soon.

In early 2008, Apple introduced the original MacBook Air, a deeply compromised product. It was expensive (the base price was $1799), yet also the slowest Mac, sporting a pokey iPod-class hard drive. (A 64GB solid-state drive, a first on a Mac, was offered as an option—but at $999, it was eye-meltingly expensive.) The Air didn’t have an optical drive or FireWire port or Ethernet jack, just a single USB port hidden behind an awkward drop-down door. Its cooling system was so inadequate that the Air’s dual-core processor would stop working effectively in a warm room.1

The original Air’s weird drop-down door.

Its advantages were clear, though. The MacBook Air weighed only three pounds. That made it a full two pounds (40 percent!) lighter than the next-lightest Mac laptop sold at the time, and more than a pound lighter than any previous Mac laptop. And it was impossibly thin, a 0.16 inch wedge at the front widening out to 0.76 inches in the rear. In other words, the original Air’s heart was in the right place—but the technology just wasn’t good enough yet.

Two years later, Apple took another swing, and this time they got it right. The new MacBook Air resided at the bottom of Apple’s laptop price list rather than the top—thereby ensuring it would be the laptop of choice for most people. The new model kept the thinness and lightness of its predecessor, but offered a full array of ports and a perfectly capable Intel processor.

And perhaps best of all, it came in two different versions—a 13-inch model that was roughly the size of the original model, and a tiny 11-inch model for people who wanted the absolute smallest Mac laptop in existence.

The future of notebooks?

“It’s like nothing we’ve ever created before,”2 Apple CEO Steve Jobs said when introducing the new MacBook Air models. “We think it’s the future of notebooks.” Apple often proclaims that it’s creating the future. Rarely has it been as right.

Netbooks had cramped keyboards.

Just before the advent of the MacBook Air, many PC makers were creating Netbooks, a category of ultra-cheap ($200-$300!), ultra-small laptops that ran Windows and were powered by new, low-end Intel processors. Apple execs were constantly asked why the company wasn’t making a Netbook.

Sometimes I suspect that people lobby for Apple to enter a product category because the rest of the technology industry knows it hasn’t cracked the problem, and it’s hoping Apple will. As someone who tried out a couple of Netbooks during this period, I can attest to how lousy they were. They were impressive in a sort of novel, “can-you-believe-this-runs-Windows” kind of way, but they were cheap plastic garbage with shrunken-down keyboards that were impossible to type on.

In designing the 11-inch MacBook Air, Apple discovered a bright line that it would not cross: the size of the keyboard. The 11-inch Air was built around its full-sized keyboard, every key the same size as you’d find on other Apple laptops, desktop Macs, and pretty much any keyboard in existence. Apple would get this small, but no smaller. And of course, the MacBook Airs didn’t feel cheap, thanks to their anodized aluminum shells, machined out of individual pieces of metal.

The PC industry thanked Apple for its answer, and Intel promptly introduced the concept of Ultrabooks. An Ultrabook is best defined as a PC laptop that looks like a MacBook Air. (As for Apple, its other answer to Netbooks was the iPad, released a few months before the MacBook Air in 2010. Between the iPad and the MacBook Air, Apple had two very different responses to the same desire for a smaller, cheaper mobile computing device.)

As the decade wore on, every other laptop (including Apple’s other offerings) seemed to become more and more like the MacBook Air. The MacBook Pro shed its optical drive, switched to SSDs for storage, and got thinner and lighter. Today’s 13-inch MacBook Pro is itself a thin, light three-pound laptop.

Too popular to be killed

In 2018, Apple stopped trying to kill the Air and rebooted it.

As the decade went on, the MacBook Air kept getting better. Even with its thin profile and limited cooling system, it managed to add more robust processors as configurable options. An 11-inch MacBook Air with an Intel i7 processor could handle almost anything you could throw at it.

