How the MacBook Air Changed Laptops Forever

February 1, 2018

When Apple launched the MacBook Air at the end of January 2008, it was an overpriced marvel of design and tech. The laptop, a silvery sliver of machined aluminum, was .76 inches at its thickest and weighed less than three pounds. In an impractical but effective on-stage demonstration, Steve Jobs unveiled the the $1,800 computer by removing it from manila interoffice envelope to demonstrate just how svelte it really was. “What is the MacBook Air?” he asked while pacing the stage. “In a sentence, it’s the world’s thinnest notebook.”

Ten years later, the market is flooded with slim laptops, and while Apple has kept the Air on shelves, it let its guts languish as it shifted focus to other, more profitable products. In the decade since the company first released the Air, it’s made a handful of faster, slimmer, and more powerful laptops. But despite all of this, none have changed the trajectory of mobile computing quite as much as the Air.

When Apple released the original MacBook Air, the reception was divided. Some thought it was a waste of money; others believed it was a vision of the future. “The Air showed the possibilities of what computing could be,” Francois Nguyen, creative director at the design consultancy Frog, tells Gizmodo. For industrial designers like Nguyen, the MacBook Air signaled a significant shift in how they did their job. It changed they way they thought about manufacturing; it emboldened companies to invest in good design; and in the process, it elevated what consumers demanded of a laptop.

Cheap netbooks like the Asus Eee PC 900 were what most people thought ultraportables would look like in 2008. The MacBook Air was born at an interesting time. In 2008, mobile computing was stuck in two worlds: bulky, high-powered workhorses like the Lenovo ThinkPad that were technically portable, but a pain to carry around, and chintzy, lightweight plastic netbooks like Asus’s line of Eee PCs that could do little more than connect to the internet and run simple software.

The Air fell somewhere between the two. Apple worked with Intel to miniaturize its Core 2 Duo processor chip, the same processor used in its more powerful MacBook and iMac, reducing the size by 60 percent. This smaller chip design enabled the Air to shrink its logic board, making more room for batteries and reducing the size of the computer altogether.

Originally, Apple built the Air to compete with lightweight portable computers like Sony’s TZ notebooks, which featured a similar tapered design and 3-pound weight. During his January 2008 presentation, Jobs pulled up a graphic comparing the TZ’s thickness to the Air’s. “The thickest part of the MacBook Air is still thinner than the thinnest part of the TZ series,” he gloated. “We’re talking thin here.”

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