A few days with a MacBook Air

2011
02.15

I took the plunge and got a MacBook Air from Apple last week. I bought it through the Apple online store and got a refurbished model, saving myself quite a bit of money in the process.

Here’s the story of why I got it.

Background

I’ve been gradually downsizing my portable needs for the last couple of years.

I have a desktop machine – a 2008-era Mac Pro that still serves me well, and works as my podcasting station and does other heavy lifting. But for years, I’ve relied on a laptop as my daily driver. Throughout my Macworld career I relied on 17-inch machines – a 17-inch PowerBook, then a 17-inch MacBook Pro. Both systems served me very well.

After I got laid off from Macworld in 2009, I bought myself a new laptop. I’d been living off corporate largesse for years and had grown accustomed to having big iron. But circumstances and finances required me to consider other options, and the MacBook was a great compromise.

All the things I’d feared about going from one end of Apple’s laptop line to the other vanished. The late 2009-era MacBook really changed the game by getting rid of the execrable Intel GMA graphics and replacing with Nvidia 9400m graphics. The screen is big enough and the system is powerful enough to do just about everything I need. I’ve been very happy with it.

But at 4.7 pounds, it’s still a lot of weight to carry when traveling. Not so much as carryon luggage on an airplane ride, but every day, when jockeying around a trade show floor or event venue, it weighs you down after a while.

A smaller alternative

When the iPad debuted in April, I figured this was the machine I was looking for. In fairly short order blogging and editing tools appeared for it and I thought I’d be ready to use the iPad as a lightweight, portable machine suitable for writing, journaling and blogging while I was on the road.

Turns out I was wrong.

The iPad is a great information appliance. I use it constantly to stay in touch with friends and colleagues on Twitter, check Facebook, write e-mails and even surf the Web.

But it’s a horrid machine to actually try to do work on.

I can’t adjust to the virtual keyboard. I need the tactile response of real keys – it’s just how I’m wired. What’s more, iOS and iOS apps take a lot of workflow adjustment to try to get used to. Simple tasks on Mac OS X like editing text – cut, copy and paste – are more complicated when you’re writing long form because you have to stop, move your fingers from the keyboard, select the text, etc.

I suppose I could shop around for the right case with a built-in Bluetooth keyboard, but it’s still going to be a kludge full of compromises.

Regardless, the iPad’s already secured a place in my road warrior arsenal – I barely leave home without it, even when I’m not on the road. It’s just too damn useful to be without, even if it’s not a good editing workstation.

The compromise

When Apple refreshed the MacBook Air line late in 2010, they really changed the game. With a starting price of $999, the MacBook Air went from a boutique system for well-heeled mobile executives to the same price as the MacBook. That democratizes it greatly (and sure, PC users are likely to bitch that it’s still a lot more than a cheap netbook. Whatever. I like Macs, I use them, I think they’re worth the money. If you don’t, you don’t).

I thought the MacBook looked really nifty – Apple shaved weight and size off the machine, going entirely solid-state with storage, and created this gorgeous 11-inch model too – something to go head-to-head with netbooks on size, but with the overall general usage capability of a decent MacBook.

Still, I didn’t really think of the MacBook Air as an object of desire. That changed when I went to Macworld 2011 in January. The press room was filled with them, and over the course of three days it dawned on me that this was precisely what I was looking for.

The MacBook Air is the dream editing machine. It’s powerful enough to do everything I need – write, access the net, light image editing and so on – but it’s tiny. Really lightweight. Barely larger than the iPad. It measures barely more than half an inch tall at its highest point; it’s less than 12 inches across and about 7 and a half inches deep. The weight is a scant 2.3 pounds, less than half what my MacBook weighs.

Having used a netbook (I own a 10-inch Asus Eee PC that’s currently my daughter’s laptop), I was concerned about the size and the keyboard. I found my Eee PC to be too cramped to use – it was actually too small for my lap, and I do use my laptop as a “lap” top quite regularly – and the keyboard took way too much adjusting to, since it was scaled smaller than a full size desk keyboard.

Apple managed to avoid both these problems with the MacBook Air. The 11-inch model is (obviously) wider than a 10-inch netbook, so it sits on my (admittedly capacious) lap more easily, and it also has a full-sized keyboard. It didn’t take any time to adjust to the smaller dimensions. What’s more, it’s fast.

If you’re a spec-monkey, you’ll be totally unimpressed with my MacBook Air – on paper, it looks like shit – 1.4GHz processor (about the same clock speed as my old 17-inch PowerBook G4), 2GB RAM, 128GB hard drive.

Except it’s fast as hell. It boots faster and shuts down faster than any Mac I’ve ever owned. Blessings of going entirely solid state – don’t forget, this thing uses an SSD instead of a hard drive, and is optimized for it.

Some downsides

I don’t expect the MacBook Air is going to be my daily driver – I’m anticipating it as a machine I rely on when I’m out of the home office, such as at a meeting or traveling.

