MacBook Air, six months on

Anyone out there who is still wavering about getting a MacBook Air might be interested in some comments from a delighted owner who has now had one for six months (this updates my “after one month” post from last August). Everyone else can, of course, just cheerfully ignore this again!

As background, I make heavy academic use of a computer (particularly using LaTeX, and reading a lot of papers, even books, onscreen, as well of course as the usual surfing, emailing etc.) but don’t really use one as a media centre except for light iPhoto use, and occasionally ripping CDs into iTunes for transfer to an iPod.

  1. The portability is fantastic. No question. Just to compare: I’ve had in the past a 15″ Titanium PowerBook, a 15″ G4 PowerBook, and a 17″ MacBook Pro before; and they’ve of course been portable in the sense I could heave them from home to my office and back. But all of them were honestly just too heavy/bulky to make that particularly convenient. I very rarely bothered to take them elsewhere, e.g. to a coffee shop, or even a library. (You might well ask why on earth, in that case, I had portables at all! Answer: Partly because our Cambridge house is very small, my “study” is the size of a large cupboard, and I very much like to be able to work on the kitchen table for a change of scene, or answer emails with a computer on my knees in the living room in the evening. So I certainly want “local” portability. And partly I need to be able to drive data projectors when lecturing.) Anyway, by contrast with the earlier portables, I can and do cheerfully tote the MBA (in its snug protective sleeve) anywhere, without really thinking about it, whether or not I’m definitely planning to use it. It just is so light and convenient. Much lighter than the new aluminium 13″ regular MacBook which I’ve tried out in the Apple Store too. Yet the MBA always feels remarkably sturdy. There’s not a sign really of six months of constant use.
  2. Some early reviews complained about the MBA’s footprint, saying that it isn’t a genuine ultraportable. People still complain about that. Well, true, I can imagine e.g. it wouldn’t be that easy to use in the cramped conditions of an airline seat. But that sort of issue just doesn’t arise for me. It’s not the footprint but the lightness and thinness which means that you can carry it so very comfortably in one hand, and of course the larger-than-ultra footprint goes with the stunningly good, uncramped, screen and the generous keyboard. In my kind of usage now, I’ve never found the footprint an issue.
  3. I rarely use the MBA to do anything very processor-intensive for a prolonged period of time, and it normally remains cool — though the fans can sometimes kick in a bit enthusiastically e.g. when backing up. And the battery life seems just fine: well over three hours for writing, text-browsing, reading. Recharging though is pretty slow: but if you need to take it with you, then the MBA’s charger is very small and portable (though I’ve bought a second one for my office in the faculty, and so don’t find in practice I need to carry it around).
  4. One main reason I traded up a couple of years ago from the 15″ G4 machine was that LaTeX ran pretty slowly: nearly 30 seconds to typeset my Gödel book on the G4, about 4 seconds on the new intel MacBook Pro. The MBA, despite its slower chip, seems almost as fast running LaTeX , and indeed in most other ways: occasionally, e.g. when opening an application, the MBA is noticeably slower — but it has never been a particularly irritating issue. So this is plenty fast enough.
  5. And the reason, when I traded up the previous time, I chose the 17″ MBP model was to have enough “real estate” to have a TeXShop editing window and the PDF output window side-by-side and comfortably readable. Obviously, I’m now looking at 1280 x 800 pixels, rather than 1680 x 1050 (so that’s just 58% as much). But I’ve surprised myself by getting very used to working with overlapping windows again, and the screen quality is really terrific. The best I’ve ever had by far. Of course it is nicer e.g. for extended on-screen reading to plug in an external monitor as well. But not any sort of necessity — and indeed I seem these days pretty often not to bother even if I’m sitting next to the external monitor.
  6. What about the paucity of ports, mentioned critically by all the reviewers, or the absence of an onboard CD drive? Really not an issue. I’ve a couple of times wished there were two USB ports, I bought a little one-to-two-port splitter, for very occasional home use, but in fact even when I don’t have it with me, I’ve never been seriously annoyed. Of course, if I had one of the new version MBA’s I’d be tempted with one of the new displays that also acts as a USB hub: but that would be an indulgence. I’ve latterly bought an external CD/DVD drive built for the MBA, for when I occasionally need one. (The one caveat concerns day one, long before I got the external drive. Since there is no firewire port, you can’t migrate files from your old computer to your new MBA using the usual firewire connection. And using a wireless connection to migrate is both painfully slow and seems flaky. Is that a problem? I didn’t find really it so. I installed new versions of necessary additional software, like the LaTeX installation, over the web, and then copied my documents folder and other bits and pieces from a SuperDuper! clone of the old hard disk on an external drive. Quick to do, and resulting in a clean and tidy MBA.)
  7. So that’s all very, very positive. Are there any negatives? The flat keyboard is surprisingly nice to use (much better than I imagined it would be). But, unlike the almost silent similarly flat new iMac keyboards, I find the MBA version to does seem a bit noisier (and a bit more so than the MBP keyboard). But that’s a very marginal disappointment.
  8. I thought, when I bought the MBA a month ago, I’d be using it very much as a second machine, carrying on using the 17″ MPB (with external monitor) as a main, quasi-desktop, set-up. In fact I find I now almost never use the MPB.
  9. So, assuming a three year life cycle (and it seems very well built so should last longer with a battery refresh after a while), the MBA after education discount costs much less than half a pint of beer a day. Put like that, how can you resist?
  10. And then, of course, there is the “Wow!”-factor …
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One Response to MacBook Air, six months on

  1. Aldo Antonelli says:

    Peter — I am the proud owner of an MBA as well and absolutely love it. The only drawback is that one USB port. Once you plug a mouse in it (and you do need a mouse to navigate the different windows and workspaces), there is nowhere to put a flash drive. Yes, of course the solution is a bluetooth mouse, but I have not gotten around to that yet.

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