Apple Store Observations on the New MacBook Air

I checked in at 11:35. Late for my 11:15 appointment, the Apple Store representative offered to fit me in at 13:00 for a brief MacBook repair. I could replace the fan myself — which unfortunately wasn’t rattling that morning as it had been in previous days — but there’s too many screws to remove and I wanted an excuse to test out the MacBook Air. For an hour I visited with the both 11“ and 13” MacBook models, getting a feel for the weight and size while opening every app I could, playing music or fullscreen videos, and getting to know whatever neighbors who casually stopped into the Apple Store to check out Apple’s latest machines. You could say the MacBook Air is pretty great (there’s no denying that), but I found the people to be much more interesting.

In hanging out with a geeky crowd all day at work and on Twitter, I rarely get the opportunity to observe and listen to what casual consumers say about Macs and PCs, or how they describe their features and components. In playing with the MacBook Air, I think I spent more time paying attention to the people around me than the actual machines I was getting hands on with. Being at the MacBook Air table and strategically by the door, I gathered a lot of interesting feedback.

My son/daughter is going to college

With the upcoming sales tax holiday in North Carolina, much of the crowd consisted of parents looking to purchase a MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro for the high-school graduates in their lives. These potential customers were mostly interested in learning about MacBooks in advance so they could walk in next weekend and purchase a new computer tax free. With the Apple Store already crowded, many of the Apple Store visitors were in families of three or four, with mom usually doing all the talking with an Apple Store representative. Oh how I wish my parents had paid for my MacBook.

I listened to how the Apple Store representatives pitched the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro. The moms couldn’t decide whether to get the cheaper MacBook Airs despite good reviews, with a belief that the MacBook Air was potentially underpowered. The one particular representative I was listening to would ask what the reviews had specifically said about the Air, then he’d make his best attempt to correct false assumptions. Soon after, the conversation would break down into terms everyone can understand with whether the college student will want to edit videos with iMovie, dump a lot of pictures into iPhoto, or whether it’ll just be used for Internet and Microsoft Word. Most of the time, the students were just interested in writing papers and browsing Facebook. Still, mom would be very cautious of the MacBook Air. I did see a few people walking out with Airs, but I couldn’t figure out which size since I’m not familiar enough with the packaging.

CD-Rom drive

As the MacBook Airs were close to the door (across from the iPhones and iPads), it gave people ample opportunity to simply walk in without being bothered and play with the 11“ model. Couples would walk in and usually the male half would pick it up and comment on how light the Air was. He’d scoot over and hand it to his lady, who also commented on the same thing. If it wasn’t the first comment, the second immediate observation was that the computer was missing a ”CD-Rom drive". I had to have heard this comment from every person who stopped by to check out the Airs, and it was almost always said just like that. In some cases it was a deal breaker, and potential customers weren’t interested in making their way to MacBook Pros in the crowded store.

The MacBook Air as the iPad replacement

Having spent a solid thirty minutes with the MacBook Air, I turned around and began playing with the 13" MacBook Air. A married couple walked up to the machine next to me and began talking about the MacBook Air in comparison to the iPad. For the same storage (64 GB I assume) and a couple hundred more dollars, they said they could have a computer that does much more than the iPad. These guys saw the MacBook Air as being the iPad replacement — they don’t coexist as a family of products since the thinness and size are so similar.

Get the most powerful

Many people were very concerned about the MacBook Airs being underpowered based on “reviews they had read”. Store representatives were often asked if the model displayed in the store was a Core-i7 model, and whether they recommended it over the Core-i5. From what I could gather, I don’t think these customers could relate the MacBook Air’s performance to its flash storage, and were concerned about whether the base model (as it was cheaper) would be “good enough”. To them, storage is storage and the processor is what determines how fast a computer is.

The iPad displays are only useful to store representatives

The problem with the iPad displays Apple has set up is that they aren’t noticeable. I myself didn’t pay attention to it, instead opting to use Lion’s About This Mac feature to scope out its current specs. Perhaps this is because I’m a geek, but I noticed lots of other people ignored the iPad displays as well. People want to walk and pick up the computers, and while they would glance at the iPads, not many chose to interact with them. This seems like a waste of the iPad to me, and I only saw store representatives tapping on them once in a while to fact check specs or information. I saw one older gentleman walk in with a handful of printed paper with the MacBook Air specs across the various pages as he prepared to make a purchase for his daughter.

