Some Thoughts On The New MacBook Air

Dave Zatz —  November 21, 2010

For the first time in almost exactly 2 years, I’m replacing my primary computing device — the original 13″ unibody MacBook is being retired in favor of a new 13″ MacBook Air. The screen may sound small but, given my various travels and mobile blogging activities, it’s the right size for me… most of the time.

Choosing to upgrade now is a bit of splurge considering this MacBook Air actually sports a less powerful processor than the one housed in the laptop it replaces. However, as I rarely render video on my laptop I expect a minimal real world performance hit. In fact, given SSD storage over spinning platters, the MBA should provide a more sprightly experience in many tasks. Additionally, in relation to performance, several publications (like Macworld) show these new systems perform admirably despite their small stature.

I find the 11″ MacBook Air very appealing — so sexy, so small, yet pretty capable, But there are too many compromises required for me to use it as a full-time laptop. So I went with the 13″ for the larger screen, larger battery, more powerful processor, and SD slot. Compared to my previous laptop, I expect to at least double battery life and the higher resolution display will be appreciated for certain tasks. Also, the SD slot is a very nice upgrade that I’m already enjoying – one less cable or adapter to travel with (or lose).

Two positive surprises so far… The display appears less glossy than my previous laptop. Not sure if this is truly the case, perhaps the silver metal bezel versus black glass and higher resolution contribute to some sort of optical illusion. Regardless, I’m unexpectedly pleased. Also, on the hardware front the keyboard feels a bit different. Not sure if the keys travel less or they’re just a bit softer, but the feeling is slightly different. In a good way. Otherwise, there’s not much to say about the hardware — as you’d expect, the build quality is outstanding.

On the software front, as I migrate stuff over it’s interesting to note what I’m choosing to leave behind. At some point over the last two years, I’ve replaced Microsoft Office and OpenOffice with Google Docs. Also, I have much less need for VMWare Fusion and Parallels these days. Whereas I relied on Windows virtualization as a crutch when first going Mac laptop (in ’07/’08). Plus, there’s much more OS X-compatible software these days (Mac is back) and I’ve got Windows-based computers available when/as needed. With all this Adobe hateraide going ’round, instead of loading up the new Adobe Photoshop Elements, I’m running exclusively with the lighter-weight Acorn for a few weeks. We’ll see how it goes. (Dropping Flash is out of the question. For now.)

In terms of specs, I stuck with the standard 128GB SSD for storage (although upgraded to 4GB for memory). And I’m already regretting that decision to save a few bucks given my iTunes and iPhoto libraries. iTunes is mostly expendable at this point, as I get most of my music needs met via Slacker and XM these days. However, I do like having most of my photos with me at all times. So I’m going to have to upgrade this SSD one day or figure out how to access and maintain multiple iPhoto libraries – one local, one on a NAS. Hm.

26 responses to Some Thoughts On The New MacBook Air

  1. Dave:

    I’m playing with a 13.3-inch MacBook Air review unit, and I can pretty much echo your sentiments. I’ve discovered that the addition of a speed SSD means you can comfortably do virtualization with Win7 even if you’ve only got the 2-GB model.

    The main thing I miss using the Air instead of a 13.3-inch MacBook Pro (which is my current notebook) is the lack of a backlit keyboard. Yeah, I know, that seems like a luxury… until you’ve had it, and had to do without it. I spend a lot of time typing in dim lighting, and the backlit keyboard is very useful. The Air’s keyboard seems like a step backward in this regard.

  2. “In terms of specs, I stuck with the standard 128GB SSD for storage (although upgraded to 4GB for memory). And I’m already regretting that decision to save a few bucks given my iTunes and iPhoto libraries.”

    I’m of the opinion that $300 is a rotten deal for an extra 121GB of SSD storage.

    If you are getting an SSD in your laptop, it’s because of one of the following:

    1) You’re usually connected to LAN storage, so you can store your media there.

    2) You don’t have much of your own media.

    3) You’re made out of gold, and can afford a ginormous SSD at current prices.

    4) You’re not thinking clearly.

    Given that you seem to have a LAN and gear, I’d say that you likely fall into category #1.

    I have a 128GB Apple SSD in my MBP, and I store my photos, music, and videos on the LAN. That way, I only fill half of my SSD, which should help with wear-leveling over time.

    Which brings up the travel issue. Assuming you don’t want to tunnel into your LAN from distance and access your media over the WAN, might I suggest the antiquated notion of a small, bus powered, platter hard drive?

    Apple makes a wonderful portable platter hard drive device called the iPod Classic which has a fair amount of hard drive space for your media. It also doubles as a standalone music player, which comes in oddly handy at times.

