The more laptops change, the more the MacBook Air stays the same
Apple hasn't changed the MacBook Air much since 2010, when the company refreshed the device with a faster processor, flash-based storage, and a lower price-tag that allowed it to become more than a "manilla-clad curiosity." The MacBook Air became the product against which all competitive laptops were compared and kickstarted the thin-and-light laptop trend characterized by ultrabooks and not-so-subtle copycats that might as well have "Designed by Apple in California" stamped on their bottoms.
But in the two years since then, the MacBook Air has become a bit of an anachronism, a relic of an industry unchanged by the rise of touchscreens and high-resolution displays. You can't reach out and touch its display and expect anything besides a few smudges and a general feeling of foolishness. Your eyes won't leap from their sockets in awe of its display, which is lackluster when compared against the "resolutionary" displays on the iPhone, iPad, or MacBook Pro. The design has even stayed mostly the same -- the image used above was taken in 2010, but might as well have been taken just yesterday. That's what makes the MacBook Air so interesting -- among Apple's products, which are often leaps and bounds ahead of their predecessors and competition, the MacBook Air is a staid product that is best described as "getting the job done."
It's hard to read about Apple's products without stumbling across some out of this world adjectives that struggle to convey just how good their subjects truly are. The iPhone 5 has been described as a "miracle," a "beast of a phone," and a "hallmark of design." The iPad mini is "Apple's best tablet yet," has been compared to a "solidly made watch," and, according to the Wirecutter, is "what tablets should have been from the start, honestly." The MacBook Air is "balanced," it "ticks off the most boxes," and its refresh in 2012 was described as "basically the same laptop as last year" with "a little more oomph."
In other words, while the iPhone 5 is a goddamned miracle, the MacBook Air just happens to be a better all-purpose computer than its competition. Apple has allowed the product that defined a category to idle, relying on subtle upgrades that improve upon a two-year-old laptop without really changing the product in a noticeable way. Unlike the iPhone or iPad, which are continuously changed and are remarkably different from their predecessors, the MacBook Air is, and will remain, good enough. And that might be exactly what the notebook industry needs.
The MacBook Air isn't a great gaming laptop -- which means that it doesn't sacrifice battery life for graphics performance. It doesn't turn into a tablet -- which means that it doesn't feature the clunky, not-yet-perfected designs associated with "convertible" devices. It doesn't have a single stand-out feature (unless you count OS X), but it doesn't have any deal-breaking flaws, either.
"If everyone is busy making everything, how can anyone perfect anything?" Apple asked in a video pre-roll shown during its WWDC 2013 keynote. I suspect that the video was meant to be about iOS 7 and not a modest update to the MacBook Air -- the most notable update was an upgrade to Intel's Haswell processor, which will make its way to just about every notebook to hit the market -- but it applies just as well to the kinda-boring, let's-get-shit-done laptop.
Would it be nice if Apple added a touchscreen or high-resolution display? Absolutely. Are some of the convertible devices interesting, especially since Windows 8 works just as well (or just as poorly, depending on your perspective) on laptops and tablets? You bet.
But the MacBook Air has proven time and time again that "good enough" beats "kinda revolutionary," at least for now.
[Image courtesy Faheem Patel]