MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro Build Quality

24Feb08

86768_matter copy.jpgThe MacBook Air is the latest in a long line of Apple notebooks to find a home at ‘Chez Randtoul’. Until its arrival I had considered the MacBook Pro to be the gold standard for build quality in a notebook. However, there are a few issues with the MacBook Pro, caused by less-than-perfect design.

1) When closed the screen touches the keys. Over time this leaves permanent marks on the display. Ultimately caused by a lack of clearance between the screen and keyboard, the problem is exasperated by the amount of flex in the lid. Apple has made modifications to the MacBook Pro/Powerbook over the years to try and address the issue (mainly through the addition of rubber pads around the screen bezel). A number of third party solutions have also sprung up, including screen protecting microfiber cloths that are placed on the keyboard before the lid is closed. However, in my mind these are band-aids developed to mask a fundamental design flaw.

2) While the casing for the MacBook Pro is beautifully anodized aluminum, the bevelled edge just below the space bar is painted. Whether this becomes a problem for the user depends heavily on how they type, and where they rest their thumbs. If, like me your thumbs tend to sit on the space bar, over time the painted area can become discolored and eventually wear off altogether, revealing the bare aluminum underneath.

3) Under certain circumstances the backlighting of the keyboard can actually make the keys more difficult to read. Since the death of the Titanium Powerbook, Apple have chosen to match the color of the keys to the notebooks casing, resulting in a light grey keyboard on the Macbook Pros. During daylight this is fine (light grey keys, black characters). During darkness (once the backlighting is activated) again all is well (black keys, white characters). But in a room with a low light the result is white characters on light grey keys. While not too much of a problem for touch typists, the low contrast between the keys and characters tends to negate the supposed benefits of a backlit keyboard.

Back to the MacBook Air. There has of course been much debate about its merits since it’s launch. However, what cannot be denied is it’s exceptional build quality. The curved surfaces of the casing give the notebook an amazing amount of rigidity, especially when the ultra-thin form factor is taking into consideration. Indeed, I have heard many people comment that the MacBook Air feels as though it is carved from a solid slab of aluminum.

Stanley Kubrick once said “Sometimes the truth of a thing is not so much in the think of it, as in the feel of it.

While the MacBook Air feature set is a lesson in compromise and sacrifice, the ‘feel’ of the Air is of undeniable quality and craftsmanship.

So what about those three design flaws still present in the Air’s big brother, the Macbook Pro?

1) The keys no longer touch the screen. This has been achieved by making three changes. Firstly a rubber bumper now runs around the entire circumference of the screen. Secondly, the use of the MacBooks chiclet style recessed and flat-surface keyboard results in more clearance between the screen and keys. Thirdly, the curves of the lids casing provide much more rigidity, resulting in less screen flex.

2) There are no painted areas. While I haven’t taken a sheet of sandpaper to my new MacBook Air, I have given it a thorough inspection and it appears that all surfaces are anodized aluminum.

3) The keyboard is now black. While this is cosmetically a little jarring for some (although it brings back fond memories of the Titanium Powerbook for me), it provides high contrast between the keys and characters under all lighting conditions. Is this a rare case of Apple choosing function over form? Surely not 😉

After two weeks with my MacBook Air I find it difficult to levy any significant criticism of the units build quality and engineering. It truly is the gold standard of notebook design. Alas poor MacBook Pro. I knew him well.

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21 Responses to “MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro Build Quality”

  1. 1 Adarsh

    Isn’t have an internal/non-removable battery a major flaw of MacBook Air?

    That’s probably the only thing that’s kept me from getting one.

  2. I think that depends on your usage model. I think for someone that endures a lot of long haul flights the integrated battery is a definite failing. However, both my MacBook Pro and Air tend to get used the same way. I lounge around on the sofa with it, carry it to work and use it at a desk for eight hours and then carry it home. lather rinse and repeat. I am never too far from a power outlet or wifi. So for me at least there would be very few occasions where I would want to switch out the battery.

