Macworld Looks at the MacBook Air vs. Sony Vaio VGN-TZ170N/B.

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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.

Performance.

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.

Portability.

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.

Audio-Video.

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.

Data In/Out.

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.

Ideal Sub-Notebook.

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.

Windows SuperSite: Yesterday the MacBook Air is Great, Today It Sucks.

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It’s no secret I’m not enamored with the new MacBook Air. In fact, I chose to purchase a MacBook instead. While I think it’s a beautiful design, I also think it’s less a sub-notebook than it claims to be given its footprint.

Paul Thurrott of Windows SuperSite was just fine with it the day it was announced, but is now blasting it to high heaven. Why the reversal? I’m assuming it takes a while for him to get his marching orders from Redmond.

Anyway, in his initial comments about the Air he gave it a grade ‘B’. Not bad at all.

Today, however, he can’t stand the thing, and his critique starts with the most ridiculous line of all:

While it’s easy to get caught up in Steve Jobs’ patented “reality distortion” field as I did yesterday, at least with regards to the MacBook Air, sometimes it’s wise to sit back and really mull over what it is that he’s offering.

If someone who’s been around tech as long as you, Paul, and who bashes Apple as much as you do, still gets caught in the alleged “reality distortion field”, then you have no business posting on Apple at all. I’m serious.

And what do you mean “sometime it’s wise… to mull over”? When is it not wise to mull things over? All you’ve copped to here is that you posted without thinking, an admission perhaps a little embarrassing for you.

Take heart, though. A fellow Apple-basher, Joe Wilcox, had to admit yesterday that he needed to avoid Macworld to not get caught up in the RDF.

Anyway, having made an excuse for posting his own opinion yesterday, we now get the talking points memo from the Apple-bashers. Pay attention, because this will be the battle cry for all of them on the MacBook Air going forward:

It’s too expensive. No surprise there: Apple technology is generally quite expensive at launch. The SSD version of the MacBook Air, however, is particularly expensive: It starts at over $3000

I think the $1,799 is just in the acceptable range. I would like to have seen a hundred less, but it’s not egregious compared to other sub-notebooks. As for the SSD, give me a break! Apple charges $999 for it. Find it substantially less from any other vendor offering the option, Paul.

It doesn’t utilize next-generation Intel chip technology. Though Jobs brought his new lap dog, Intel CEO Paul Otellini, out on stage yet again this year, talking up how the two companies worked together to pull off yet another technological miracle, the chip in the MacBook Air is just a smaller version of last year’s less efficient 65nm chips, and not this year’s 45nm design.

Paul, it’s a fine line between bashing Apple and just being ridiculous. So now Intel’s CEO is an Apple lap dog? Intel’s CEO? Why is it anybody who does business with Apple is a lap dog, Paul? Intel’s CEO. Heh. You crack me up.

As for the “next-generation” technology, the MacBooks and MacBook Pros don’t use that technology either. Neither do the iMacs or the Mac mini. In fact, until one week ago neither did the Mac Pros! Are you seriously recommending to your Windows readers they should avoid all PCs not using the new 45nm technology? No, just Apple’s. Pathetic.

The battery isn’t removable… As Steven Parker notes over at Neowin, what’s going to happen to MacBook Air users when they run out of power less than half-way across the Atlantic?

Do you and Steven know the battery times of a typical sub-notebook? I hope you both bring two to four batteries with you.

There’s no Ethernet… While you can purchase a USB-based Ethernet adapter for $29

Well, then I guess there is Ethernet, isn’t there? And for just $29 for those that need it, like big-talking tech bloggers who want 45nm technology and 10-hour battery life, but then insist the machine be tethered to a cable. Sheesh.

Yet another power adapter.

WTF? This is an issue? Not once did I ever buy a laptop and expect to use the power adapter from a previous laptop. I expect to use the one that comes with it. The MBA is small, so is the adapter. This is the most non non-issue I’ve ever seen.

It’s thin to no good end. While there are already a number of ultra-portable machines in the MacBook Air’s weight class (3 pounds), most of them exceed Apple’s device in ways that are meaningful. They have Ethernet ports, for example. More than one USB port. A docking station for a hardware “slice” that adds more battery and an optical drive.

This is where Apple’s philosophy differs from the other sub-notebooks. Jobs made that clear in his keynote, but you ignored all of it. The other machines may have more ports and connectors, but in order to make room for those things you get a smaller screen (11 inches, maybe less), a mini-keyboard and weak processors.

