Waiting for the MacBook Air Pro

Having seen Apple’s MacBook Air notebook computer up close, I’m as dazzled as everyone else who’s had a chance to examine this delicious piece of industrial design.

Dazzled doesn’t translate to handing over a credit card, however–at least not yet, and not solely because it’s almost never a good idea to buy Apple’s (or anyone else’s) hardware immediately after its initial release.

Even if serious flaws didn’t frequently surface in the company’s first batch of new models, I’d hold off on buying one of these, despite my admiration for the genuine accomplishments in this one. Cost isn’t the issue; rather, there are just a few too many feature compromises for my work-style.

My friend and your co-host here, Walt Mossberg, explained them well in his recent review. They include a nonremovable battery; non-expandable RAM; a paucity of ports; lack of an on-board optical drive; and a relatively small 80GB hard disk. (I wouldn’t even consider the flash-memory model for the moment, due to its high price and lower 64GB capacity.)

The somewhat modest central-processing power is a non-issue. Intel’s new Merom-architecture chip, running at up to 1.8GHz, has plenty of muscle for the kinds of duties a machine like this would typically handle. Graphics and media professionals would disagree, no doubt, but this ultra-svelte device isn’t aimed at them in any case.

I certainly can imagine why some folks have already ordered one. A frequent traveler whose computing tasks include little more than email, document-handling, Web browsing and watching a video will have lots to love.

But if she’s one of the increasingly global members of the workforce, and (unlike Steve Jobs) flies coach internationally except when she’s lucky enough to get an upgrade, she’ll discover that the roughly 5-hour battery life is good enough for domestic travel. And if the battery gets flaky or fails on the road, as has happened to me in two laptops, one an Apple, she’ll be up a creek.

Laptop batteries wear down eventually. Apple says it’ll replace batteries for the same price as MacBook batteries, with no labor charge, but there’s a serious inconvenience factor in having to take or send the machine to a repair shop.

Our otherwise happy purchaser will encounter other problems. She’ll arrive at her hotel one day and discover that there’s no Wi-Fi in the room. Out will come a dongle that fits into the single USB port, which is contained in such a tiny space that lots of USB devices will need extender cables, allowing her to use the room’s wired Ethernet connection.

In fact, it’s already clear that anyone doing serious computing will be hauling around a slew of dongles for the MacBook Air. The adapter for video presentations is a fact of life already for Mac notebook users. You’ll need a small USB hub just for starters, plus various adapters for things like an EVDO or other high-speed cellular modems that many serious travelers now rely on for domestic connections.

Apple’s design choices were surely aimed at one goal: creating the thinnest, lightest and most beautiful notebook around. You can find lighter Windows machines, but they have even more compromises, often including dreadful keyboards. (Not that I’m a fan of the Chiclet-y keyboards Apple now includes with everything but the MacBook Pro; some folks love them but I’m distinctly underwhelmed.)

The best keyboards on any notebook computers are in the ThinkPads from Lenovo, which bought the line from IBM a while back and, so far, appears to have maintained high standards. The smaller ThinkPads, especially the X models, are sturdy, reliable, capable and smartly designed in their own right, though not remotely jaw-dropping like the new Macs. But the ThinkPads have been the absolute class of notebook computers for many years.

Which leads to the obvious point–something I and at least a few other people have been publicly advocating for a long time, not that Apple is paying any attention. We keep wishing that Apple would either make a deal with Lenovo to sell ThinkPads with Mac OS X as an option, or make a deal with whatever company actually manufactures the ThinkPads. Then we’d enjoy the best of both worlds. (An upcoming ultra-portable, ultra-capable ThinkPad model would be the perfect machine for the Mac OS.) I would pay a premium, and so would plenty of other folks.

Some day, I predict, Apple will make such a deal. While we wait for Steve Jobs or his successor to realize why it’s a good idea, we can expect a host of improvements to upcoming versions of the MacBook Air. Not incidentally, some of these will also make Apple even more money.

Keep in mind that the relentless pace of technological improvement means that the processing power, memory and storage capacity of the MacBook Air will get dramatically better in coming months and years in any case. So that 80GB drive will be 160GB next year, and the 64GB in the solid-state version will double, too, for the same cost. As always, customer patience solves some issues.

But if I were czar of the MacBook line, I’d do two things right away. First, I’d find a way to make the current model modular, with one additional port that would connect to a dock in the home or office or both; the dock would in turn connect to a monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer, Ethernet line, external storage and other typical gear. This would resurrect the still-classic mode of the old Mac Duo notebook systems, which even now are fondly remembered as the best hardware combination of Apple’s portable-machine history. (Of course, the PC-laptop world–and, yes, the ThinkPads–have been doing this for a long time.) The docks would, like other Apple-made peripherals, become a profit center in their own right.

Second, I’d launch another notebook model. Call it the MacBook Air Pro. It would weigh a half-pound more than this one, and it wouldn’t be quite as gorgeous. But it would add back ports such as Ethernet and Firewire, along with a more capacious hard disk, removable battery, MacBook Pro keyboard, built-in EVDO and expandable RAM, among other things.

Meanwhile I’ll count on all you early adopters to find the inevitable bugs in the first batch of MacBook Airs. And I’ll count on Apple, as always, to be a pace-setter in design.

But I suspect I’m in a large class of potential customers. I’d love a computer that’s high art, but I need one that’s right for hard work.