    I think part of the problem here is that the majority of people reading blogs about the Air are tech-savvy people who like as much power and configurability as possible. Whereas the rest of the world (who are less interested in the workings of technology) just want a good looking computer that allows them to surf and email. The Air tends to suit the second group of people well while not meeting the needs of the geek who in turn is the most likely to express his opinions online.

  3. 3 D Halimi

    plasma, that was awesome! i’ve been killing myself with choosing between the pro and the air (especially since the new pros came out) but you’re right. i dont need excess power, it wouldn’t suit my need. For me, the air’s size is well worth the reduction of power. They both are just for different markets.

  4. 4 DAVID

    Great comparison! Thanks. Its definetly going in with my considerations as to which machine to choose 🙂

  5. 6 bulman

    agreed

  6. 7 jm

    yeah whatever about the paint. my i have the 2.0 ghx macbook pro and use it every day and no paint has come off anywhere not even on the release button. and i prefer the abiltity to burn a cd. or perhaps install a program without the dependancy of a 3rd party computer. and very limited usb inputs. the air is basically just a slab of aluminum.

    from a video editors standpoint, where you buy a mac because of what you do not because you are “chic” or “trendy” the air is garbage as far as im concerned. i will keep buying macbook pros.

    they keep getting faster and faster and the air keeps getting less and less compatible.

  7. 8 Joe Edwards

    I actually like the Air. As was stated by the folks here with at least half a brain, the Air is designed not for heavy graphics use, but lighter, day-to-day surfing, email, music, etc.

    I think you are seriously overstating things jm. “…a piece of garbage…” Come on now.

    Having said that, my wife has had two work laptops for the last six years and she has never once replaced the battery. I don’t think the battery is a big issue, as it actually can be replaced at home (if you really want to).

    I bought the Air because my wife’s desktop system died and I had to move my desktop into her office. I simply needed a small, lightweight system for note taking in class as well as simple, day-to-day uses. I thought about the Macbook, as you can replace the HDD and RAM, but, the construction of the Macbook isn’t in the same league as the Air…and it is heavier.

    What I truly want is a tablet Mac about the size of the Air.

  8. 9 John Noble

    Yeah, jm, jeez … wasn’t that a bit harsh?

    I’m writing this on my beloved MBP which I’m considering selling for an Air. Why?

    I carry it to work and back each day (I walk). That extra kilo off my back will make a lot of difference. Why does nobody mention the weight in these reviews? It’s always the dimensions or the hard drive or the battery. It’s a kilo lighter!

    I can’t remember the last time I used the FireWire port(s). Or 2 USB ports at once. Cabled Ethernet, I can live with a dongle the one time a month I want to use it.

    I can’t remember the last time I installed a program from optical media. Seriously, jm, can you? Don’t you have the intertubes at home? Man, you should get them. They’re cool now.

    It looks and feels sensational. Yeah, that’s a factor. If I can have a very functional machine that makes people go “wow!”, why not? I wear nice clothes and live in a nice house with nice furniture. Why not augment that with a beautiful laptop?

    I’m like plasmadesign: this machine is my sidekick, I carry it everywhere with me, it organises my life. The Air can do that, making it far more than “just a slab of aluminium”.

  9. 10 vance

    I just got a Macbook Air and have had it for 10 days. I give the build quality of the unit I have a “2” on a 1 to 10 scale.

    Your comments are right on the nose about Macbook wear. I design high end products and have a trained eye for build quality.

    So, here are the Macbook Air Problems with my machine:

    1) The bezel around the screen is painted plastic. When the screen is closed the bezel edge below the camera seems to hit the mouse button and palmrest. this has caused marks on the mouse button, the palm rest, and bezel area around camera.

    The marks on the button and palm area are from plastic/paint from the bezel. The bezel marks from the the two edges of each side of the button. there is also scuffing across the whole area that the button touches on the bezel.

