I suddenly find myself driving a shiny new MacBook Air and am scratching my head as to how I ended up here, again. So here I am to share my impressions of this bit of squashed genius and how it fits in the Apple product line.
Macs of Days Gone By
Setting aside the suitcase sized laptops of yesteryear, I’ve owned several MacBooks from the 17” Battleship down to the 13” plain MacBook. Most notable among these was my first generation MacBook Air. It is amazing how many former first generation MacBook Air owners write about it with a sentence that goes something like, ”It was one of my favorite computers but …” I’m no different. I really liked that original MacBook Air. In the days when the iPad was still a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye, it was the best portable solution. The original MacBook Air had a better screen than the MacBook, the original unibody design, and easily slid in my briefcase or bag.
There were, however, problems. A lot of people didn’t like the single USB port. However, it was the 2 gigs of Ram and 4200 RPM hard drive that ultimately caused me to break The Rule. (“The Rule” is my own crude attempt to check my technolust. The Rule says I keep computers about two and half years selling them with a few months of AppleCare left in the tank.) While the MacBook Air v1 was fine for e-mail, word-processing, the Web and the other work I do 90% of the time in front of the computer, it could not keep up with my growing need for Aperture, RAW photos, and, more importantly, my MIDI piano with Logic and GarageBand.
So fast forwarding to this year’s newly minted MacBook Airs, I began fantasizing about returning to that light weight Mac that was almost perfect except for its tendency to go so slow that I sometimes felt like I needed to attach jumper cables to the hard drive. These days, I have access to two Macs, a laptop and 24” iMac at home. This is the family computer that hosts the iTunes library and is attached to an overstuffed Drobo where it churns the video, pictures, and other large projects like nobody’s business. Switching between the iMac and the MacBook is not a problem. I am pretty good at syncing computers. Some would call me an expert. I was intrigued but not immediately sucked in. Finally, I went to the Apple store and played with one. Specifically, I found a friendly Apple employee who got me a MacBook Air loaded with Logic and a Midi keyboard and I went on a Thelonious Monk rampage right there on the surgically clean Apple Store Table. Finding that the MacBook Air could keep up with me and (at least) pretending two weeks was a sufficiently long time to be outside the wallet sucking vacuum of the reality distortion field, I hatched a plan for my very own wafer thin computer, version 2. I put my MacBook Pro on Craig’s list and left it to fate. I decided that if I could sell the old machine for enough to buy the new, I’d be in. A buyer was found, an exchange was made, a MacBook Air was ordered.
Having sold off my MacBook Pro I gave the 13 and 11 inch MacBook Airs one last workout before settling on the 13 inch model. I did not buy the stock store models but instead went with a Build to Order fully loaded 13” MacBook Air: 2.13 Ghz Core 2 Duo Processor, 4GB Ram, and a 256 Gigabyte Hard Drive.
I really want to get back on the bandwagon with the Rule and decided loading this machine would help me get past the inevitable shakes I’ll start feeling in about 18 months. This isn’t the only reason to load up a new MacBook Air. They are not very upgrade friendly after you get them out of the box. RAM upgrades are not even possible after it leaves the factory. With a MacBook Air, you need to make your upgrades at the beginning. There are several upgrades to consider.
The extra $100 for a RAM upgrade is a no brainer. I’ve read the reviews that say the stock memory is fine, I’ve stressed the Apple Store 2 gig machines. I don’t buy it. I used a 2 gigabyte MacBook Air and I remember watching the machine slow down as it started paging out memory to the magnificently slow hard drive. I understand these new machines use a solid state drive that make the old 4200 RPM drives look like Model T’s but I still wonder. For example, as I write this Dragon Dictate is using 700 megabytes of RAM (I’ve seen it go higher). With a 2 Gigabyte machine, that is more than a third of the available RAM. If you are just using the machine for writing, e-mail, and the Web (hereafter, the Basics), you’re fine. But if you are going to do anything else that is even slightly taxing on memory, double your RAM for 100 bucks. Don’t even think about it.
On both the 11 and 13 inch machines you can upgrade the processor for an additional $100. These upgrades bring an incremental speed boost. This upgrade is a lot more dodgy in my opinion. Macworld’s benchmarks show speed improvements with the upgraded processors at 10% for the 13 inch MacBook Air and 12% for the 11 inch MacBook Air. This may or may not make much of a difference for you. Unfortunately, if you want the upgraded processor, you must buy the model with the higher capacity hard drive. You don’t have a choice. Apple may have a good reason for this requirement. If they do, I wish they would share it because it feels pretty lousy.
