My decision to buy a new 13″ MacBook Air (2010) was quite an arduous one. I went through rounds of intensive research before I decided to take the plunge. I must have read every MacBook Air review out there, the good, the bad and the ugly.
Due to popular demand, I decided to share my purchasing decision process as well as some post-purchase insights on the design and usability of the MacBook Air after I put it thought its paces.
In preparation for this article, I took copious notes on my thoughts of the MacBook Air (both good and bad). These notes have been transcribed into this article and should also reflect my MacBook Air’s chronology of use.
Lets start with a bit of a background. I’m currently using, what I call, a MacBook masquerading as a MacBook Pro. Now more than 2 years old, it was the first generation 13″ MacBook that was launched with the Aluminum Unibody. The only difference at that time between a MacBook and a Pro was the Pro had a faster processor, SD Card slot and a backlit keyboard. My MacBook has a 2GHz processor with 2GB of Ram and runs like a tank (abet a sluggish one) despite falling on and deforming its corner. So technically, I did not really need a new laptop.
I had notice recently that Design Sojourn Consulting was taking me on the road quite a lot. I found I was working in varied environments such as Starbucks, corner of benches, and even PC friendly design studios. In this scenario of use, my MacBook was not hitting the mark in both the laptop’s weight and battery life. Therefore in October 2010, when Steve Jobs introduced a super thin, light and fast Laptop, I was very intrigued. After playing with it at the store, I decided to really think carefully if a MacBook Air (MBA) was for me.
My first question was what would I use an MBA for, especially if I still have a fully functioning laptop? Furthermore what size should I get, the 11″ or the 13″? I ran the question by my friends on Twitter and a surprising number of people suggested I go for the 11″, especially if I still had a functioning laptop.
The majority of reviews concluded that the 11″ would be a good satellite or 2nd/3rd computer and the 13″ should be seen as your replacement machine. I found these conclusions to be partially true and I bucked the trend by buying a 13″ MacBook Air instead.
When I finally went to the Apple store to make my purchase, I had two scenarios in mind:
1) As suggested by the reviews, I would buy the 11″ and use it as a satellite or a portable extension of my 13″ MacBook.
2) I buy the 13″ MBA as a replacement for my aging 13″ MacBook. Once I move the data over, I’ll Bootcamp my old MacBook to run Windows for CAD (Rhino 3D).
After speaking to the ever-knowledgeable Apple Geniuses, I ended up somewhere in-between the two scenarios. I decided that my new 13″ MBA was going to be a “serious satellite” as I needed the MBA to run Photoshop on the go. It seems the 11″ will struggle with Photoshop, so say the Geniuses.
Furthermore after spending some time at the store playing with MBAs, I found the screen size of the 11″ just too small to use comfortably. The problem is the 16:9 high-resolution display which packs in more pixels that a 13″ MacBook/Pro horizontally. As a result, everything gets much smaller. For example, the standard fonts sizes on webpages, document icons and toolbars etc., they all get smaller. I did not want to be changing the zoom presets on the programs every time I use them.
You will find that it is hard to gauge the shrinkage as the demo computers are running full screen slide shows all the time! I’m not sure about you but I’m struggling with short sightedness and I’m not planning to risk what’s left of my eyesight by working daily on 11″. The 13″ also has a similar shrinkage problem, but the larger physical size helps alleviate the problem.
Despite the screen size and resolution issue, I still seriously considered the 11″ until the very end. But what actually swung me was the perceived value of what I was purchasing. My initial gut feel was that the 64GB Solid State Hard-drive was not enough for all my data. So I’ll need an 11” with a 128GB SSD. On that note, I discovered that for US$100 more, I could get a larger 13″ screen, faster processor, longer battery life and a SD Card slot!
I decided to run my spanking new MacBook Air like an iPad on steroids. This meant keeping the OS light and fast. This was also in anticipation of the new MacOS Lion where the boundaries between MacOS and iOS would be blurred. Finally, instead of migrating my files and software over from my old MacBook, I adopted a policy of installing programs or moving data only when I needed to.
