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.