Second hand thoughts on the Macbook Air

As the whole world knows by now, Apple released a new version of the Macbook Air about a week ago. The new Air is a really interesting device: extremely thin, packed with a fast SSD, decent processor and RAM and a high resolution screen. I’m at the point where I’m starting to consider my next round of computer upgrades and I’m seriously considering all Mac. When the new Air was released my initial response was that it would be a great machine to get if I was traveling a lot. But since I need a personal machine through at least some of my grad school years, I would be sticking to a 13 inch Macbook Pro. However, given what I’ve been hearing, I’m starting to reconsider that.

First off, there’s yesterday’s Techcrunch article about the new Air. The headline says it all: Goodbye, MacBook Pro. The New MacBook Air Is That Good. The author comes to the conclusion that the Air is a faster, better machine than his 6-month old Macbook Pro. The only downside is the size of the hard drive. From a personal perspective, I don’t really care about the storage size. I have very little media compared to most off, living off Netflix and Pandora instead.

From my experience of using a 10 inch netbook, I’ve come to the conclusion that 10 or 11 is simply too small for me to use on regular basis. If I were to get an Air, it would be the lower 13 inch model that currently sells for $1299. However, the equivalent 13 inch Macbook Pro has twice the RAM and storage space (non-SSD though), longer battery life (by Apple’s claims at least) and an optical drive. But it is thicker and 1.5 pounds heavier. It is also $100 cheaper. Even though the Macbook Pro might seem like a better deal, it’s not quite so straight cut.

For starters, the SSD is a game changer. I haven’t had the chance to use one on a daily basis myself, but from what I’ve heard (from everyone from Linus Torvalds to fellow students) it’s much more than an incremental upgrade over a traditional drive. As the benchmarks show, the SSD makes a great difference. SSDs are still an early-adopter technology, but they’re at the point where it makes sense to invest in one if you plan on keeping a machine around for a while. To bring the Macbook Pro up to the same spec would cost an additional $350.

The next question is mobility. For a machine to carry around a fair amount, the Air does a damn good job. It’s barely 3 pounds heavy, and about two-thirds of an inch at the thickest point. And according to Techcrunch, it also doesn’t bleed very much heat. This may be a bit of a personal peeve, but I can’t stand laptops that bleed excessive amounts of heat. My netbook starts fanning out warm air really quickly and that annoys me no end. Even the current Pros can get a bit warm after an hour or two of work. If the Air is really as cool as Techcrunch says it is, then its certainly a very big plus, almost as much as weighing less than most of my textbooks. The 7 hour battery life is much more than any other laptop I’ve ever used and should be good enough for a full day of work. Considering the fact that I don’t plan on doing long trips very much that seems sufficient.

The high-resolution screen is definitely a boon. It’s hard to tell how important a high-res screen matters until you’re forced to work with one that’s lower resolution. The screen is also matte, not glossy, which isn’t a major factor until it is (ie it’s a sunny day and you decide to go out into the sun). Glossy vs matte isn’t that big of a factor if you’re working in a good set up with no bright lights behind you. But I’m planning on being able to take my machine out in a  random cafe or park bench and get some work done outdoors. Not having to see the sun’s glare or my own reflection all the time would be nice.

The final thing to note is ports and optical drive. The Air has no optical drive and the only time I use an optical drive is to watch DVDs. I would really not miss the optical drive if all of Netflix were streamed online, but until then I’ll be buying a separate optical drive. And it will probably be one of the Apple drives since I can’t seem to find anyone making a cheaper slot-loading drive (after using slot-loading drives, tray-loaders seem downright clunky and primitive). What that means is that when I have an external drive plugged in, I’ll be down to a single USB port. I would not be able to plug in an optical drive, external storage drive and USB keyboard all that the same which is something I can see myself wanting to do at some point. Again, I’m not entirely certain how much of a problem that would be. Even if that is something I need to do USB hubs are cheap and abundant and it’s not an issue when I’m on the move. The DisplayPort means that I’ll be able to plug in a larger monitor (which is something I’m likely to do when I’m at my desk). The lack of a wired Ethernet port is somewhat concerning. Though being at a grad school means that I’ll probably have all the wireless Internet I need, it means that I’d have to get a wireless router for wherever I end up living.