Hard Drive Upgrade
This is another upgrade dependent on your own needs. My prior computer had a 2 year old 120 Gigabyte SSD drive. I was fine with 120 Gigabytes despite the fact the machine ran Aperture, Logic (and its massive number of support files), and Xcode, but just barely. I kept (on average) about 30 gigabytes free. With this new machine I’ve maxed the hard drive to 256 Gigabytes and while I’m currently only using 100 Gigabytes, I suspect I will start growing to the size of this new drive quicker than I’d prefer.
I haven’t purchased an AppleCare policy yet but I will within the first year. This MacBook Air represents a significant redesign for Apple. If things start going funny, you’ll wan’t AppleCare protection.
13 vs. 11
The 11 inch MacBook Air was really tempting. There is something irresistible about a Mac so small, especially for someone who remembers the 15 pound Compaq monstrosities. The small size is its greatest feature and it is a perfect if you are a writer and looking for nothing more than a supercharged iPad that runs Mac Apps, but I was not. I was looking for a laptop computer. The 11 inch pixie Mac also had a few trade offs that would eventually bother me. The palm rests are shorter and I felt the edge when doing some extended typing on it in the Apple Store. The screen has plenty of pixels but I’m not sure how I’d feel about its height over the long run. Finally, 128 gigabyte maximum hard drive were all concerns. While I love the idea of an 11” MacBook, I ultimately decided to go with the bigger 13 inch model with the bigger screen, palm rests, hard drive, and processor, all of which lead me to believe I’ll have a much easier time living with The Rule with this bigger MacBook Air. Had the 11” MacBook Air had a bit more oomph under the hood and the 256 gigabye hard drive, the decision would have been much more difficult.
There really is no question of the gigantic leap forward the generation to MacBook Air is over its predecessor. While there was a lot to like about the original MacBook Air’s form, its function left a lot to be desired. Saddled with a slow 4200 RPM hard drive and a maximum of 2 GB of RAM there were a lot of tasks for which it simply was not suited. The new version bridges this gap giving users the small form factor with a good deal more power while managing to bring down the price at the same time.
With increased resolution of 1440 x 900, the new 13 inch MacBook Air has the same screen resolution as the stock 15 inch MacBook Pro. Likewise, the 11 inch resolution of 1366 x 768, exceeds that on the currently shipping 13 inch MacBook. A common gripe against netbook computers is the small screens. Apple solved this problem by squishing more pixels in a smaller space. I think it was a great idea. With this higher pixel density, the screen looks fantastic. The only caveat is you may need to adjust font sizes and display settings if you are having trouble reading the smaller text.
The color rendering looks fine. I am, by no means, an expert in color management on computer screens and I do not have any of the calibration gear to quantify my findings but setting the MacBook Air next to a friend’s MacBook Pro, I am unable to notice any difference in color rendering.
The difference between the screen sizes for the 13 and 11 inch models is another reason I ultimately elected to purchase a 13 inch MacBook air. I felt the smaller screen would feel constraining in light of the fact I want to do more on this machine then just the Basics.
The two best summaries of benchmark testing on these new machines I found were those by Macworld and Anandtech. Benchmarks are friendly to the MacBook Air. Specifically, the incredible speeds of the SSD drive skew the results upward.
Likewise, Apple’s inclusion of a very robust video card, the NVIDIA GeForce 320M, also gives the MacBook Air a benchmark friendly speed boost. You could spend hours reviewing these benchmark tests to figure out which configuration is 12.3% faster than the other. The question to ask yourself when buying a computer is whether it is fast enough to handle the tasks you have in mind for it (and anticipate doing over the next few years). This is what led me to the Apple store where I had them let me take these proposed new computers for spin.
The bottom line on the new MacBook Air is that if you’re looking for a machine to do the Basics (word processing, e-mail, web browsing and simple iPhoto and iMovie projects), any of the new machines (including the slowest 11 inch MacBook Air) will get the job done. If you need slightly more processing power, you’re going to need the 13 inch model that goes up to a 2.13 GHz Core 2 Duo processor. If, however, you’re going to be doing significant amounts of video editing, gaming, RAW photograph processing, or other processor intensive tasks, the MacBook Air is not for you.
For me, the upgraded MacBook Air 2.13 GHz 13 inch model was the right fit. I’m lucky to have an iMac at home that does my really heavy lifting but I still wanted to be able to run Apple’s Logic software on my keyboards and edit RAW photographs and use Aperture on the road before exporting photos to the behemoth library on the iMac. The 13 inch MacBook Air has proven itself up to both of these jobs admirably. In other words, the machine is fast enough for what I’m using it for and, in the end, that’s all the benchmark I need.