The biggest crisis in the MacBook Air’s lifespan came mid-decade, and the threat came from Apple itself. In 2015, Apple introduced the 12-inch MacBook, which was thinner and lighter than the Air, with a Retina display—but also $300 more expensive. A 13-inch MacBook Pro followed in 2016, clearly following in the MacBook Air’s footsteps—but its initial price was $500 more than the Air’s!

Still, the non-Retina MacBook Air just kept selling. It turns out that Apple’s customers felt it was a better value even without that shiny Retina display. In 2018, Apple relented and released a Retina Air. When Apple recently released the first MacBook Air based on its own processors, the company confirmed what we all suspected—that the MacBook Air is the company’s best-selling Mac3. (In all likelihood, that’s been true for most of the last decade.)

I think what made the Air so popular was that it offered the general public a computer that had exactly enough to do what was needed, and nothing more. Early in its life, computer nerds could complain about its scant storage, RAM limitations, lower-powered processors, lack of ports (Thunderbolt was added in an update), and requirement for an external optical drive if you wanted to use CDs or DVDs. But if you just wanted a thin, light, low-cost laptop to do email and look at the web and maybe work in Microsoft Office, you didn’t need any of that.

As the decade wore on, all those distinctions faded away, but I think the core appeal of the Air remained: It was Apple’s cheapest laptop, and compared to the thicker MacBook Pros, the thin wedge shape of the Air just seemed smaller and lighter and… less. With the Air, less is more.4

MacBook Air forever?

The M1 MacBook Air.

At this point, it’s hard to see the MacBook Air exiting the Apple product line any time soon. Apple presumably has learned a lesson from all its attempts to kill it, realizing that the Air’s design and price is what most of its customers want from a laptop.

I certainly agree. I’ve been using a MacBook Air as my laptop (and in many cases, my primary computer) since that original model came out in 2008. The 11-inch Air was my primary Mac from the day it shipped until my last day at Macworld, and I only replaced that final one last month, when I bought a new M1 MacBook Air.5

In the meantime, the rest of Apple’s laptops have caught up with the Air. Sure, there are differences—the Touch Bar, larger screen options, and (presumably) more powerful models yet to come. But major differences, like big hard drives and optical storage and the like, have all melted away. One look at the recently-announced M1 MacBook Pro and M1 MacBook Air make the challenge clear. The differences between these computers are subtle ones.

Now the big question. What’s next? The MacBook Air, released in 2010, really did define laptops for the rest of the decade. But it’s 2020 now. What will be the definitive mobile Mac of the 2020s? The MacBook Air may keep kicking around for a while, but what will replace it in the hearts and minds of users?

Apple’s approach to laptops has changed very little in the last decade, if not the past two—since the the Titanium PowerBook G4 hit the scene. While its competitors in the PC laptop world have experimented with touchscreens, keyboards that detach or fold away, and folding screens, Apple has resolutely stuck with the aluminum shell and two perpendicular planes—one for input, one for display.

If Apple is to redefine the laptop for the next decade, we’d all do well to remember the lesson of the MacBook Air. Sometimes, you don’t get it right on the first try—and that’s okay. Given a couple of years to learn those lessons, Apple ended up creating the greatest laptop design of all time. I look forward to seeing its next attempt to unveil the future of notebooks.

I’ll be back next week with number three.

  1. Trust me on this—I had one. I worked in an office with large west-facing windows, and in the late afternoon the MacBook Air slowed to a crawl. 
  2. Except the iPad. This is the event where Jobs asked the question, “What would happen if a MacBook and an iPad hooked up?” 
  3. This is the culmination of another trend—the overall shift from desktops to laptops. The MacBook Air is not just the decade’s definite laptop, it’s the definitive Mac of the 2010s. 
  4. The Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro is just another example of a fancy extra feature that most Air buyers don’t see as necessary. 
  5. My wife and two children also have their own Retina MacBook Airs. We know what we like in this family. 

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