Guts and Glory: A Review of the MacBook Air

The first computer I ever owned was a laptop. It was a Dell Inspiron that I bought after high school to take to college. It lasted a few years until my roommate bought a PowerBook G4, and that was the end of my career as a PC guy. Since that Dell, I’ve owned three more laptops: a 12-inch PowerBook G4, a 15-inch aluminum MacBook Pro, and now this 13-inch MacBook Air.

There was a brief stint where I also owned a Quad-Core Mac Pro. Doing print design on the PowerBook was no longer cutting it, and I needed a better work machine. But, when I purchased the 15-inch MacBook Pro to act as my “secondary computer” I realized that the Mac Pro was overkill and I had no need to own two professional-grade machines.

That Mac Pro was a fine computer. If you were in the next room over when the Mac Pro was turned on you could hear the fans kick in. My father-in-law used to say that if you put wings on it, it would fly. And there was something safe about owning a computer that was easily and indefinitely updatable. More RAM? No problem. More storage? No problem. New graphics card? No sweat.

As great it was, the Mac Pro is most likely the first and last desktop computer I will ever own. At least I went out with style.

Laptops have far too great of a personal value to me. Having a desktop as my only machine would be like a prison sentence. Even while I owned the Mac Pro I had a laptop as a secondary computer so I could still work and be connected away from my desk. My office is not my office, my laptop is. And because of that I have the freedom of being able to work from anywhere.

For instance, my wife’s brother recently got married in Colorado. Since both Anna’s and my family all live in the Denver area, I chose to stay in Colorado for an extra week after the wedding was over. I still worked for 8 – 10 hours each day, but thanks to the fact that all my work is contained on a laptop, I had no trouble being 600 miles from my office. I didn’t miss a beat, and I got to spend the mornings and evenings with my family.

It was from Colorado that I wrote and published my Lion review, and it was in Colorado that I bought this very MacBook Air.

In October 2010 when the MacBook Airs got their first major revision, I couldn’t justify the upgrade from my early 2008 MacBook Pro. The Air was almost the laptop I had been waiting for.

Since I had already put an SSD in my MacBook Pro, the specs between my current laptop at the time and the new Core 2 Duo Airs were nearly identical. Since my MacBook Pro was still hanging in there, I decided to wait until the next major refresh or until my current laptop died — whichever came first.

I use my laptop all day, every day. It is primarily a machine for writing, emailing, and Web browsing. I don’t do nearly as much heavy Photoshopping as I once did. The Adobe app I use the most nowadays is InDesign, and it’s relatively light on the CPU.

That 2010 refresh of the MacBook Air, as substantial as it was, was more like a warning shot — a signal to say that this is the future of the Apple laptop.

The Air is the not-so-secret forerunner laptop among Apple’s lineup. When it was introduced in 2008 it was the first Apple laptop to ditch the optical drive, it was the first to incorporate the then-new black, plastic keyboard, it was the first to offer the larger trackpad, the first to offer SSD drives as a build-to-order option, and it was the first unibody laptop.

In the 2010 refresh, the MacBook Air was the first to offer only flash storage. And now, with its powerful and battery-friendly mobile i5 and i7 processors, the Air is an extremely capable laptop. It is no longer a niche device appealing only to those who live on the bleeding edge.

But what makes the Air so appealing? The fact that it comes with just the bare necessities.

Packaging

As the years go on, Apple includes less and less stuff with our computers.

The MacBook Air box is closer in size to an iPad box than to my old PowerBook box. In fact, I can fit my MacBook Air box inside my old PowerBook box. When I bought my 12-inch PowerBook in 2005 it came in a box that was almost 8 inches tall. In addition to the laptop and power cable, the box had a few CD-ROM discs, a display adapter, a telephone cable, some stickers, and a decent-sized manual.

When I bought my MacBook Pro in 2008 the case was noticeably smaller, and it came with fewer items: the power cable, the recover discs, a small manual, an Apple remote, and a very nice screen-cleaning cloth.

The MacBook Air comes with hardly anything: a power cord, instructions, and stickers. No remote, no adapters, no USB boot drive, and not even a screen cleaning cloth. Is this Apple’s way of cutting costs or saving us from junk drawers overflowing with white cords and unused adapters? Perhaps both.

Form Factor

The MacBook Air is, without a doubt, the most attractive laptop Apple makes. It’s sleek, silent, sturdy, and surprisingly lightweight.

The Air is most attractive when the lid is closed. Every time I pick it up I am still slightly stunned by how light and sturdy it is to hold. At just under 3 pounds the Air weighs close to half that of my previous laptops. And by nature of the unibody design, the Air’s lid closes flush against its body. The lids on those aluminum PowerBooks and MacBook Pros never sat flush against the body when closed, which meant that when holding the laptop with one hand the lid would tap and bend against the body a little bit.

When opening the lid and waking the laptop, there is no optical drive to read and no HDD to spin up. You don’t know if it’s actually going to wake up until the display turns on, which is within seconds.

And with no “breathing” light to wait for when you close the lid, you never know when it has gone to sleep. Which means, that for all intents and purposes, you don’t think about the MacBook Air going to sleep. You are either using it or not. Like the iPad.

