Ultralights, MacBook Air and Netbooks, Oh My

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The choices for portable computing have never been greater. And the choice for which PC you buy and support, as always, comes down to price versus performance. Netbooks and MacBook Air look convenient, but do they have the power? Ultralights have features, but are they light enough? And what are we paying for? Here’s a look at today’s choices for mobile computing.

If you want to create some controversy, just say something along the lines of “The MacBook Air sucks for business.”

While that may be a blanket statement that unfairly casts the MacBook Air in a negative light, there’s some truth to the statement when one takes a look at competing products and how they are used for business.

To understand where the MacBook Air comes up short, one has to identify the competing products and their strengths—not an easy challenge in today’s world of constantly evolving products.

Although mobile workers perform their duties as individuals, they do share a common goal—productivity. Add to that the bean counters’ goal of affordability, and the list of mobile solutions narrows significantly.

The units that remain in the balance of affordability and usability are located in the sweet spot of enterprisewide deployment. Those who value affordability above all else tilt the scales toward netbooks, while those looking for maximum productivity tilt the scales toward thin and light notebook computers, which include the MacBook Air.

From a productivity point of view, most users are looking for portable systems that can run their office suite applications, e-mail clients, Web 2.0 applications and Web browsers. A majority of the users may also need to run line-of-business applications and VPN clients as well. To accomplish those goals, a modicum of power is needed. Add VOIP and video to the mix, and that power quotient rises.

For most, saving a few bucks by going with an Intel Atom-powered netbook will probably amount to money being thrown away.

The typical mobile user needs certain functions in a portable computer: The device must have wireless networking, expansion ports, a usable screen (large and bright), ample storage space and run the mandatory software. If we apply those elements to the top three mobile PC platforms, weaknesses become readily apparent.

Netbooks
The netbook is a new arrival on the portable computing scene. Netbooks have roots in the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) initiative, which was created to put low-cost, low-power PCs into the hands of the world’s poorest children. The initiative paved the way for the technology that has made netbooks feasible.

Most netbooks feature Intel’s Atom processor, a small SSD (solid-state drive) and a 10-inch screen, and weigh in at around 4 pounds. The majority lack optical drives and many other items considered to be frills by most manufacturers. Most netbooks are running either Linux of Microsoft Windows XP operating systems.

Leading examples include the Asus Eee PC 1000, Dell Mini 10, Lenovo IdeaPad S10, Hewlett-Packard Mini Note 2133 and MSI Wind 100. Of course, there’s a lot of variety in the netbook market, with some units featuring 8-inch or smaller screens, running PowerPC processors and other differences that take them out of the realm of a typical netbook computer.

The best example of a business netbook is arguably the MSI Wind U120. With a street price of around $350, the MSI Wind is cheap enough to draw the attention of even the most performance-driven users. Powered by a 1.6GHz Atom processor, the unit offers excellent performance by netbook standards. The MSI Wind also features a 160GB hard disk, 1GB of RAM, an integrated Webcam, a 1,024-by-600-resolution 10-inch display, Bluetooth 2.0, 802.11b/g/n, three USB ports, a card reader and Windows XP Home Edition. The unit sports battery life of about 4 hours and weighs about 2.5 pounds.

While those specs sound impressive, the reality is the MSI Wind is only useful for some very lightweight chores, such as Web browsing, e-mail and some Web applications. The screen is too small and the resolution is too low to make it an effective device for presentations, unless you lug along a projector, and the general performance of the unit is not enough to effectively run the most recent version of Microsoft Office or other business software suites. Further holding back performance is the onboard graphics subsystem, which uses an Intel GMA 950 with 64MB display memory.

Good enough for text and basic graphics, but not up to speed for advanced 3-D graphics.

That assessment pretty much fits all of the available netbooks on the market. Some may perform worse, but none performs much better than the MSI Wind.

That makes the whole netbook segment somewhat questionable for business use, although the units do have their niches. No one should expect to roll out netbooks in an enterprise to meet the needs of a mobile work force.

Apple MacBook Air
The MacBook Air comes in two flavors: a 1.6GHz version and a 1.86GHz version. The gigahertz notation obviously pertains to the installed CPU, in this case, an Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 1,066MHz front-side bus.

