April 25, 2024


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MacBook Air 2008: 10th anniversary review flashback

Editors’ note: This January marks the 10th anniversary of the iconic MacBook Air. Presented below is our original review of the first-generation Air from January 24, 2008. It wowed us with its design, but also struck us as less than practical for most. The most notable surprises about this initial incarnation of the MacBook Air were its single USB-A port, lack of an optical drive, and the budget-busting $1,799 starting price (plus an extra $1,000 to upgrade to SSD storage). 

Within a couple of years, the Air added more ports and eventually dropped its price to $999, becoming the mainstream laptop of choice for millions. Apple’s latest Air update from mid-2017 presented a familiar face showing its age, but still offering excellent battery life and a reasonably priced way to get the MacOS experience in a laptop. The MacBook Air’s design language has been incredibly influential over the past 10 years, and can be clearly seen in the current MacBook ($495 at Adorama) and MacBook Pro ($1,300 at eBay) designs. 

January 24, 2008:  Apple’s new laptop, the MacBook Air, may not be the true ultraportable that many had hoped for, but it still easily breaks new ground for small laptops. Mimicking the 13-inch silhouette of the current MacBook line, it’s only 0.76-inch thick at its thickest, and Apple calls it the “world’s thinnest notebook.” Some nitpickers say an obscure Mitsubishi laptop from 1997 was a hair thinner, but two of the smallest current ultraportable laptops, the 11-inch Sony VAIO TZ150 and the 12-inch Toshiba Portege R500, are both slightly thicker, and neither tapers to 0.16 inch as the Air does along its front edge.

As we’ve come to expect from Apple, the design and engineering that went into the MacBook Air is extraordinary, but it’s certainly a much more specialized product than the standard 13-inch MacBook and won’t be as universally useful as that popular system. The biggest compromises, which have been well-documented, come in its connectivity: The MacBook Air finds room for only one USB port and doesn’t include a built-in optical drive, FireWire, Ethernet, or mobile broadband. And like with its other laptops, Apple refuses to outfit the Air with a media-card reader or an expansion card slot. Offsetting its sparse connectivity are genuinely useful new features including new trackpad gesture controls and the ability to wirelessly “borrow” another system’s optical drive.

Yes, this is what CNET looked like in 2008. Sharp-eyed viewers will also note that many years ago we used to Photoshop an image into laptop screens, for reasons that are still shrouded in mystery. 

CNET/Sarah Tew

Choosing the Air over the cheaper, faster standard 13-inch MacBook, or the comparably priced MacBook Pro, will depend on your needs. Travelers who want minimum weight, maximum screen real estate, and who live their lives via Wi-Fi hot spots, with little need for wired connectivity, will find the $1,799 starting price a reasonable investment for owning one of the world’s premier bits of high-tech eye candy. And while the MacBook Air’s specs are inferior to those found on the cheaper MacBook, they compare more favorably when you look at other ultraportables, where a price premium is always exacted. For instance, both the Sony VAIO TZ150 and Toshiba Portege R500 cost hundreds more than the MacBook Air and feature slower CPUs and half the RAM as the Air.

Apple MacBook Air (2008)

Price as reviewed $1,799
Display size/resolution 13.3-inch, 1,280×800 resolution display
PC CPU 1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
PC Memory 2GB, 667MHz DDR2
Storage 80GB 4,200rpm
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 3.0 / 3.4 pounds
Operating system Apple Mac OS X Leopard

Although it shares a desktop footprint with the standard black-and-white MacBooks, the first thing you notice about the Air is its aluminum chassis — similar to the one found on the MacBook Pro, and much more fingerprint resistant than the standard MacBooks. Picking it up, the MacBook Air feels a little heavier than you would expect from looking at it, even though it’s only 3 pounds. At the same time, it feels very sturdy and solid, thanks in part to the aluminum construction, and we’d have no qualms about carting it around with us all day. By way of comparison, the VAIO TZ150 features an 11.1-inch screen and weighs only 0.3-pound lighter than the Air, and the Portege R500 is 0.6-pound lighter than the Air with a 12.1-inch screen.

The MacBook Air includes an iSight camera and mic, and an LED-backlit display that works with an ambient light sensor to adjust the screen brightness in response to the light in the room. The keyboard — the same full-size version found in other MacBooks — has backlit keys that are also controlled by the ambient light sensor, although we had to adjust the room lighting a good deal to see any difference.


The new MacBook Air next to a 13-inch black polycarbonate MacBook. 

CNET/Sarah Tew

The revamped trackpad is large, measuring nearly 5 inches diagonally, and it works with new multitouch gestures. Other MacBooks let you do things like use two fingers to scroll through documents — this one lets you use three fingers to go forward and back in your Web browser history, and use your thumb and forefinger to zoom in and out of documents and photos — much like on the iPhone. The three-finger forward/back gesture was immediately useful, and we’re already missing it when using other laptops. Apple tells us these new gestures won’t be available on older MacBooks as a firmware upgrade, as the hardware behind the new trackpad is different.

Another noteworthy new feature is the remote disc function. Since the Air lacks an optical drive, you can instead remotely use the optical drives of other systems, PC or Mac, as long as they’re on the same network. The setup was a little cumbersome for the “host” PC — requiring us to insert the OS X disc that came with the Air, run a small setup program, and then find and turn on “CD and DVD sharing” in the Windows control panel (the documentation could have been a little clearer on what you need to do to on the Windows side). Once we set it up, however, it worked like a charm. You won’t be able to stream DVD movies or music CDs via remote disc, but it’s fine for getting files and installing apps. A matching external USB DVD burner is available from Apple for $99, but any USB DVD drive should work.

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