I started the ball rolling with a stripped down Firefox browser to maintain the speed. I converted most of the plugin add-ons into native apps running on the Mac. I guess the only reason why I stuck with Firefox was to sync the bookmarks from my browser on my old MacBook. Other programs I installed were; Dropbox to share files, Evernote for note clipping, WriteRoom for writing, and AppCleaner for maintenance. I also installed Notify as a replacement to the Gmail Manager Firefox plugin, as that plugin made Firefox a resource hog.
I was all happy and dandy with the simplicity of it all! There were no folders/files getting in the way and Apps to bog down the system. So in my first week, my MacBook Air became a very focused tool for Getting Things Done!
I was originally happy to use Twitter.com for updates but after a week later, I broke down and installed Tweet Deck with its Adobe Air overhead. I needed to speed tweet and single column solutions like Twitteriffic did not work for me. To catch up on my RSS feeds, I installed Reeder for the Mac. This allowed me to remove the Feedly Firefox plugin I usually use. I rounded all this up by installing Photoshop, Illustrator and Office for Mac.
The Nitty Gritty
1) I have to say that the MacBook Air is a piece of sublime industrial design. Most of you have probably drawn the same conclusion so there is no real point talking about the industrial design in detail. But one thing I will point out, is that the forward sloping wedge section is a huge evolution in the laptop archetype. If anything, the tapered wedge makes this laptop better than anything on the market and worth the “Apple Tax”. This wedge now makes the transition between the tabletop to laptop almost seamless. This also means our wrists do not suffer from the uncomfortable edges of the thicker aluminum Unibody. Regardless, the MacBook Air makes the MacBook Pro Unibody positively chunky.
2) The Solid State Drive (SSD) allocates memory like a USB thumb drive or memory stick. This means all data has a 10-20% overhead as compared to a regular Hard-Disk Drive. This is something to consider if you want to see if your memory footprint of your current laptop can fit into a MBA’s SSD. On that note, I’m glad I stretched for a 128GB as the MacOS takes up about 15GB. A MacBook Air with a 64GB SSD would have made me nervous.
3) Those who claim that the 11″ MBA can be a replacement for an iPad, may need to rethink that statement. I carried my 13″ MBA around in a sleeve for a day and it was brilliant weight wise. However, even though it is very portable, it is not a “stand and snack” device, but rather a “sit and use” device. The clamshell laptop archetype is the issue here as opposed to the slate/tablet archetype where you can interface directly on the surface without dealing with a moving hinge. Even though my MBA is a 13″, I would imagine it would still be a difficult task for a person to stand, hold the 11″ laptop in one hand and type with the other.
4) Unlike the hinge problems of early Unibody Macs, when the MBA stands on its side (on the hinge) the cover does not annoyingly pop open (above). This is quite important as when my old Macbook sits in a carry bag vertically, the open cover picks up a lot of fluff. (Edit: I just had a piece of flesh from my palm pinched painfully between the covers as I was pulling it out of a bag.) The MBA feels like it has a magnetic contact strip that holds the cover and bottom together.
5) Having a USB port on both sides is a very good idea. I now do not have a cluster of cables hanging off one side of my laptop.
6) I had high hopes for the SD Card slot. I had planned for an SD Card to live in that slot to provide for additional memory backup. I even went out to buy the biggest card I could find. To my horror, 1/3 of the SD Card actually sticks out of the slot. That 1/3 is great for pulling it out, but not good for leaving it in there semi-permanently. I wish the slot had a “push-push” type SD card mechanism.
7) I miss having an Infrared receiver. This means I cannot use the Apple Remote Control to manage my slideshows. I still have not figured out a work around yet.
8) I miss the power LED that “breaths” on standby as I often can’t remember if I put it to standby or turned it off. Another issue is that without the LED you would not know if the machine was starting up until screen comes on. Furthermore as the screen takes about 2 seconds to turn on, you would not know how long to hold the power button down for. While the start up is pretty quick about 3-5 seconds, the world seems to go into “bullet time” while I wait for the screen to start up. Lately, as I install more software, the boot up time is starting to get longer and longer. 3 seconds when it was brand new, 5 seconds after my first set of software. 10 seconds after I installed Adobe Air, Adobe Photoshop and Office. Fortunately the shut down time has not change and is still a zippy 3 seconds.