Of course, there are other differences between the two models—the $2,500 higher-end unit features an SSD 128GB disk drive, while the $1,800 lower-end unit is equipped with a 120GB SATA drive. Those are the primary differences between the two models. Most businesses are willing to eschew an SSD drive and 0.2GHz of performance to save $700 in initial purchase price, and in reality, the performance between the two models doesn’t merit an additional $700.

That begs the question: Is a $1,800 MacBook Air a viable option for serious business user?

No, but there’s a catch.

That catch being whether or not the user needs to run Macintosh-specific software. Even so, Apple does offer other notebook systems that are a little bigger, heavier and cheaper that can run most of those applications faster, such as the $1,500 2.4GHz MacBook.

At less than 1 inch thick and under 3 pounds, the MacBook Air is a svelte system that is sure to impress almost anyone. A 13.3-inch LED backlit display offers a crisp image, while sipping very little energy. Battery life hovers around 4 hours, and graphics performance is pretty speedy, thanks to the Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics subsystem. (New versions promise significantly longer battery life and performance.)

One cannot deny that the MacBook Air is an impressive piece of engineering and is arguably the sharpest looking subnotebook around, but Apple had to eliminate a lot of features to get there. Users will find the unit has no integrated optical drive, lacks an Ethernet port, has only one USB port and offers no 3G connectivity. The unit also lacks a PC Card slot and the battery can’t be changed (users are unable to bring a spare to extend unfettered use). For those looking to hook up to external monitors or projectors, a special cable is needed—the unit has no standard VGA/DVI port on it. Looking at those shortcomings, it becomes clear that the Apple MacBook Air is a poor fit for the mobile business user.

On the other hand, for the executive looking to impress, there probably is no better piece of executive jewelry to carry around.

Ultralight Notebooks
Today, notebooks come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the 17-inch screen, 15-pound behemoth desktop replacement to the ultra-mini 8-inch screen, 1-pound handheld. Somewhere in between is the ideal form factor for a mobile worker. The only problem is, that form factor may not be the same from worker to worker, so picking a notebook computer for the corporate work force is bound to be an exercise in compromise.

Some would choose Toshiba’s Portege as a fine portable to carry around, but those counting the pennies may choke on the £2000 price tag. Some may go to the other extreme and choose a consumer-grade notebook for under £700 and sacrifice some business capabilities and a lot of portability.

Perhaps, the best way to go about selecting what would be the best compromise is to put a cash value on the unit, say around £1000. That leads to a value proposition that beats the MacBook Air, but to be fair, the system should have a 33cm or larger screen, weigh in at around 1.8 kilos, sport a dual-core processor and include numerous ports, along with an internal optical drive.

Surprisingly, there are quite a few notebooks that fit, including the Lenovo ThinkPad T400, Toshiba Satellite U305 and Tecra R10, Dell Vostro 1310, and Fujitsu LifeBook S6520. Some may wonder why Hewlett-Packard didn’t make the cut here. Simply put: HP’s thin and light systems come in at 2.3 kilos a little heavy for the market segment that we are shooting for.

While each of those systems has plenty of merit, the Fujitsu LifeBook S6520, the latest model of the bunch to enter the market, offers a great deal of features for the £790 sticker price.

The system offers a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, a DVD writer, 802.11a/b/g/n, a 120GB SATA hard drive, integrated Webcam, 1GB of DDR3 RAM, three bootable USB 2.0 ports, and audio and video out ports, and it weighs in at just 1.82 kilos. The system comes with Windows Vista Business Edition preinstalled and offers a downgrade to Windows XP Pro.

Simply put, the mobile worker can get all of the functionality needed to work almost anywhere for about £950. Of course, the unit won’t perform like a high-performance workstation, but it does offer plenty of performance to run office suites, presentations, videoconferencing solutions and pretty much anything else a user can throw at it.

The general idea here was to show three distinct paths to mobile productivity and to point out the strengths and weaknesses of each path. Summing it up, the only viable mobile PC solution comes down to the traditional notebook computer, where there is plenty of variety and options to meet anyone’s needs or budget.

Netbooks are just simply too low end to take on the chores of the typical mobile worker, but can be an inexpensive solution for those who only need to do the minimum of Web-based work.

The MacBook Air proves to be too limited and too expensive to hand out in mass to a mobile work force, and its shortcomings quickly rear their ugly heads once someone tries to expand on the capabilities.

The lesson learned here is that this is not the time for solution providers to abandon thin and light notebook computers for the latest fad PCs or trendy devices.