Review - MacBook Air

Macbook Air.jpg

The MacBook Air has now been in the wild for a few months and reviewed by just about every major technology journalist and pundit.  So as I sit down to write this review I wonder what I could possibly add to the discussion.  Maybe the answer is some perspective by someone who actually paid for it and has been using it, not for review purposes, but as a tool to get through my day.

Lets start with a few well-trodden points. I doubt there is any computer on the market that gives you less bang for the buck than the MacBook Air.  For $1,800 you get 1.6 Ghz, 80 MB drive, and a single USB port.  This is the least powerful laptop in the entire Apple lineup.  In other words, if you choose your computer from a spreadsheet of features, move along, this is not computer you're looking for.  So is it overpriced and underpowered?  I think that is a much more relative question than it initially appears.

So what is the point then of the MacBook Air? My answer to that question starts with my penmanship. Very few people have seen my handwriting for a reason.  It’s terrible.  I type everything.  I've typed everything since the first time I sat down at a Radio Shack Color computer in 1981.  Add to this the fact that I write a lot.  Finally, throw into this melting pot of consumerism the fact that I am frequently not at my desk.  I have a knack for getting stuck in places like offices, courthouses, airplanes, and hotels just to name a few.  As much as I love my 17" MacBook Pro, it is not the easiest device to bring into these locations.  It requires a separate bag and it is heavy. Likewise, I use a computer in most meetings I attend.  Again while the 17" MacBook Pro truly is a desktop replacement, it also creates something akin to the Berlin Wall between me and the person at the other side of the table.  I've always been aware of these shortcomings at a certain level but never really prepared to do much about them.  I've never owned more than one computer at a time.

This is what Apple does.  They figure out things like this and fill a need. My initial reaction to the MacBook Air was “sexy … but too expensive” That initial impression was based on looking at the feature list and not the utility. Then I started reading the reviews (Curse you John Gruber!) and thinking about the Berlin Wall and my inability easily carry my MacBook Pro on my travels. Well we all know how the story ends. I spent more money than I probably should have and now find myself for the first time ever having two computers I can call my own.

So how am I using this device? For me it is the perfect writer’s machine. A comfortable keyboard, a fantastic screen, and plenty of horsepower to drive things like Scrivener, Word, and the Omni Applications. For that purpose the MacBook Air is ideal. It goes just about anywhere and gives me access to my favorite applications in no time at all.

Knowing its limitations and its advantages, I’m finding it very useful. It fits in my briefcase along with the other detritus I tend to carry around and presents me with near instant access to my files with just a flip of the lid. Add to that other common computer applications like email, browsing, and Keynote and I have everything I need to perform about 70% of what I do at a computer on me at all times.

As a lawyer, I often find myself at the mercy of guys who wear black robes and don’t necessarily care about my inconvenience. As a case in point, I was attending a hearing this week where the Judge suddenly stopped me and explained he had a luncheon and would be back in “around two hours”. With the benefit of this tiny waffle computer in my bag those two hours were not lost. I got myself OmniFocused, returned email, and wrote a contract. So that is fine and dandy you say but couldn’t I have done that on a MacBook and saved myself a lot of money? Well to be honest, yes. But while I’m on the subject of honesty I don’t know if I would be carrying a MacBook at all times in my bag. You can not understate how thin this computer is. If you haven’t got your hands on one, you should. Or perhaps you shouldn’t.

It is engineered like no computer I have ever seen. The profile looks a lot more like something you should attach to to the wing of an airplane rather than use while sitting inside it. Beauty has its costs though. The sole usb port drops down on a self enclosed flap. It kind of reminds me of the door to the Bat Cave. My concern though is that you have to wriggle the usb cord to pull it out and over time that little flap is going to take a beating. Likewise, my friend Allison Sherridan points out that the MagSafe adapter is different from all other Apple laptops. Instead of plugging straight in, it runs up the side of the computer. This is because of that slick airfoil-like profile. The problem is, that from some angles, it doesn’t pop out as easily as the standard MagSafe adapter. In that case, the MacBook Air could actually end up taking flight.

So I told you about how 70 percent of my computing is handled with the MacBook Air. Unfortunately for the other 30 percent, it is completely inadequate. This is not a machine to produce video or music production. It is really not fair comparing the performance issues to my MacBook Pro. The MacBook Air has a slower processor, a slower hard drive, and less RAM. Regardless, I generally find the biggest interruption to my writing process is not missing clock cycles but instead misfiring brain synapsis. Apparently my brain doesn’t always keep up with 1.6 ghz.

I did, however, push Air a bit with my photo rig. I’ve got Aperture and Photoshop installed and while they aren’t as snappy as on my MacBook Pro, it is viable. Another issue with photo editing is I have to keep my library on an external USB drive so there is one more cause for a slowdown. I wouldn’t want it as my only photo machine but in a pinch, it will work. I’m planning on taking it on vacation with me and leaving the MacBook Pro home.

Speaking of the drive, I have strangely not had any problem living with an 80 gigabyte drive. As I write this, I’ve used 40 gigabytes and have 33 remaining. I’m sure I’ll find a use for that additional space but I already have everything I need for what I do on the MacBook Air.

I toyed with the AirDisk function but it was too slow for me. It was going to take hours to install iWork. Instead I pulled a very old USB external DVD drive out of mothballs. This was purchased for a PC several years ago but the MacBook Air recognized it with no difficulty.

In summary, I am loving my new Mac. It is so thin. I can take it anywhere that I can take a pad of paper. As a result, it is often close by and suddenly “dead time” is becoming “productive time”.