SSD (supersonic drive)
I used a solid-state drive on my prior MacBook Pro. It was 120 GB Corsair drive and it was fast. The SSD in the MacBook Air is faster. Load times in Logic are noticeably faster despite the slower processor. This can only be attributed to the MacBook Air’s SSD. In addition to having a unique form factor, I suspect the SSD drive in the MacBook Air include extra unicorn tears. While Apple has not acknowledged this, but I strongly suspect they have integrated this technology with the operating system on the MacBook Air in ways not possible with prior generation SSDs. Whatever they’ve done, this thing is lightning fast. Icons don’t bounce. You click an application and look at the window. The computer is immediately responsive.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always subtracted two hours from the advertised battery life to get an idea of what to expect. This math doesn’t work on the MacBook Air. The MacBook Air battery lasts as long as advertised. Go figure. In normal usage I get between six and seven hours use. When I push it (extended editing sessions in logic or aperture) I get 4 to 5 hours. In the two weeks I’ve been driving this computer, I’ve never got less than four hours. Normally, I can count on six and seven is possible. I do, however, miss the button on the side of the case with the microscopic green lights that allow me to check the battery health without opening the computer up.
The build quality is outstanding. After all, it’s an Apple. The wedged unibody construction feels rock solid with no racking. The screen is incredibly thin but also stronger than you’d think. Creating a perpendicular surface on the sides, so you can properly plug in any Mag-Safe power supply without having to balance the computer on an edge of a table is a little thing that is a huge improvement over the last iteration of the MacBook Air. They’ve also tinkered with the offset of the screen to the keyboard when closed. I no longer see that subtle keyboard imprint on the screen that I often found with my MacBook Pro.
This is the much touted new feature that makes the MacBook Air immediately available to you when you open the lid. This one doesn’t do much for me. I’ve been experiencing “instant on” with my Mac laptops for years. You open the lid and start working. the only time I have not experienced “instant on” is when I left the battery run down so far that the system has to restore from an image. I understand the MacBook Air removes this problem but, in my experience, it was so infrequent that I never considered it a problem to begin with. Nevertheless,Apple is correct. When you open the lid, this machine is ready to go, lickety-split.
The shutdown and startup sequence is also remarkably fast. I didn’t expect to be impressed with this since I have been using an SSD hard drive for awhile. With the MacBook Pro I could start up the computer in approximately 40 seconds. The MacBook Air is ready to go in 14 seconds. This is impressive but, once again, not all that important since I only restart my computer every few weeks or so.
This iteration of the MacBook Air runs much cooler than its predecessor. The Aluminum enclosure, acting as a sort of heat sink, helps. Generally, you can use it on your lap (although I don’t recommend it) and have no troubles. I’m not convinced, however, this is purely a function of good engineering. The fact is that as a result of the MacBook Air’s limitations, you just don’t stress the processor as much and, as a result, it doesn’t get as hot. When pushing the processor, while ripping a movie in Handbrake for example, the MacBook Air gets uncomfortably warm.
Logic and Aperture
Perhaps the most important test of my new MacBook Air comes from running all those applications my old MacBook Air choked on. Editing RAW picture files in Aperture? No problem. Pounding out Vince Guaraldi with multiple voices in Logic? Cake. The new MacBook Air may have a slower processor than my previous MacBook Pro, but it is not noticeable in these applications. Moreover, the slim, light design makes it even easier to set up with a MIDI keyboard or bring along on a photoshoot.
MacBook Air v. iPad
This inevitable comparison isn’t fair to either device. The Mac excels at certain tasks while the iPad is better at others. While I can’t imagine using my iPad for music sequencing (yet), I also don’t see myself reading Instapaper or annotating PDFs on my Mac so long as the iPad is within reach. These devices are different and while there certainly is overlap in their capabilities, they both have strong points where the other is weak. There is a place in my bag for both. I can still travel with just my iPad and largely get by but when I do need a Mac, it is a lot easier packing one that is small and light. Getting back to my earlier discussion of 11 vs 13, I can see how if I lived in a world without the iPad, I probably would have bought an 11” MacBook Air instead of the 13” model and kept an older laptop for my MIDI keyboards.
Back on the Wagon
I really like this new Mac. So much so, that I’m back to living with The Rule. With this fully loaded MacBook Air, I think I have the right laptop for my particular needs and will be holding on to this one for some time. Apple likes to talk about these major revisions as revolutionary but I think this computer is more evolutionary in the best sort of way. The MacBook Air is a great second act learning from the mistakes with the first version. It takes those previously revolutionary ideas (SSD, ultra thin) and refines them to be more than a hopeful ideal but instead a practical reality. In short, I’m digging it.
All pictures (c) Apple, Inc.