MacBook Air is really as nice as the ads say, and user education with videos

February 09, 2008

I had a little time to walk home today. And my walk from school to home can easily include a visit to the local Apple Store if I just take a small detour, it’s located conveniently midway :). So I figured why not drop by the store and play a bit with the new MacBook Air.

In short: yes, it is a very very nice machine. I liked it a lot. I’m not going to buy it for myself, but I can recommend it to anyone who does not need a supercomputer like me.

First, of course, the size and weight. It really is super light. You can lift and wave it around easily with one hand, which can’t be said for my MacBook Pro. MBP feels two or three times heavier. And it is of course small. Almost something you’d put it in a purse. We talk about “purse-worthiness” in design classes. This thing is definitely purse-worthy.

The other awesome thing its its input devices. First the keyboard. I haven’t had much experience with the new Apple keyboards that are similar to Air in the sense that they actually put a little of the casing between the keys, as opposed to MBP and most other keyboards in the world where the keys sit right next to each other. Combined with the reduced range the key travels and with very well engineered tactile feedback, it was very nice to type on the keyboard. I remember first trying out their “new style” keyboard and it was weird. Maybe because I unnaturally just pressed the keys, instead of actually typing anything. Typing on Air was very very natural. I can see myself using this kind of keyboard with future computers.

And then the touchpad. OMGWTFBBQ it was large. Super super large. Like ten times as large as MBP. Well, not ten of course. But easily two. Whatever. It was large. And I also tried the new interactions like three-finger back/forth flicking, and pinching and such. Three-finger was a bit weird initially, but I may get used to it.

Also, the new touchpad demonstrates a new style of user education, as Apple has put the videos on how to use the new stuff straight into the relevant part in System Properties. They must have figured out about a year ago or so that videos are the right way to educate people about new products – that even with Apple, their products are now beyond a point of being “self-sufficient” and you need support in the form of a video. Have you noticed a “guided tour” on their site every time a new product comes out, or an iPhone/AppleTV software update, or other similar “new things” that people need to learn about? Also they are running “Quick Tip of the Week” video podcast. Subjectively, I’d rather watch a few-minute video than read through a text manual. It also aligns with the HCI principle of “recognition over recall” – that when later using the product, it is easier for people to recognize something they have already seen before (such as in video guided tour), rather than matching the product up with a static text manual.

So anyway… back to Air. Many of the reviews go along the lines of “it’s a nice computer, but it’s not for everyone”. To which I can only say, well, DUH. Who said it has to be for everyone? It’s for people with basic computing needs, like web and email and simpler applications. I.e for the rest of us. But not for myself personally. I can recommend it, but I won’t buy it. Why? Because over the past years I have figured out that given the apps that I run and things that I do and where I go daily, my best match is a supercomputer in 15” screensize form factor. I have yet to see a computer that can keep up with me. I often want to do many things at the same time, and application load and boot times of just a few seconds annoy the hell out of me. So when Apple releases a more powerful MBP with twice as many CPU, memory and storage as the previous ones (or whatever they decide to bump it up to), I’ll be among the first to buy it. Plus I need 15” screen size. 17” is too much to haul around – 15” fits in my backpack nicely and anything less makes me compromise too much on screen size. And I need USB ports ON BOTH SIDES, and also integrated CD/DVD reader/burner, and a ridiculously large internal drive. And an Ethernet port just in case. And given all this, I am willing to compromise on things like weight and battery life and thickness.

So… if you are not a supercomputer nerd (i.e you don’t need many USB ports and integrated CD/DVD drive and hundreds of gigs of online storage) and just want to run your life like the rest of us, just forget about others and go buy some Air :)