Apple’s compromises were to jettison the extra connectors and ports, and instead go with a big screen, full-size keyboard, relatively fast processors for this class of machine, and good battery life to begin with (so an extra battery isn’t a requirement).

You can debate this approach, but Jobs was up-front about it. Besides, since all the ports and connectors in the world won’t make a sub-notebook an acceptable desktop substitute (especially as slow as they typically are), it’s not unreasonable to think that trading them for a bigger screen and keyboard might make sense.

Overall, what this says to me is that the MacBook Air is a must-miss

Whatever. The market will decide. What your article says to me is that you simply ignored Apple’s approach, chose not to even debate it, and then slammed the machine by tossing out unoriginal features gathered from who knows how many machines.

I don’t rave about the MBA, and have my gripes with it, but at least I can debate the design philosophy. Paul and some others cannot see it that way, and apparently assume that every sub-notebook must be made in the same way. As usual, Apple tries to look ahead, while other PC manufacturers try not to look at all.

Personally, I’m OK with Jobs’ compromises except for the screen, which makes for too large a footprint in an alleged sub-notebook. Still, I think it leans less to the “bad” side than other sub-notebooks, which I consider more like a “My First Sony” toy PC. And I have no issue defending the MBA against Paul because his “arguments” are silly.

I’ve brought up my beefs here, and commenters have added to the discussion. They’ve presented both pro and con to my opinions in a pretty reasoned manner. And none of us ever needed to argue against the MBA simply because it doesn’t follow the lead of every two-bit PC hardware manufacturer, or because it has a new power adapter, or because there’s no Ethernet even though there is, etc. That should tell you something, Paul, but I’m sure it won’t.

I Bought A New Apple MacBook Today: Small and Light.

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But not as light as air. Alas, I just can’t see going with the new MacBook air. The price is OK (for now), but it’s just too much compromise for me, and here’s why.

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In a previous article about what Apple might do regarding new laptops, I said this (emphasis added):

When the latest MacBooks came out, Apple announced they replaced both the iBooks and the 12 inch G4. While the MacBooks are not large, and were thinner than the 12 inch G4, they were larger to hold, or put in a backpack, or use on an airline tray. For some people, while thickness is important it’s not as precious as length and depth, so the MacBook has always felt bigger then the 12 inch.

Ideally, Apple could make a 12 inch widescreen and put 1280 x 800 resolution on it. Could they use the existing 13.3 inch instead? Sure, but subs are supposed to be noticeably smaller notebooks. Starting with such a screen limits how small one can make its width and depth. Look at the current MacBook and imagine shrinking the edges so they hug the screen/keyboard. That’s only going to shave maybe an inch. Not bad, but not necessarily sub notebook territory.

Now compare the MacBook air (top) and MacBook specs below:

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Unfortunately, Apple did use a 13.3 inch display, but didn’t “hug” the display. If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice the MBA’s footprint is larger than the MacBook! So it’s thinner, but depth and width mean a lot more than I think people realize. I’m sure the cost of the unit is a bit lower because Apple used the ubiquitous display, but in the real world of, say, an airline tray table, the new MBA is really no different than a regular MacBook, except it’s a lot slower.

To be sure, it’s lighter weight; the 3 lb. MBA has a big advantage there over the 5 lb. MacBook. But with the MacBook you’re carrying a bigger hard drive, more speed, an optical drive, and a lot more ports (for less money). Even the “thin” advantage of the MBA is only a third of an inch (measured at its thickest). And I can’t stress this enough, the MBA is as large — actually, a bit larger — as the MacBook when you actually set it down and use it. Thinness doesn’t mean anything once you open the thing up for use.

No. The MacBook air is not for me. Frankly, it’s too big for the compromises made and the cost. In fact, I don’t see size as a big advantage of the MBA at all. Rather I see the advantages as follows:

  • Weight (40% less than the MacBook)
  • Durability (I’m guessing here, but if the aluminum machine is as solid as their new wireless keyboard, this thing is tough)
  • Backlit keyboard (I love this feature)
  • Cool factor (there is certainly that, this thing looks great)

For me, that’s not enough. If it had the footprint of or less than a sheet of paper, then maybe.

Bottom line for me is that the MacBook air may kick the competition’s sub-notebooks’ ass, and certainly for those where weight is the ultimate criteria you’ve got a sweet machine available. But for me all it does is make me appreciate the old 12 inch G4 PowerBook (and, for that matter, the current MacBooks) that much more.