In automobile terms, I liken it to a BMW Z4 – a very nice, small roadster good for taking out on the weekends, even if it’s still a bit unsuitable as a daily driver.

The wideness of the MacBook Air lends itself to a peculiar aspect ratio on the display – it’s almost 16:9, which is great for watching really cinematic content like Lawrence of Arabia, but is less than optimal for viewing Web-based content or, for that matter, writing – as both activities emphasize the vertical display of content, not horizontal.

Also, the pixel density of the screen is greater than a MacBook. Everything looks much smaller. It’s certainly a more useable screen real estate than your average netbook, but it produces some eyestrain. My vision is uncorrected 20:20, though I do occasionally wear readers to reduce eyestrain on the computer. But it’s enough that I feel a bit of strain using the MacBook Air.

My MacBook Air is a 2/128 model. Neither the RAM nor the SSD are upgradable or user-serviceable. That puts me in a rather awkward position compared to my MacBook, which shipped from the factory as a 2/250 machine but is now 8/500. I won’t have that same flexibility with the MacBook Air, so I better hope that it’ll still work well a year or two from now, once we’re into Mac OS X 10.7 “Lion” and a new bunch of apps optimized for it.

I really want a lot of hard disk space (more memory is good too). So I have to make adjustments about what I’ll keep on the MacBook Air. And that right there reduces its utility for me as a daily work machine.

The MacBook Air is now the eighth working computer in the house – so I’m unable to synchronize its iTunes contents with other machines using Apple’s Home Sharing feature, which enforces a five user limit. Not a huge problem, since the MacBook Air’s storage capacity is so limited, but it also means that if I use it all to connect the iPhone and the iPad, it’ll be simply as a charging station off the MacBook Air’s USB ports, not for file synchronization.

On the advice of friend and colleague Chris Phin, I’ve signed up for an account with SugarSync, a cloud-based file synchronization service, and I think this will work, at least for really important files, such as the ones I’m writing and ediing and any given moment.

With SugarSync, I’m able to synchronize key directories on each machine without having to resort to symbolic links or other workarounds like with Dropbox. My directory structure stays untouched and unmodified; SugarSync uses a file management app that runs as an invisible background process while the Macs are on. What’s more, SugarSync offers a more generous free storage capacity than Dropbox – I started out with 5GB of storage, compared to Dropbox’s default 2.

So far, everything’s coming up roses. I still don’t see the MacBook Air as totally replacing my regular MacBook, but I’m really looking forward to traveling with it. And just to make sure that I’ve got everything down pat, I’ve been using it as my primary system for the past few days. The MacBook has gotten very little use, and I’ve missed it very little. The MacBook Air a slender, lightweight, enormously powerful machine that does exactly what I expected it to do, and has offered up a few surprises in the process.

It’s also got me wondering how long it will be for the innovations present in this machine to make it into the rest of the Apple laptop line. I’d love to see a MacBook or a MacBook with more generous (and expandable) memory and SSD storage capacity combine with the MacBook Air’s low profile.

Saving some money

As far as buying refurbished, this is the best way, in my opinion, to save money on Apple kit at present, and depending on what model you buy, the savings can be significant (mine was $180 less than full retail, and shipped for free – that made it worth waiting the extra week instead of buying it on the spot at the Apple Store).

Refurb’d units ship from Apple with the same one-year factory warranty as a new machine. And they are good as new – no blemishes, no scratches, no defects. You’re not buying second-quality goods. And if anything does go wrong, the Apple retail stores will fix or replace them cheerfully (as was the case with the one unit I had that developed problems – my original Apple TV).

5 Responses to “A few days with a MacBook Air”

  1. RattyUK says:

    “shuts down faster”
    You actually shut it down?

  2. flargh says:

    Absolutely. Sometimes I shut it down and start it up again just to watch how fast it boots. Then I giggle.

  3. Alex says:

    Thanks for the write-up.
    That’s one of the most useful reviews of the MacBook Air I’ve read so far, even if it’s preliminary.

    I can easily imagine the way the MBA would fit into my day and day-to-day work — mind you I’m still a student and often have a laptop with my in University.

    Seeing how I use the iPhone 4 right now, I guess the 11″ MBA would be a better fit for me than the current iPad.

    Again; thanks.

  4. Will says:

    Good read. I’ve been tempted by the new MBA for a while now too and reading these kind of reviews makes me want one even more.

    I have to wonder why you went with the 11″ rather than the 13″? The size and weight difference is minimal, and the 13″ could have served as a replacement for your MacBook. Just shear portability or other?

  5. flargh says:

    Thanks. You hit the nail on the head: the reason I went with the 11-inch is all about portability. Every ounce and every inch (or fraction thereof) counts for me. The lower price helped, of course. :)

    Quite frankly, I’m not ready to cast the 13-inch MacBook aside. In fact, I’m writing on it right now. It’s a solid machine that runs well, still runs fast and serves my needs while I’m working in the house/office. So replacing it with a 13-inch MBA seemed to me to be wasteful and beside the point I was thinking about the MBA to begin with.

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