Archive for January 2011

Life with the MacBook Air

January 4th, 2011 — 12:13pm

Last month, I picked up a MacBook Air. I had only gotten my 13″  MacBook Pro a year previous and it’s a bit uncharacteristic of me to pick up a new machine so quickly afterwards. Before the MBP, I had a PowerBook 12″ which should give you a sense of how long I tend to stick to a machine before upgrading.

I had been eyeing the MacBook Airs ever since they were introduced. Now, keep in mind that for how I work, a portable machine is a secondary machine. I’ve always have some sort of heavy iron desktop machine that I use the lion’s share of the time. The laptop is mostly used for travel. Therefore, portability is a primary concern. I don’t want it too heavy or too big.

I also don’t need tons of storage. In fact, I try and store as little unique data on my laptop as possible. Because of the increased potential for laptops to be lost or stolen, I consider the copy of the data on it to be expendable. I make sure that important data is either centralized or replicated somewhere else. I use FileVault to keep the data from prying eyes. Code is checked in to a version controlled repository somewhere else. Email is all via IMAP. I use MobileMe to sync. Music I have on my iPhone or I stream from my desktop machine. The point is that if I lose the machine, all I lose is the hardware. As a result of all this, I find that I don’t need all that much storage space nor the potential to swap a new drive for more space. My laptop only needs enough space my “working set”.

The other priority in a laptop is some level of performance. I don’t need the fastest Mac but I do need something that doesn’t get in the way of doing work. As a result, a year ago, I ended up picking the MacBook Pro over the Air as, at the time, it didn’t seem as if the Air was beefy enough for my needs as a developer.

That changed with the newest round of Airs. After getting some early adopters of the new MBAs to do some compile tests for me, it appears as if the top of the line MBA 13″ now compiles as fast as or faster than my MBP from last year. The combination of the now standard SSD, the upgraded CPU, and memory option of 4 gigs make it competitive with the MBP 13″.

Note that I didn’t consider the 11″. 12″ is probably the smallest screen I can tolerate. Also, the higher performance options are only available on the 13″.

Overall, the Air feels snappy. The machine feels faster than what its specs would indicate. Development is great. Compiles are sufficiently zippy (though still can’t touch my Mac Pro). Recently, I did a presentation at my local Cocoaheads meeting. A good bit of it was using Instruments and at the end, people were surprised that it was done on the Air.

Traveling around with it has been a breeze. While, it’s not so light that it feels like nothing (it still feels substantial, which is not such a bad thing), it does feel light enough that I don’t feel the fatigue that I’ve felt carrying around my MBP for long stretches. I haven’t had the opportunity to have it around for a full day at a conference yet but I look forward to carrying something lighter this time around.

A pleasant surprise was the screen. I was never a fan of the glossy screen and I’m happy to report that the one on the Air, while not matte, is not as reflective. Another nice bit is that audio is now transmitted via the mini-displayport output allowing you to transmit audio and video via a single HDMI cable to your TV. Note that you need an adapter that supports transmitting the audio as not all of them do. I know this is in all the recent Apple laptops but I thought it was worth pointing out that this feature is still continued in the Airs.

Now, it’s not all roses. If your CPU is under load for more than a couple minutes, the fans will kick in. I do notice the fans rev up more than on my MBP. Usual culprits are Flash and games. Fortunately, it usualy doesn’t happen when doing builds since most of my compiles are incremental. Actually, I can do a full debug build of Hazel without the fans going off though a release build definitely triggers them. That said, a month in, it feels like it’s happening much less, as if the machine were broken in. It’s probably my imagination or maybe it’s me becoming more accustomed to the fan noise to the point where I don’t notice it.

One annoyance for me is that the power button is now a regular keyboard key located in the upper right corner.


The Air retains the eject button for the rare case where you bought the external optical disk drive and have it hooked up. As a result of all this, this screws up my muscle memory when changing the volume since I’m used to the volume keys being just one key in from the right, not two. If they insist on keeping the eject key, then I’d prefer the power button off the keyboard, seeing as how I almost never turn the laptop off. And unfortunately, it will be hard to adjust to since it is different than every other keyboard I currently use (which are all made by Apple, by the way).

All these nitpicks are just that, nitpicks. In no uncertain terms, I love this machine. It fits what I need it for. I consider it an upgrade from my MBP. It’s faster (SSD + better GPU). It’s lighter (by over 1½ pounds). It has a higher res screen. Albeit, yes, I could have gotten a current generation MBP with an SSD but I’m more than willing to shed the pounds for last year’s performance levels. It feels quick and agile both digitally and physically. In many respects, this is the laptop I’ve always been waiting for.

And if anyone is interested in a 2009 MacBook Pro 13″, drop me a line. I’ll throw in a free family pack of Hazel if you contact me before I put it up on eBay.


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