The MacBook Air’s security cables are way too short

In picking up the MacBook Air, I wanted to pick it up over my head and get a good feel for just how light it was. I only got up to my chest before I felt a nice tug from the desk below, and I was disappointed that I couldn’t toy with the MacBook Air in hand. Apparently I wasn’t the only one, and I caught a few people asking representatives if they could walk around with the MacBook Air. Really, a big selling point of the MacBook Air is its weight and you can’t experience that with such a short leash.

Gestures are foreign

When someone stood next to me, I did try to determine whether or not they’d experiment with gestures. Not one person walked up to the computer and launched Launchpad or Mission Control, nor was any attempt made to swipe through desktop spaces. I did make a valiant attempt to “show off”, and while I caught the attention of a few people who looked at me like I was crazy, they didn’t make an attempt to copy me.

Are the keyboards backlit?

I didn’t notice it until someone else commented to a store representative about it, but all of the MacBook Airs had their backlit keys disabled in store. (I did not see if the MacBook Pros were the same way, but I assume so). Maybe this is common knowledge, but the Apple store is far (I only go once or twice a year) and I’ve never paid specific attention to it. This time around I wanted to play with the new keys on the Apple’s updated keyboards, and I was denied each time I tried to adjust the brightness. A couple people were equally disappointed that we couldn’t check out the backlit keyboards.

Buggy MacBook Airs

I myself noticed that the two MacBook Airs I played with in the store were really buggy. This was to be expected since people walk in and start banging on keys (the machines see a lot of public traffic), but I was amazed to find issues I don’t have on my early–2008 MacBook. Full screen app titlebars (mainly Safari) would move to adjacent spaces as I swiped, creating new spaces had odd app resources following it, and sometimes windows would be misaligned in transitioning from windowed-mode to fullscreen-mode.

SSD is the equalizer

In sitting here with an old MacBook that’s been upgraded with an SSD, I can say that the new MacBook Airs didn’t feel faster. The new MacBook Airs will benchmark better with upgraded processors and graphics, but my old MacBook feels just as fast if not slightly faster than what I experienced with the in store models. While an hour and a half isn’t enough time to make a true comparison, I’m comfortable in knowing that my MacBook’s perceived speed and performance is on par with Apple’s latest machines thanks to some minor upgrades.

People don’t know how to get a representative’s attention

The Apple Store is a very congested place with people milling about MacBooks and representatives running around, and with so many people wearing the same blue shirts it was often difficult to determine who was the right person to ask for help (the store was so busy I imagine it’s hard for the representatives to keep track of who’s new). Do I ask anyone? Do I walk up the Genius Bar? Do I strike a pose so I look like I’m helpless enough to attract the attention of a representative? I saw a lot of confusion in the store when it came to figuring out who to ask — people don’t want to be rude and butt into a conversation or detract attention from a busy representative, but at the same time it’s not clear on what etiquette is required to ask for help. On busy days (especially around product launches) there’s someone near the door to ask you what your business is, but today there was no one like that available. Maybe there’s a giant help button on the iPads I didn’t notice.

Other observations

The people who were in the Apple Store were mostly getting a feel for what they wanted for the upcoming tax free weekend, and they were almost all new customers from what I could determine. Previous Mac owners who were in the store were there for the Genius Bar. Of the people getting products repaired, I saw an iMac G5, a 12“ Powerbook, an iBook, lots of old and broken white MacBooks, a unibody MacBook being serviced for Lion, and no customer MacBook Pros at the Genius Bar. The person who brought in their old iMac wanted to update iPhoto (she was running Leopard and was using iPhoto 5), and complained about the machine being slow. The existing Mac owners in the store were there with the sole purpose of getting their old machines serviced (sans the 12” Powerbook girl who was playing with a 13" Macbook Pro).

The center of attraction was of course the new MacBook Airs, and I was lucky to even find a machine to play with. Being close to the door, the MacBook Airs were attractive in that people could walk in and play with them, and quickly exit if they didn’t have a good initial impression or felt embarrassed after they couldn’t figure something out.

I got to listen to lots of curious folks check out the machines and talk about them with their partners or kids. People were often impressed with the speed and its light weight, but still questioned the muscle and “lack of features” as a concern. The Apple Store attracts lots of people who are new to Macs, who aren’t terribly savvy with computers, and who are only imbued with the knowledge that David Pogue or Tim Stevens leaves them. I got the impression that the MacBook Airs are still very much ahead of their time for a lot of people.