I made a new year's resolution last year to avoid buying spurious computing crap. So these thoughts are not based on actual face-time with a new shiny. However, as you probably guessed, I followed Apple's webcast last night and have some thoughts.
The newly-announced 11.6" Macbook Air is Apple's response to the netbook market.
It's fairly clear that they held this back for some time to allow the iPad to gain market traction. If they'd released "an overpriced netbook" then the iPad, the result would have been blank incomprehension. Instead, the iPad has carved out a market niche much bigger than any overpriced netbook could have achieved, with higher profit margins. And they're free to mop up the folks who really want a Mac that shrunk in the wash but didn't have the deep crazy necessary to build their own Hackintosh. (Apple are increasingly a consumer company. Their products are marketed at folks who, for the most part, want to Get Things Done, not tinker interminably under the hood. Making a Hackintosh work is somewhat similar to making Linux work on a laptop ... back in 1995. If you're into GTD, it's antithetical. Hence "deep crazy".)
The 11.6" Airbook looks like a nice netbook. It costs a bundle more than a typical netbook, but you get a Core 2 Duo rather than an Atom N450 or similar. Double the processor, double the RAM, an SSD rather than a hard disk. Five hours' battery life is nothing special, but with instant on/software suspend, you can get through a working day of college lectures with it. On the other hand, I've worked with a machine of that form factor (both weight, dimensions, and screen resolution) before — a Sony TX3. Middle-aged eyes will not thank you for sticking a 13.6" screen with 1366 x 768 pixels in front of them. Leave this model to the college kids; they'll love it, and between an iPhone 4 and an 11.6" Airbook they won't need an iPad.
The 13" Airbook fixes most of what was wrong with the previous Macbook Air. Like the 11.6" model, it's got two USB ports, so you can hang your iTunes library overboard on an external hard drive and sync to an iPad at the same time. (If you've got a 64Gb iPad you really don't want iTunes to be backing it up onto an internal SSD.) It has a 7 hour battery life, up from the (cough, cough) 5 hours of the older machine (in practice, make that 4 hours). The build-to-order options for 4Gb of RAM and 256Gb of SSD storage are very nice; 2Gb of RAM is not enough if you want to run a mail client, word processor, and Firefox with umpty-bazillion tabs open simultaneously. I am informed that the SSD is so fast that the CPU can't keep up with it — the filesystem is CPU bound, not I/O bound (which makes a nice change from the frankly sluggish SSD on the earlier Macbook Airs); ergo, prudent buyers should max out on RAM and pay for the CPU speed upgrade, before giving consideration to whether they can afford a bigger SSD.
Which brings me to the jewel in the crown: the screen. They've finally put a decent resolution 1440x900 screen in a package that's portable. (Middle-aged shoulders do not like carrying a 15" Macbook Pro for any great distance.)
Apple have been smart (or evil) enough not to upgrade the screen in the 13" Macbook Pro at the same time. If they had, well: the Macbook Pro has a 10-11 hour battery life, faster CPU, built-in DVD drive, firewire, and takes up to 8Gb of RAM. It would cannibalize high-end 13" Airbook sales and the low end of the 15" Macbook Pro market simultaneously. I'm expecting resolution bumps to both the 13" and 15" Macbook Pros in the new year ... but not until they've milked the early adopters.
As I noted earlier, I'm taking a year out from buying new computers. But if I wasn't, what would I do?
When I'm working I mostly do so at a desk, in front of a 24" monitor. But I spend about 25% of my time on the road, so the monitor is plugged into a laptop (which backs up to a Time Capsule when I'm at home, and an external disk when I'm travelling).
The definition of "on the road" breaks down into two parts; in transit, and at my destination. While I'm in transit, driving a car or sitting on a train or plane, I can't really use a laptop. (Personal issue: I get writers' block when other people are able to see over my shoulder.) I can use an iPod or an iPad for media consumption when in transit, but they're not yet stand-alone computing solutions: if something goes wrong, you need a Mac or PC to reload them from. That's okay for a short trip (with both an iPad and an iPhone) but a major issue if I'm going to be away for more than a week and/or have deadline-critical work to do while on the road. So the laptop is for when I get to wherever I'm going. I want it to weigh as little as possible, but I'd prefer a big, sharp screen so that when I finally sit down at a desk I've got something I can work on. (I've tried netbooks: they don't work for my ageing eyes. If they'd make me a 15" Macbook Air with a 1660x1200 screen, I'd love it — but I think I might be a wee bit eccentric in this respect.)
As noted, in addition to being able to work on it, I want my travel machine to act as a sync hub for my iPhone/iPad. The previous generation of Macbook Air was a dead loss in that respect; the SSD was too small to hold a large iTunes library, let alone back up a 32Gb or 64Gb iOS device, and the single USB port prevented me from shovelling the iTunes content onto an external drive and syncing to that — attempts at work-arounds involving powered USB hubs notwithstanding. (The iPad's 20-watt charging requirement seems to be the sticking point: it wants a USB port all to itself.) In fact, lack of space for iTunes forced me to give up using my last-gen Macbook Air, and travel either with just the iPad, or with the elderly 15" Macbook Pro that normally lives under my desk in my hand luggage. I'm willing to bet that the majority of Mac owners also use an iPhone or iPod, and maybe an iPad, and as iOS devices go up to 64Gb of storage I can't be the only person who's been bitten by this. (I could have coupled music/film syncing to my desktop machine and synced only contacts, apps and calendar tasks to the Macbook Air, but trying to sync one iOS device with multiple Macs is a very efficient shortcut to crazy. Apple badly needs to provide a solution for iOS device users with more than one Mac, and MobileMe is not it.)
Anyway, to summarize: the previous Macbook Air wasn't suitable for travellers with iOS devices; the new one is, and it's both powerful enough to replace a 2.5 year old Macbook Pro (with a significant bump to the graphics performance) and light enough to replace an older Macbook Air.
So it's probably a good thing for me that my new year's resolution says "no new computers" ... and I'm going to try not to count the days until January 1st.