Switching Horses: MacBook Air to MacBook

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably read recently my public conversation about switching my MacBook Air for a MacBook. I’ve had quite a few e-mails on the subject so I decided to post on it.
Up until last year, I’ve always been a one computer person. That is, I generally used a fairly high-end laptop computer as my sole device. For a long time, that was a 17 inch MacBook Pro.
I was fortunate to get a MacBook Air in March, 2008. It was liberating. After using such a big laptop for several years, the ability to simply drop the computer in my briefcase or take it with me to the coffee shop was fantastic. Very quickly, the MacBook Pro was relegated to sitting on my desk at home and the Air followed me everywhere.
A few months ago, Apple released updates to the iMac line and a friend, who happens to work at the Apple Store, told me some of the prior version iMacs were on sale for $600 off. Since the MacBook Pro wasn’t leaving my desk anyway, I sold it and used the money to replace it with a 24 inch iMac. I love it.
The only time I took the MacBook Pro off my desk was to use it with my MIDI keyboard, which is in a different room. I was able to load a stripped down version of Logic on the MacBook Air but this new task, along with a lot more presentation work and media heavy projects at the office and the general bloat of dropbox synced files has me bumping into the processor, memory, and space limitations of the MacBook Air.
Also, in the meantime Apple redesigned the MacBook. The new unibody design fixed many of the shortcomings in the prior design. Particularly, they added an LED screen, which is far superior to the LCD screen in prior MacBooks. I have set up a few unibody MacBooks for friends and it really isn’t much different than a MacBook Air. It is a pound and a half heavier and slightly thicker.
The improved MacBook design got me thinking about my next laptop. Frankly, the gap has been closed between these two products and a MacBook, even slightly heavier and thicker, is more appropriate for my use. This is where I got into trouble. I was browsing the refurb store for a friend and realized that I could sell my MacBook Air and replace it with a unibody MacBook for about the same money. It made sense, so I did it. The new machine is already on the way and the old machine is being prepared for its new owner. This strangely leaves me without a laptop for a few days.
Nevertheless, when the dust settles I will have a shiny new (refurbished) MacBook with more memory, a faster processor, and a bigger hard drive.* I’m curious to see if the slightly increased size causes me to carry it around less. I doubt it will but regardless, I will report back.
* Exactly how much bigger is a subject of some debate. I could either put in a massive drive or speedy SSD drive. I haven’t decided that one yet.

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Checking in with the MacBook Air

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So as I’ve been working with the Apple gang to sort out the troubles with my MacBook Pro, I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time behind the MacBook Air and I thought I would check back on my impressions after using it a few months.
To begin with, the underlying assumptions of my original review haven’t changed. It still is very light and thin and the slowest Mac laptop in the Apple lineup. It also still fits in every bag I use and effortlessly goes with me just about anywhere.
I’ve found myself pulling it out in restaurants, court, meetings, coffee shops, and just about everywhere else I get stuck for more than ten minutes. I find it extremely useful for dealing with just about everything I do in my job (word processing, email, Omni applications, and keynote). It is also very handy for the blog. It could do Aperture and Photoshop but I haven’t used it much for that purpose. Likewise I’ve not even bothered trying to use it for screencasting. Logic isn’t installed but I have recorded Midi files into Garage Band and later transferred them over to the MacBook Pro. It can drive an external 22″ monitor with no trouble but struggles when I hook up an eyeTV. I’ve recorded several reviews on it and audio recording is just fine.
The drive space hasn’t been a problem. I sync my files with the MacBook Pro using SugarSync and have had very few hiccups. I don’t keep the Aperture library on the Air and the iTunes library is a very condensed version of my library with 4 gigs of my absolute favorites. Since I normally listen to music through my iPhone anyway, I’m toying with the idea of taking most of the music off it but since space is not currently a problem (still 31 gigs free) I probably will leave things as they are.
The battery has never lasted five hours but I have got over four hours out of it with Airport and Bluetooth off. With all the bells and whistles running I usually get slightly more than 3 hours.
The LED screen is gorgeous. I didn’t think there would be that much difference between the technologies but there is. This is especially true for white and light colors. Do your own comparison next time you are in an Apple Store and see for yourself. I like it so much that I’ve ordered it on my replacement MacBook Pro.
I still get a lot of comments on it. The most interesting comments are from those people who go out of their way to tell me what a bad computer it is. “Dude, my Dell could run circles around that piece of junk” The funny thing is they usually end up asking permission to hold it and look over my shoulder as I use it. It is baffling how much they want to get their hands on “the piece of junk.”
For a Mac user on the run, I think it is an outstanding machine. It probably is overpriced but that will likely change in the future. Put simply, the honeymoon is not over.

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Memory Optimization and iFreeMem

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One challenge to using the MacBook Air is memory management. When working I typically run OmniOutliner, OmniFocus, iCal, Mail, Bento, and quite often some concoction of Parallels, Safari, Scriviner, Pages and Microsoft Word. I then spend my time bouncing back and forth between them as required. That is a lot of applications to keep in just 2 gigs.
I recently bought a $19 license to iFreeMem which seems to help. iFreeMem puts a nice little meter in my MenuBar.

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When I notice the green area vanishing and the yellow and red areas getting too big, I simply click the MenuBar icon and the friendly one button fix drops down.


I then give it a clicky and it takes less than a minute to reshuffle the memory usually ending up with gobs of recovered memory. While it is running, the computer is frozen so that is a good time to go make tea. Things definitely run more snappy afterward. On my MacBook Air I do this two or three times a day. You probably get a better ‘flush’ with a restart but this is much easier and it is so gratifying watching the green pie grow.
I noticed that there are some Applescript hooks in iFreeMem too. I’m toying with the idea of designing a script or automator action around it but I’m not sure if that would be a good idea since I want to be in complete control of when my computer freezes for a minute.
Anybody else using iFreeMem or have suggestions for memory management?

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Review – MacBook Air

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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”.

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