The Macbook Air is certainly a very respectable machine. However, it’s another question as to whether or not I would actually  buy one. The 13 inch Pro is a strong competitor and for a primary machine, the Pro seems to win. Though the Air lets you do most things you’d want to with a computer, the peripheral limitations mean that you can’t do everything you’d want to. The lack of a cheaper SSD option on the Pro is a bit disappointing, but it’s something that I could add in later if I really want to. If I were getting a secondary travel machine to accompany an existing home machine, the Air would win hands down. But since I want a machine that I can hope to use full time, I still need a “complete” machine. The Pro is the best bargain for that.

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Published by

Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

3 thoughts on “Second hand thoughts on the Macbook Air”

  1. The thing that really concerns me is the durability. It’s THIN.. REALLY THIN… Will it hold up? Or will I end up with a warped machine after a time?

    It’s also a Core 2 Duo as compared to an i5 or i7 in the Pro line.. Does it really perform that well?

  2. I drooled over the Air for a few days and finally ended up getting one after realizing I’m definitely going to get one – might as well be now.

    Though I was initially afraid it would be a little underpowered for normal use, for web browsing in Firefox (10 tabs) and programming in emacs, it has done me rightly. The only time it ever has hinted at it’s smaller processer is when playing HD videos in Youtube or Vimeo via Flash – it might occasionally stutter. Switching to HTML5 mode (both sites have this option) solves this problem – there’s no stutter at all (and before you ask, playing 720p video in quicktime is flawless, too.)

    The whole reason I wanted the Air was because its incredibly light. I thought about using a bluetooth keyboard with an ipad for on the go, but this is way better (and in the end, ligher than that combination). When it’s in my sidebag, I don’t even feel it’s there. And because that, I don’t mind keeping it in my bag wherever I go. The same can’t be said for my 13″ Macbook (personal) or my 17″ Macbook Pro (work). If I need to do some Final Cut work, I’m definitely taking the 17″er home, but for everything else, the Air has been fantastic – even plugged into a 27″ cinema display. What you said about the solid state disk space is true – waking the computer from sleep takes 2-3 seconds. My developer environment is already all online, so it doesn’t matter what device I use or where I’m at, as long as I have terminal and emacs life is good – and now I always have a laptop with me.

    Regarding having no optical drive – the bigger issues for me is no hardware battery indicator and no light up keyboard – I realize neither are that important, and after years of typing the light up keyboard is pretty insignificant. I’m a big fan of Netflix, too but optical discs are pretty dated. These days anything you can’t find on Netflix streaming you can find on torrents and have it downloaded in 20 minutes. If you want to take the legal route, buy the video off the iTunes store.

    Reguarding durability. This thing is like an ax blade – and I believe almost as durable. Try bending one lightly at the Apple Store and see how reinforced it is. Though I don’t think it would survived being sat upon (my Pro survived this) I do think it’s strong enough to be between 2 hardbound books in your messenger bag.

    To conclude: The modern Macbook Air is a programmer’s dream. They took awhile to perfect it, and though I think it’ll still improve, I think the later improvements aren’t worth the wait. Get it now if you’ll get one eventually.

    (I’m actually writing this on an 11″ Air on a flight from NYC to SF. When not in use I just put it in the narrow front seat pocket with the magazines.)

    1. Thanks for such a detailed review of the Air. It does seem like a really well-thought out capable machine. I’m still not at all sure whether I want the Air or a Pro as my primary machine, but the Air’s lightness and the SSD are very very tempting. However, I would probably want to get the update to 4GB especially since I plan on doing development work on it. I would really like the light-up keyboard too but I guess I can live without that if I’m in a sufficiently well lit room (which I generally am). We’ll see.

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