I recently decided to buy a MacBook Air as a travel machine to use during speaking engagments. After much deliberation, I decided to go for the maximum-specification 11-inch model, since portability is the most important factor for me (and I have plenty of desktop Macs around the house as primary machines). I’m thrilled with it, and thought I’d share a few observations and screenshots of various apps running on the Air.
If you’re considering buying an Air, my advice would be this: unless you plan to use it as your main/primary work machine, buy the 11-inch model (indeed, unless you’re doing anything particularly intensive - such as enormous local compilations, audio or video editing, and such - you could certainly use the 11-inch as a primary machine too). If you’re interested, you can see some unboxing photos of the 11-inch Air here.
I went with the 1.6GHz / 4GB RAM/ 128GB SSD spec. Its performance is excellent (and will likely feel noticeably faster than any hard-drive based Mac you own), and the benefits of its size, weight and overall portability can’t be overstated. You can comfortably go with the 11-inch model and not feel you’ve compromised on performance; that’s the reality. Due to the SSD, the other specifications take on somewhat reduced significance in most situations - the machine just feels fast.
I don’t tend to post benchmarks since I don’t believe they’re useful for much beyond raw comparison between hardware in specialised situations; they contribute little to the “feel” of the machine in use. I’d much rather have marginally slower build times and lower framerates as long as app-launching and switching are immediate, type-to-select in the Finder doesn’t lag, and Spotlight is always responsive. Those factors have much more practical use and meaning for me than the numbers. In all of those regards, the Air feels like the fastest machine I own.
Below are a few casual indicative figures for app launch times, achieved consistently.
- Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint 2011 each launch in 1 second.
- Pages, Numbers and Keynote 09 each launch in 1 second.
- Xcode 3.2.5 (a noticeably slow starter in general) launches in just under 2 seconds.
- Adobe Photoshop CS5 Extended launches in just under 3 seconds.
Safari etc launch so quickly as to make it almost impossible to notice whether they were already running. The machine boots in under 16 seconds, and shuts down completely within 2 seconds.
World of Warcraft starts noticeably faster than on my (3.06GHz Core 2 Duo / 4GB) iMac, though of course the framerate is lower. In Stormwind’s Trade District outside, it runs at a reliable 25-35 fps (or up to 70 fps in less populous areas), and is eminently playable.
As mentioned previously, I opted for the 128GB SSD (the maximum size available with the 11-inch model at time of writing). If you’re worried whether that’s going to be enough room for you, here are some useful figures.
With the default as-shipped Mac OS X installation (including iLife preinstalled), there’s 106.82 GB free on disk.
If you then add iWork 09 and the Developer Tools with the iOS SDK, you’ll have 93.67 GB free.
If you then add Microsoft Office 2011 Mac, and Photoshop CS5 Extended, plus a few small assorted apps like Adium, Hibari and BBEdit, you’ll have about 89.25 GB free.
If you then cheekily add a 30 GB World of Warcraft folder, you’ll have about 60 GB free.
I don’t keep photo or music libraries on the Air at time of writing; those will potentially have a large impact on available space. Since the 11-inch Air is presumably intended as a travel machine, I’d advise keeping your essential listening on your iPhone and/or iPad as I do, or on an external USB drive if you really must keep it all with you during a trip for some reason.
The built-in screen runs at 1366 x 768 pixels (the Air will also drive a 27-inch Cinema Display at millions of colours as an external display if you want a second screen, and you can also use Air Display and an iPad for a very attractive and portable dual-screen setup).
The main concern I’ve heard (and had myself before buying) was that the screen wouldn’t be large enough for “real work”, whatever that means. Putting aside the fact that we’ve all used smaller screens on PowerBooks and MacBook Pros in the past and managed just fine, I thought it would be useful to put together a gallery of screenshots taken on the Air, with various productivity and development-focused apps running.
I can recommend a few utilities which are especially useful on the 11-inch Air’s screen.
Spaces. This is built into Mac OS X, and allows creating multiple virtual desktops you can switch between. I have one Space for web browsing and email, one for social media (Twitter, IM, IRC), one for development and debugging, and one for reading, writing and productivity apps. Spaces is a natural fit for the MacBook Air.
Notify. Puts your email accounts in your menubar, and works with Gmail and several other providers (including any generic IMAP account you have). You can read, manage and even reply to mail from its floating window. Very useful if you don’t want to have a full email client running at all times.
Divvy. Allows you to move and resize windows according to an on-screen grid, for easy side-by-side comparisons, neat arrangements of windows and so forth. You can even assign keyboard shortcuts to quickly move/resize windows to your preferred arrangements.
Air Display. As mentioned previously, lets you use an iPad (or iPhone) as an additional screen for your Mac, wirelessly. Ideal for stowing all those Photoshop or Interface Builder palettes. Here’s a photo of my MacBook Air using my iPad as an extra screen.
You’ll probably also want to set your Dock to automatically hide itself, for extra vertical space.
I haven’t felt so thrilled by a new piece of hardware since I bought our first iPad, and the same feeling of experiencing a new class of device is present here too. If you’re tempted by the 11-inch model’s portability but are worried about whether you could get your work done, put your concerns aside - it’s an excellent machine and more than up to the job.
Having owned one for more than a week now, using it every day (including for development work in Xcode) and travelling for most of that time, I can recommend it without hesitation.
Footnote: I can also recommend a very fetching satchel to carry it in, with an iPad too - here’s a photo of how well it fits.
If you enjoyed this article, you may want to follow me (@mattgemmell) on Twitter, where I always announce new articles and projects. You may also want to read my biography, or hire me for your iPad, iPhone or Mac OS X app projects.