MacBookAir: Oh, the Compromises You’re Willing to Make Just to be Trendy.

Wow. A lot of folks already have lists of what they don’t like about the MBA. So do I.

  • It isn’t a tablet.

    The tablet interface opens up a whole new range of apps (just look at what changes the touchscreen interface has brought to the mobile market.) I could be so much moreproductive with a tablet. I promise.

  • Lack of replaceable battery.

    Will I be able to get to an outlet in five hours? Would I have been able to find a spare battery in three years’ time when the charge goes down to 2?

  • 1.6GHz CPU?

    Are you kidding me? Weren’t we looking forward to the 3GHz PowerPC G5 more than four years ago?

  • FireWire!

    Why has Apple abandoned the IEEE1394 spec it created?

  • Gigabit Ethernet

    In fact, any ethernet at all! Something, at least, which has better performance than WiFi!

Others complained about the hard drive capacity being only 80GB, and the solid-state drive (SSD) being so expensive. I don’t care. As a laptop, it wouldn’t be where I do the bulk of my work or computing. It would only be for away-from-the-desk computing.

When I saw the announcement, and the pics, I knew it was a computer for lightweights. It isn’t meant for power users. It isn’t meant for programmers. It’s meant for folks whose computing needs just aren’t driven by applications which demand horsepower.

Joe Goh, the developer behind Phone Journal, replied, “Definitely not just trendy. Lots of people I know won’t carry a portable computer otherwise. Its going to be a hit with ladies”, which proves my point exactly. If you haven’t already needed to carry around a laptop, particularly one like the less expensive and more powerful MacBook, why would you start with this model?

So, although I saw that the userbase for the Mac was going to explode through the MBA, as a user, it just wasn’t my type of machine.

But as I was reading Wil Shipley’s take on it, the notoriously name-dropping blogger and lead developer of Delicious Library, and how he was going to buy one for himself, I realized there was something special about that solid-state drive.

This is a picture of a 256K Dynamic RAM memory card for an S-100 computer. It’s the sort of thing we used back in the late 1970s. Typical of gadget freaks, it was more power than the CPU could directly handle, so the excess had to be put to use somehow: RAMDisk.

Back in those days, microcomputers generally used floppy drives: storage devices that stored information on portable media that resembled CD-Rs *inside* its jewelry case; except the floppies stored up to 800KB, looked dark brown because they were actually coated with rust, and were 5.25″-8″ in size! These things were large, and slow. Things were better if you could afford the $3,000 for a 5MB hard drive because they were faster and stored a tad more info, but the majority of us users were stuck with the less-expensive, and slower, floppy drive.

Ah, but that extra RAM came in handy here. Once you loaded in some RAMDisk software onto your micro, your RAMDisk would give you performance that blew away even those speedy hard drives. Instead of putting up with the slow grinding-grinding of the floppy drive while you were working, the RAMDisk would buffer the data the first time it was read from the floppy, then blast it into application memory whenever it was needed. You would wonder just how well it worked when you didn’t hear the drives spinning and grinding as before, but when the results came up, you knew it worked fabulously.

And it wouldn’t take long for the results to appear. Performance was thousands times better. You wouldn’t have to go to lunch when you ran the assembler anymore. It was now fast enough to give you just enough time to grab some coffee. It was that fast.

The MBA’s optional SSD will give you that level of performance boost. While hard drives were a couple order of magnitudes faster than floppies, they were still orders of magnitude slower than RAM. While hard drives have improved in performance, so has RAM. Just as adding more RAM to your computer will give a bigger performance increase than adding a faster processor, substituting that power-draining, mechanical hard drive completely with a solid-state device will give a phenomenal performance gain.

While you might complain about 64GB being miniscule(!), the real caveat is that these flash devices that make up the SSD have a limited lifetime. 300K to 400K writes. That’s not a paltry amount, but it is still something to keep in mind.

So now that I think about it, the MBA has one significant advantage for one particular power-user niche: the developer. It doesn’t have the raw CPU horsepower we crave. It doesn’t have the ability to do gigabit ethernet connections to our networks. It doesn’t have separate communication busses for main and video memory. It doesn’t even have a tablet interface. But it does have a honkin’ 64GB drive with no moving parts.

I guess when I get enough money, I’ll have to plunk down for an MBA after all. After they come out with a Rev. B. Hopefully, they’ll have a 128GB SSD option by then!

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