    Or you can get a non-music playing portable platter hard drive device for the mid-two digit price point. Sync your LAN media onto the drive before you travel, and you’re good to go.

    Also worth noting that many photo cataloging apps like iPhoto allow you to keep low-res thumbnails of your media on your SSD, while keeping the hi-res originals on your LAN, which is optimal in travelling situations…

  3. Thanks fot the comment, Dwight! Prior to my 13″ MacBook I had two work-provided 15″ MacBooks that had the backlit keyboard. I miss both that and the mushy concave keys. Sometime before that, I had a Thinkpad that beamed down light from the top of the display onto the keys which served a similar purpose and was something I appreciated (although maybe not as much). But the first 13″ unibody Macs did not provide backlighting in the lower-end configs so I’ve been w/o for two years. I’d take it if offered, but it’s not compelling enough to take on the additional bulk of the MBP – even though it’s a better “value” in many respects.

    Chucky, I’m comfortable setting up a secure tunnel home but I haven’t bothered recently. I need to research what iPhoto library options I have. Like I said, my first thought is two libraries – one local for things I always want with me, and then one that lives on a NAS. The low res local is a configuration I wasn’t aware of. Will have to research that too. I’m also not mated to iPhoto, might see what Picasa offers these days.

  4. Congratulations on your new purchase!

    I had to get rid of my Air because of its inability to run its processors any faster than 800Mhz without overheating (actually used two ice packs and a laptop cooler just to make it through a podcast recording). I was able to reproduce the issue on every MBA of that generation at the store. So I went down and played with the new one for 40 minutes and unlike the first MBA, the new one is actually capable of running full tilt without overheating.

    Although I loved the smaller form factor, I’m not sure I can go back down to a smaller HDD again. My MBP has a 500GB drive and it is nice. I will be keeping my eye on the Air, and when the 256GB SSD is affordable, I might switch. Assuming the 13-inch pro doesn’t get an on board SSD option to go with its spinning platter like the 27-inch iMac has.

  5. “Although I loved the smaller form factor, I’m not sure I can go back down to a smaller HDD again. My MBP has a 500GB drive and it is nice. I will be keeping my eye on the Air, and when the 256GB SSD is affordable, I might switch. Assuming the 13-inch pro doesn’t get an on board SSD option to go with its spinning platter like the 27-inch iMac has.”

    Ben,

    The future is already available, right here.

    Buy a new MBP with Apple 128GB SSD for $1550. Buy the MCE OptiBay for $99. Toss in a 500GB conventional hard drive for another $60. And for $1800, you have a travel laptop that gets the best of all worlds.

    (Or since you already have a MBP, just get the OptiBay, and add a third party small SSD for your boot drive. The MBP is pretty easy to work around inside.)

  6. PS I’m also on the lookout for a new bag to replace my La.Besace. Not because I’m vain, but because it’s two years old – it’s a little ragged and the zipper broke over the summer. Any suggestions? Needs to fit the MBA, power adapter (during CES only), camera and wall charger, plus some tiny stuff like earbuds.

  7. Good read! Shame the wife wont let me buy one… However if you want to donate your old one, give me a hoy! :-P

  8. I love the MBA but I can’t do without the res of my 17-inch MBP. It used to be my primary display but I just picked up a 27-inch ACD this week. Plus I need VMware for XP, Win 7, Ubuntu browser testing and 8GB definitely helps there — oh and redis for local dev eats up a chunk of ram. I’d be a bit limited at 4GB. Post on my ACD impressions coming soon: http://paulstamatiou.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/pstam_acd27_workspace.jpg

  9. No backlight on 13″ model, at least, is disappointing. I couldn’t live without backlit keyboard after having it on my Alienware M11x (1st gen).

    My view on harddrives has been the same since HDDs – get the largest one you can. Of course, it’s usually a lot cheaper to do aftermarket upgrades so I get smallest one & upgrade immediately.

    Got 256 GB SSD drive in my M11x (Crucial C300) and can’t imagine living with less storage even though I have portable drives, NAS, etc.

    Insofar as Air is concerned, it looks great but I can’t simply fathom why Apple is using such outdated technology. There are already better low-power options from Intel not to mention even newer stuff coming in early 2011.

    It’s bad enough Apple is slow to upgrade existing offering with new tech, but when they roll out new line with old tech, it’s not cool.

  10. “I need to research what iPhoto library options I have. Like I said, my first thought is two libraries – one local for things I always want with me, and then one that lives on a NAS. The low res local is a configuration I wasn’t aware of. Will have to research that too. I’m also not mated to iPhoto, might see what Picasa offers these days.”

    It’s an interesting conundrum.

    One of the real appeals of iPhoto and Aperture is that they allow you to link to photos kept on platter drives while only creating low-res thumbnails in your Users folder on the SSD.

