There’s been so much written about the MacBook Air since it was introduced that you can’t swing a dead cat on the Internet without running into some commentary on it.
A lot of what’s written is pretty silly. Seems like only now are some people getting a handle on its dimensions, etc. that should have been obvious from day 1.
Still other articles make ridiculous comparisons, like those comparing it to an ASUS Eee (nicely blasted by Apple Matters). And of course there’s the usual Apple-bashers comparing it to some hypothetical notebook consisting of features they’ve pulled from multiple machines, blithely ignoring that the laptop they’ve just constructed doesn’t exist.
But today, Macworld published an article by Rob Griffiths pitting the MBA against a Sony Vaio. I consider this article the most sensible of comparisons to date. No phantom machines, no super cheap Fisher-Price models, no feature tables filled with a half-dozen laptops with few details (essentially marketing checklists). Rather, a specific model in the MBA’s target market, chosen for a specific reason, and then compared one on one to the MBA. Even if you disagree with the machine chosen for the comparison (I don’t), the article makes a good template for future comparisons.
I like the article because Griffiths makes a rational attempt to compare and contrast the two machines, and also the philosophies used in building these sub-notebooks: the more traditional approach used by Sony; and the newer (not to say better) approach used by Apple. I also like that he graded each category and threw in his ideal for each.
Oddly, though, what I most like is that the article drills home the point that what some (including Griffiths) consider the ideal sub-notebook is not possible at present, though Griffiths doesn’t ultimately draw that conclusion. The whole article is worth a read, but I’d like to piggy-back on some of the observations and conclusions drawn.
In the performance category, the Sony’s 1.06 GHz processor, smaller cache and old-generation graphics make it laughable against the better powered MBA. It’s a no-brainer that the MBA clubs this machine:
Clearly, the MacBook Air destroys the Vaio here, in all features other than RAM and hard drive space.
What Griffiths doesn’t mention is that, since Vista’s inability to run well on older hardware is one of the reasons it’s not taking off, does anyone really want to run it on a 1 GHZ mobile processor with older graphics? I’m not talking about whether you like Vista or not, or whether it’s better or worse than Mac OS X. I’m talking about it being worth a darn on such lowly hardware no matter what your opinion of it.
In the portability category, Griffiths sensibly looks at the footprint of the machine, as well as thickness and weight, and overall gives the nod to the Sony:
To me, the Vaio is clearly the more portable laptop. Not only is it lighter, but it takes up much less space on a tray table, and could easily be opened and used even when the person in front of you reclines their seat.
Bingo. Make no mistake, there are a lot of MacBooks used on airplanes, so it’s not like the MBA is not usable on a plane as well. However, when one thinks of a sub-notebook in terms of portability, clearly the Sony gets the edge here.
Moving on to audio and video, Griffiths gives it to the Sony because it has stereo speakers.
On the Air, however, the sound from the one speaker probably won’t be sufficient for such tasks. Winner: Sony Vaio.
The idea that you’re getting any “stereo” out of two tiny speakers positioned perhaps nine inches apart is kind of laughable. It could just as easily be that the one speaker sounds a lot better than the two. Will the weak Sony even be able to decode and play back a WMV or H.264 movie without stuttering, skipping, etc.? I don’t think you can do the audio-video thing from specs alone.
On the other hand, no one would be buying these machines as A/V powerhouses, so if he wants to give it to the Sony, fine. I’d give it to the MBA because I know I’d at least be able to play flicks on it.
The author then looks at Data in and out:
This section was the first one that really made me go “wow” and not in a good way for the MacBook Air.
The MBA’s lack of inputs is well-known, yet the Sony comes with a DVD, Ethernet, modem, and even a Sprint broadband card. He points out that you can get an external DVD, Ethernet adapter, modem, etc. for the MBA, but of course it adds to the cost and there’s more to carry.
