Skip to main content

Why the MacBook Air's a netbook

Blogger at the Age, A. Turner says that after slamming netbooks in favour of the iPad, Apple has some explaining to do about the new 11.6-inch MacBook Air. After Steve Jobs telling us that "netbooks aren't better than anything" and firing up his famous reality distortion field to convince us that keyboards were passé and his iPad was a better mobile companion than a netbook, he's released this new baby Air.

Turner contends that the new 11-inch MacBook Air certainly makes a mockery of Jobs' netbook dismissal, although he concedes that it boils down to your definition of what a netbook is. He cites Wikipedia's definition as a good one to go by:

"Netbooks are a category of small, lightweight, and inexpensive laptop computers. At their inception in late 2007 - as smaller notebooks optimized for low weight and low cost - netbooks omitted certain features (e.g., the optical drive), featured smaller screens and keyboards, and offered reduced specification and computing power. Over the course of their evolution, netbooks have ranged in size from below 5-inch screen diagonal to 12-inch. A typical weight is 1 kg (2-3 pounds)."

Turner suggests that since the new 11-inch MacBook Air is the smallest, lightest, cheapest and least-powerful MacBook on the market, it clearly fits that description of a netbook.

True enough, but, Microsoft's netbook definition may be a better benchmark.'s Michele McDonough, citing Tech ARP on the maximum hardware specifications for Windows 7 Starter, distills it down to:

• Screen size: 10.2 inches or smaller
• Memory: 1 GB RAM maximum
• Storage: No more than 250 GB HDD or 64 GB SDD
• Graphics: No limitation
• Touch: No limitation
• CPU: Single core processors that do not exceed 2GHz and have a CPU thermal design power less than or equal to 15 W, not including the graphics and chipset.

The 11.6-inch MacBook Air exceeds these specs on several important fronts. Its screen size is larger (and much greater resolution than the typical netbook display), it is available with up to 4GB of RAM and can be had with a 128GB SSD, and it comes with a dual-core processor. The air has a full-sized keyboard as well (extremely rare if available at all on netbooks).

I agree with Turner that Steve Jobs was wrong about the iPad being an adequate substitute for a real notebook, at least for my own and a lot of other content-creator users' needs, and that the he 11.6-inch MacBook Air does amount to Apple admitting that sometimes a netbook-sized laptop is a better solution than a tablet when you need a small computer that can run a real desktop OS and comes with a hardware keyboard and pinting device support, rather than an overgrown smartphone, but the MacBook Air is a lot more than a netbook.

TechRepublic's Jason Hiner has also referred to the 11.6-inch MacBook Air as, "The Mercedes-Benz of netbooks," noting that netbooks typically have had one good feature: their small size. But, unfortunately with screens and keyboards too small to be useful and underpowered processors that make them sluggish and frustrating to use.

The 11.6-inch MacBook Air is first real exception in the general size range, with its 1366 x 768 resolution display and a full-sized keyboard that's almost identical to the standard MacBook Pro chiclet keyboards, concluding that the MacBook Air 11-inch is really the
ultimate small netbook, er, laptop that will appeal to a lot of executives and road warriors in business.

That's pretty much how I would categorize the smaller MacBook Air.

Mr. Jobs' and other Apple luminaries' energetic and contemptuous put-down of the netbook concept always perplexed me, but they've now certainly demonstrated how a compact computer should be done circa 2010, albeit at a much higher price than the $300-$400 range that made netbooks land office sellers for a brief, recession-era spike at least.

Catching Jobs out in inconsistencies is not difficult, but in his defence, the 11.6-inch MacBook Air is a lot more than a netbook in the way I think most people perceive them, and it's notable that Wikipedia contributors have not (at least as yet) included the MacBook Air in the encyclopedia's Netbook article.