9) I don’t miss the Ethernet slot as I have WiFi. But I would miss it if I did not have another computer with an Ethernet slot to do things like tweaking my router.
10) I don’t miss the optical drive. But I do feel hindered that I can’t install Photoshop from my DVD-Rom. I copied the entire archive on to the SSD and installed it locally. This probably left a huge data gap on my hard drive when I deleted the archive.
11) The “chicklet” keyboard keys are firm and with enough travel for typing comfort. Quite surprising for keys living on such a thin housing. I hope that the keys do not become, like my Unibody MacBook, wobbly with age.
12) Battery life promises approximately 7 hours for the 13”.
I manage to get a consistent 6-hour run if I restrict my activities to opening program and closing windows and WiFi internet work. After calibrating the battery, I get my MBA to start fully charged at around 7 hours. If I am catching up on online flash movies, the battery indicator drops to between 4-5 hours. This is still much better than my old MacBook with gives me 3 hours for online flash movies.
13) I mange to get the CPU cooling fan to run while I was downloading and updating the OS. The bottom of the MBA does get warm and even hot in certain areas, but it is not as bad as my Unibody MacBook. The fan sounds like a crowded room, observed from a distance away.
14) The performance of the MBA is really fast and responsive. Programs load faster than my Macbook and everything you heard about the response time of the MBA is true. In a freshly booted environment, Photoshop CS3 takes 5 seconds to load on the MBA, compared to 20 seconds on my old MacBook. App switching on Expose (I had 9 windows/programs open) is instantaneous. Do note that even though my 13” MBA moves faster than my old MacBook, the specifications are quite similar. The Solid State Drive has to be the key-differentiating factor. To date, I’ve not seen the beach ball spin for more than a second and claims that the MBA is an (almost) instant on/load/use system are quite accurate.
15) I’m planning to eventually get Sketchbook Pro installed and see if I can use the track pad as a drawing tablet.
Steve Jobs: What if a Macbook and iPad hooked up?
The MBA is a worthy addition to the MacBook product line up. The entry level MacBook promises a competitive price, the MacBook Pro sells on performance and the MacBook Air fights on portability. I have always said that Apple, as a market leader, runs a defensive marketing strategy by filling up the gaps in their product line. This allows Apple to protect their range from competitors coming up with niche or credible alternatives.
Depending on the economies of scale, I dare say that the Macbook Air could eventually merge or take over the line of entry level Macbooks. This is because I do foresee that my MBA could eventually take over my old MacBook. Furthermore computing sufficiency and Moore’s Law would likely mean that the majority of consumers would not need a faster CPU for most of their computing needs. Plus Jobs did hint that the MacBook Air was the future of laptops.
I don’t think the MBA will eat into iPad sales nor replace it. Both products have different uses. An iPad focuses on media consumption and a MBA focuses on media creation. Most consumers will be split between the two, with a small group owning both devices. With the next MacOS Lion taking the first steps of blurring the boundaries with iOS, I’m curious to see how far up the MacBook bloodline the iPad “DNA” will go.
All in all, I would recommend the MacBook Air to anyone, and in particular the 13” version. The 13” version is neither much heavier nor less portable than the 11”, however it is far more comfortable to use. One word of caution though, you should carefully think how the MBA, or any Apple product for that matter, fits into your lifestyle. If you already own a number of Apple products (say an iPad and a MacBook Pro), every time Apple introduces a new product to fill in a gap, the usage scenarios will start to overlap more and more. This means Apple products can end up doubling up in use and you could end up paying extra for a feature or function you don’t really need.
Wow! This article has gotten longer than I even expected. I hope you enjoyed my detailed insights on the new MacBook Air and if you have any additional questions, please feel free to leave a comment below?
Brian is the Founder and Design Director at Design Sojourn, a Design Led Innovation Consultancy. He is a multi-award winning design leader, and specialises in strategic design and innovation programs that drive successful organisations. Brian’s 20-year career in design, driven through a deep understanding of human behavior, spans over multiple domains such as consumer electronics, government, healthcare, non-profit agencies, hospitality, F&B, retail, online solutions and best in class service experiences.