It’s hard to argue with his conclusions here, and it comes down to preference. For me, the difference doesn’t mean much. I only use my DVD to install software (which I do at home, and the MBA has a solution for that) and to rip CDs. This is meant as a second machine, so I simply wouldn’t be hindered by the lack of DVD. Modem? Haven’t used one in many years (literally). Ethernet? I agree with this one, but that just means I’d pop for the $29 adapter.
It is worth nothing that while a user can add much of the “missing” I/O to the MBA, he cannot add the missing performance or a better screen to the Sony.
Griffiths also looks at other ports, and again notes the big differences. For example, the Sony has firewire, a card reader, and express card, while the MBA has… mini-DVI.
The number of ports on the Sony is simply astounding, and a bit of overkill, honestly.
Again, hard to argue with him, but the overkill is spot on. All this I/O on a machine struggling under the weight of Vista on a 1 GHz processor? Still, the I/O winner has to be seen as the Sony, and that’s fair enough.
Price and Conclusion.
When it comes to cost, the Sony at $2,500 is a $700 premium over the MBA. Are all the ports worth it for the flaccid performance and smaller screen? That’s basically the same thing the author asks:
If what you need is a full-featured but very small and very light portable, but you’re less concerned about performance and can handle the small screen, then the Vaio is probably well worth the extra $500 …
If, on the other hand, you value performance over size and features, then the MacBook Air is a bargain. It weighs nearly the same as the Sony, has a larger screen and keyboard, and offers a much nicer combination of processor, cache, and graphics card.
He than goes on to say there’s no clear “winner”, and I agree. He correctly specifies the completely different design goals for the machines and that, as such, they both meet the requirements they set out to obtain.
Griffith then describes his “ideal sub-notebook”, and this is where the elephant in the room seems to have been missed. He wants the processor and graphics of the MBA, the ports, etc. of the Sony, and a screen that more or less splits the difference. Clearly, no such machine exists in sub-notebook form, but the fact is that no such machine can exist in sub-notebook form. This is essentially what Jobs was trying to say at Macworld, and what Sony and others are saying with their designs as well.
The questions are simple:
- Did Sony really want a machine with such pathetic performance?
- Did Apple really want to leave out so much I/O (the DVD, yes, in my opinion, but all else, maybe not)?
If you believe the answers to those questions is no, then the fundamental problems become clear:
- You cannot stuff a tiny box with all those ports and drives and then put in a decent processor. The thermal envelope is too small; it won’t work. Sony stuffed the box and then put in the best CPU they could, which in my opinion is nowhere near enough.
- You cannot put in a decent processor (even a custom-built, small and lower-powered one) and not give it space to remain at safe operating temperatures. There’s no room for much of anything else. Apple went with performance, and left out I/O while devising workarounds that are clever, though will not satisfy many people.
Someone could argue the Sony’s performance would be “good enough” because it’s meant as a second machine, used for email, writing, web browsing, etc. But I would counter that if that’s the case there’s absolutely no need for all that I/O (card reader? firewire?, DVD?), and that they’re there only because Sony couldn’t think to do without them. The processor suffered as a result. Maybe it’s better to toss them all and provide a decent processor instead? Hence, the MBA.
The author’s ideal machine (except for weight) is right in line with what I had expressed in an article a while ago. Basically, think of a MacBook with a 12 inch widescreen display and footprint reduced accordingly. But that’s a full-featured notebook, not a sub-notebook.
Alas, if Apple didn’t move to special 12 inch widescreens for the MBA, they may never do so. Still, perhaps they can reduce the large “lip” around the current MacBook. If a re-design makes the case hug the 13 inch screen, it would reduce an inch or more from the width and shave some depth as well. Perhaps better, maybe the next MacBook Pro re-designs will include a small but full-featured model.
Finally, in case you’re curious, neither of the compared machines is for me. I considered the MBA but bought a MacBook. However, if I had to choose between the MBA and Sony there is no way it would be the Sony. Not even close.