    But iPhoto and Aperture both have a certain degree of lock-in that I’m not comfortable with. I’m not mated to them either. (I’m actually a fan of Adobe Bridge. Future-proof your media and its structure.)

    But however you manage it, I’m of the opinion that maintaining two photo libraries leads to madness, since you’ll go crazy trying to keep the “master” library in sync. Best practices are to have a canonical media library, and if something doesn’t fit on a travel rig and you won’t have remote access to it, you just grab a temporary read-only subset for a specific purpose.

  11. “Insofar as Air is concerned, it looks great but I can’t simply fathom why Apple is using such outdated technology. There are already better low-power options from Intel”

    See, I just think this is dead wrong.

    I can see every single one of the tradeoffs Apple made in the MBA hardware design, and I approve.

    They can’t use Nehalem in the MBA since they can’t get the graphics performance they want from Intel’s integrated graphics. And there is no space/heat/money for a discrete GPU with Nehalem since Intel decided to force their own GPU into the die. (Bad Intel.)

    In short, if Apple wants NVIDIA graphics in the MBA form factor, which they are correct to want, they are stuck with the Core Duo architecture.

    So how do you bring teh snappy to the Core Duo architecture with limited ventilation? You do exactly what Apple did. You underclock the CPU, punch above your weight with the GPU performance, and cover all your sins with an SSD. The thin client user is happy with those tradeoffs.

    If Intel hadn’t forced Integrated Graphics into Nehalem, the MBA and MBP13 would be using Nehalem…

  12. Nice write up. I’ve been using the MBA11 13″ for about a month now, and I love it. It has pretty much replace my 15″ MBP.

    First and foremost, the screen it TOTALLY not glossy. I think on the one hand, it doesn’t have the EXTRA GLASS LAYER that the MBP line have over the screens. Second, while it has a BIT of reflection when one has a light behind them, when the machine is technically OFF, I really cannot see any reflection. In the regular MBP line, even when the screen is dark, I can see only reflections. Personally I cannot even USE a regular GLASSY MBP, but this puppy is fine.

    I am so addicted to the instant on, instant off nature of the SSD and the power management, if the next series of MBP 15″s don’t come with it, I won’t be a buyer. (YES, I do want another 15″ at some point and there is certainly a need for more horses too)

    For any of my traveling and consulting work, the MBA has fit in perfectly.

    FINDING A CASE IS PROVING TO BE VERY DIFFICULT.

    Honestly, I haven’t seen this much of a delay between release and accessory release. There is literally nothing of use out there yet. Even the apple stores have NOTHING.

  13. Paul, maybe I should have specified this is my primary personal and blogging computer. Which is distinct from “work” – where I’ve got all sorts of systems at my disposal. Plus, I still have those Fusion and Parallels licenses should I ever need them. But my wife runs Windows on her laptop. And I’ve got a pretty high powered Linux PC in the closet. Once we get settled in our new house, I’ll be picking up an external display for the MBA. Probably in the neighborhood of 23″ and most definitely not an Apple product.

    Ivan, the Air may not have the latest processor, but I’m having no problems with their design decisions and where they chose to make compromises. It suits me. And it’s a far cry from than the previous air which was hobbled in a variety of ways. Ben D wasn’t the only one I know to to give up… my pal Dan Dorato (UNEASYsilence) also thew in the towel.

    tivoboy, instant on isn’t a huge deal for me since I rarely shut down. In fact, the near instant resume-from-sleep is why I made the move from Windows to OS X in the first place.

  14. Congratulations! I hope you find that it performs as well for you as I find it performs for me. I’m continually surprised at how much snappier it seems at the tasks I commonly do. The SSD makes a huge difference in performance.

    I upgraded from a 2006 Macbook Pro with a matte screen. I didn’t want to go with a glossy screen since I really like the lack of reflections the matte screen provides. The Air screen seems to be the perfect combination which gives high contrast with minimal reflections.

    It was also a pleasant surprise to find that Starcraft II, Half-Life 2, Peggle Extreme, etc. run just fine at reasonable settings. Now if I could just find some time to play…

  15. Great article – have just got into the macbook thing and I’m hooked – thinking of trading up from my 13 macbook to the new macbook air. Like you say, the 11inch looks pretty good – but when you’re doing serious work a small screen isn’t good enough… The 11inch is good for travel though.

  16. Not sure about cheap bags, but you wont find a better made than a Waterfield (www.sfbags.com) and made in the USA to boot. Check out their combos to save a few bucks on a sleeve, bag and gear bag. The sleeves can optionally have a ‘piggyback’ and a shoulder strap attached at time of manufacturer. The piggyback is removable, the rings for shoulder straps, etc of course are not. Gives you the choice of grabbing the whole kit, or just the sleeve with enough room for a charger and a couple of cables.