    2) The Mouse button is not flush with the surface of the palm rest, that makes it worst for above.

    3) There is a big tooling mark on the radius area just above the esc key.

    4) The bottom cover is even around the edge, it is 0.5mm above the main body out on the area in the front (notch for opening)

    5) One of the corner screws holding the bottom cover on is bottomed out, I can tell by pushing on the bottom cover and it moves up and down. So bottin is not really being held down on that corner.

    6) The I/O door is not flush with the bottom, forward edge is inset and rear edge is protruding.

    7) You can see one spot weld divot on the bottom. It could be just cosmetic defect as I have not opened the unit.

    Significant issue for the future, marks on underside from insertion on cables into the I/O door. Since you can’t see the connector holes without picking up the Air and USB and Audio connectors have bare metal tips and users may hit the slanted portions and create marks. I already have one slight one.

    Magsafe is actually worse since it has a sharper meta edge.

    Notes,
    Unit was handle with extreme care for a 6 days.
    unit was then taken on an asia trip in a laptop Tumi bag that has separate padded area for laptop.
    I had the usual phone, Air ACA, PDA, and 1.8″ hard drive in bag too.

    vance

  10. 11 John Noble

    Wow, Vance. You sound like a fun guy.

    You didn’t actually tell us: do you like your Air. I’ve had mine around 10 days now and I must admit I absolutely adore the little bugger.

  11. 12 BKC

    Wouldn’t it be good if one day Apple rolls out a new model which has all the good qualities of Air and Pro. I like the Pro’s storage, RAM, but just love the Air’s size.

  12. 13 vance

    Hi John,

    After using the Macbook Air for 2 months I’d have to say that I like it very much from a portability perspective. It also seems more rugged than a lot of the sub-notes (>12″).

    Performance is fine under OSX, but using Parallels for some of the Windows Apps (even with 2D apps) I have to run is subpar.

    I may have to switch back to a windows sub-note though I don’t know what to buy. Sony’s are out (great screens, but all died). Toshiba’s were my fav, my portege 2000 stiill runs and i was the 3rd user. Maybe the HP Envy when it comes out.

    Hmmm, maybe I should just try out VMWare, that’s the ticket 🙂

    vance

  13. 14 John Noble

    VMware Fusion is indeed the answer – it is orders of magnitude quicker than Parallels.

    I’ve also been using my Air “in anger” now for 2 months and – for me – it’s perfect. It does everything I need it to do, including running Fusion all day. It has completely replaced my work-issued Windows laptop (which I need to use to do various Wintel admin type issues, i.e. using mstsc and .msc consoles etc.).

    Me, personally, I love the Air. It is the nicest laptop I have ever used. Of course YMMV, and I’m not trying to be an evangelist or anything…

    …but of course I am. I LOVE this thing. 😉

  14. 15 addison

    i am stuck between buying a mac air or a mac pro i am a student and i dont know what to buy which mac do u think i should buy

  15. 16 addison

    anybody there plz answer my question above

  16. 17 gmnac

    addison,
    It depends on what you are planning on using your laptop for…If you need graphics or cpu power for video rendering or audio software then the pro is the best choice. If you need a laptop for browsing the web, listening to music, and taking notes, the air is more than suitable. I was able to play with an air, and I loaded up garageband and imovie, and I have to say, while not as fast as the MB or MBP, it’s still able to get the job done.

  17. I just put a base-level Air through the paces for a few hours, and have yet to see it even show a hint of strain. It handled scrubbing clips in iMovie, exporting, copying, and playing high-resolution video, mixing music in GarageBand, surfing with tons of tabs open, and browsing with 30+ finder windows open (just for kicks) without breaking a sweat (or a spinning beachball). Very impressive. It seemed every bit as responsive as my MacBook Pro. I think I may pick one up very soon.

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