Snowball Effect

Rainer Brockerhoff explains how the snowball effect resulted in some of the often-criticized design features of the MacBook Air.

From what I can tell, the Air was designed from the outset to be extremely thin and rugged, while maintaining adequate battery life and performance. These considerations snowball to the extent that the battery uses up 2/3 of the space, and seems to be (along with the keyboard) itself a structural element.

Everything else flows logically from that. To put in a FireWire connector means reserving resources for a 7W additional power drain – that’s 1A extra current at the 7.2V battery. It also means an extra power supply to jack this up to the 9 to 12V required at the connector, extra PCB traces, and so forth. The battery has a capacity of 37 watt-hours, meaning that at the rated duration of 5 hours, the average power draw is slightly over 7W; this would double when a FireWire drive is connected, meaning battery life would be only half, 2.5 hours. Also, the extra connector would mean widening the flip-down door and shaving off maybe 2cm off the battery on that side… more capacity reduction. The 45W external power supply would also have to be beefed up, and the internal charging circuitry as well… this means more heat dissipation. It would probably have been necessary to make the battery itself thicker, maybe 5mm or more.

Now look at a typical Ethernet connector; it’s thicker than the Air’s door, so some millimeters would have had to be added to the Air’s thickness, too; as well as taking the extra chunk out of the battery as well.

Same applies to an internal DVD drive. If it doesn’t work as a burner too, they’d have complained – but imagine the power requirements, or read the Lenovo x300 review; Lenovo engineers are very capable too, but they decided on different trade-offs. I have handled some other brands of small laptops from Toshiba and I must say I was unimpressed by the feel and finish.

Finally, imagine the Air with a removable battery. This means extra connectors, a case opening, of course with either a full-width extra wall (meaning at least 4mm extra thickness) or some heavy-duty latches (considering the battery is 2/3 of the size and a similar proportion of the weight of the Air). Consider the loss of rigidity that would imply, and the extra size and weight that would have to be “wasted” to counteract that.