  17. Chucky is exactly right. Apple had a choice between using an outdated processor with a modern integrated graphics processor, or a modern processor with an outdated integrated graphics processor. It’s Intel’s pigheadedness causing this. They locked other manufacturers like NVidia out of the integrated graphics processor market with the Core i-series chips. Given that OS X 10.6 is heavily dependent upon OpenCL and advanced graphics, Apple really didn’t have much choice and so stuck with the Core 2 Duo. If Intel allowed others to make IGP for the Core i3 and i5, I’m sure Apple would use those chips. Right now, the NVidia 9400m IGP used in the late 2008 MBA beats the IGP used in the current Core i7.

    Using a car analogy, it’s like the choice between a car with a more powerful engine but a bad transmission and suspension, or a car with a weaker engine but a better transmission and suspension. Sure, the car with the better engine will go faster on the straightaway, but the car with the better transmission and suspension will do better in the twisty mountain roads.

    Arguably, competing notebooks using only the IGP built into the Core i5 are the ones using “outdated technology.”

  18. I have been considering finally replacing my 4 year old 15 inch Macbook Pro with a Macbook Air. When I got the Macbook Pro I was doing a lot of HD video editing which required Firewire. But all the HD I have been doing lately I have been able to import via USB.

    I have to replace my battery every year before CES as what once lasted 4 hours has now a hard time lasting an hour. So this year instead of a new batter I may get a Macbook Air instead.

    Thanks for the review Dave.

  19. I think one of the reasons to use the C2D processor was battery life management related as apparently the C2D even compared to the i3 uses less power.

    That said, one of the ways I am managing to get 10+ hours on the device has been to NOT REMOVE flash, but disable it when not in USE. Get either KILLFLASH, or FLASHBLOCK so it only runs when/if you need it. There is also a system wide product which I haven’t tried yet, which apparently works even bETTER

  20. Good news… I just freed up 30+ GB of storage. Didn’t realize my virtual machines were living in my Documents folder. So they’ve been offloaded onto a USB-powered 1TB drive – I wouldn’t run them off that drive, they’re just there for safekeeping. And now I’ve got room for more photos.

  21. “Good news… I just freed up 30+ GB of storage. Didn’t realize my virtual machines were living in my Documents folder.”

    If you’re willing to spend an hour to get another 5 – 15 GB’s, here you go:

    Run Monolingual to strip all the non-English language resources off your HD. That should save you from 1 – 3 GB’s. (Don’t strip the non-Intel architectures when you use the app, however. That’s been known to cause problems. But stripping non-English languages is safe.)

    Install SmartSleep. After you set it to “smartsleep” or “sleep only”, you can then delete the sleep image file from your drive, gaining a whopping 4 GB’s.

    Go to /Library/Printers/ and see if there are any big savings there.

    Run OmniDiskSweeper and see if there is any other low-hanging fruit.

  22. My MBA11 13″ install had really none of the historical languages, printers, garageband audio files that a normal install would have had. A monolingual run only netted about 20MB of data to be removed. And I think the only printers other than canon or HD was a xerox list, which I removed. I was actually hoping of the 12GB that was resident, I might ACTUALLY find 5GB more, but for me at least that wasn’t the case

  23. FYI Chucky, more than one link sends the comment into moderation where I manually approve them. Whereas the spam filter is based on a black list of names, URLs, IPs. Sorry I wasn’t able to email you and explain the delay… ;)

    Will check some of these disk saving suggestions out, thanks!

  24. “more than one link sends the comment into moderation where I manually approve them. Whereas the spam filter is based on a black list of names, URLs, IPs.”

    Huh. That’s a smart way to handle things. I learn something new every day.

    “Sorry I wasn’t able to email you and explain the delay…”

    I keep trying to get ICANN to approve my top-level domain name, but no success so far.

  25. “My MBA11 13″ install had really none of the historical languages, printers, garageband audio files that a normal install would have had.”

    Huh. I learned two things on this thread. That is a smart move on Apple’s part.

    I bought a MBP with Apple 128GB SSD a few months ago, and they factory installed the whole nine yards.

    (Not that I minded. I’m going to customize my installation in short order after I get a new box no matter what, and it’s easier to subtract than add. So I actually appreciated the whole nine yards factory install. But most folks aren’t going to ever muck around in /Library, so they’ll just magically have more precious SSD space for their user files.)

  26. Yeah, at some point Apple seems to have moved a large number of printer drivers to the cloud for on-demand installs. The sleep thing I don’t know that I want to mess with because as I said above, it’s a primary selling point for me and works fine as is.