On laptops with spinning platter drives, that breathing light is very important. I would never move my laptop until I was confident it was sleeping and thus the HDD had spun down. When I first bought my MacBook Pro, it would sometimes take as much as 45 seconds to sleep because it was writing all the contents of RAM to disk. There are Terminal commands to turn safe sleep off and allow the MBP to sleep in about 10 seconds instead of 45.

But with the MacBook Air, you just shut the lid and put it in your bag. Because there is no spinning hard drive there is nothing to worry about when moving the laptop around.

This is my first unibody Mac, which means that some of the MacBook Air’s features, though they’ve been around for a few years now, are new to me. Such as: the large glass trackpad, the magnetically locking lid, the black chicklet keyboard, the glossy display, and the headphone jack that works with and responds to the iPhone’s earbud controls.

Screen

Pixel junkies have a hard time giving up screen real estate, and the thought of downgrading from a 15- to a 13-inch screen can be enough to keep one up at night. In fact, one reason I didn’t buy a Core 2 Duo MacBook Air last October was in hopes that a 15-inch MacBook Air was just around the corner.

If you’ve read many other reviews about the 13-inch MacBook Air and its 1440×900 resolution, you’ll likely know that the transition from a 15-inch laptop to this 13-inch Air is virtually painless. Moreover, content on the 15-inch MacBook Pro now looks comically large. I’m looking at the same graphics and the same icons, but they look bloated and fuzzy.

All in all, the high-res screen on the MacBook Air is fantastic. Text is crisper and images are sharper. Though it has taken some time to get used to everything being a wee-bit tinier due to higher pixel density.

I have always been a die-hard matte fan. The only thing I do not like about the Air’s screen is that it is glossy. Fortunately it is not the same glossy found on the MacBook Pros, iMacs, and Cinema Displays. In those screens there’s a giant slab of glass over the whole bezel. On the Air there is only a thin slice of glass that sits under the bezel. It is more glossy than the beloved matte displays of old, but it is not as glossy as the newfangled machines.

Fortunately, there is still a matte display at my disposal. When at my desk I put the Air in clamshell mode and plug it into my 23-inch Aluminum Cinema Display. The Cinema Display has an even lower pixel density than the 15-inch MacBook Pro but it does not have the same “comically large” feel that the MacBook Pro does. Since I sit farther away from the monitor and since the screen is quite a bit larger, the Cinema Display still looks fine. Though I am sure that a higher pixel density would look even better.

Here’s a look at the screens I am now using, compared to past screens I’ve owned and compared to some of the latest devices Apple is selling today.

Device Width (px) Height (px) PPI
23-inch Aluminum Cinema Display 1920 1200 98
12-inch PowerBook G4 1024 768 107
27-inch Cinema Display (Mid 2011) 2560 1440 109
15-inch MacBook Pro (2011) 1440 900 110
15-inch MacBook Pro (Early 2008) 1 1440 900 112
13-inch MacBook Pro 1280 800 113
13-inch MacBook Air 1440 900 128
iPad 768 1024 132
17-inch MacBook Pro (2011) 1920 1200 133
11-inch MacBook Air 1366 768 135
iPhone 4 640 960 330

One more minor point about the screen is that the lid hinge opens wider than my 15-inch MacBook Pro did. Though it still doesn’t open quite as wide as my old PowerBook did, the Air’s obtusity is more than welcome in this regard.

Full-Screen Mode and the Full-Screen Conundrum

The smaller the screen the more delightful a full-screen app becomes.

Only a few full-screen apps looked good on my 15-inch MacBook Pro: writing apps (such as Byword and iA Writer) and Safari.

On the MacBook Air almost all the apps that support full-screen mode look good. Right now not many of the apps I use support full-screen mode in Lion, but the ones that do look great. Byword and Safari of course, also Mail and iCal (well, all things considered, iCal looks good in full-screen). And Reeder? Well, Reeder looks amazing in full-screen mode.

Thanks to the MacBook Air, full-screen mode is growing on me in a way that it never did when I tried to use it on my MacBook Pro. Perhaps what I like the most about apps in full-screen mode is the non-cluttered and organized tidiness that seems to come with full-screen mode apps. Each app is in its place, and when I’m using that app no other windows are floating behind it pestering me or getting in my way.

Something clever about Safari when in full-screen mode is that the title of the page you’re on appears in the Address Bar just after the URL. And if the URL is so long that it takes up the whole address bar, you get an ellipsis at the end with enough room to still display the title.

Safari’s title display in full-screen mode:

Safari's address bar when in full-screen mode

Safari’s title display in non-full-screen mode:

Safari's Title Bar when not in full-screen mode

However, there are a few quibbles I still have. For one, the transition between screens is extremely slow. But it’s only slow when you are switching between screens — switching between apps causes a faster screen-slide transition. Meaning, if you use the four-finger gesture to switch from one full-screen app to the other, the speed at which the screens slide over is slower than if you use Command-Tab to switch between the full-screen apps. I would love for that faster switch to be the default speed.

Secondly is the issue of when I plug the Air into the 23-inch Cinema Display. You can have too much of a good thing, and full-screen apps on the Cinema Display are certainly too much. And so, when I switch to clamshell mode I have to exit all those apps out of full-screen. A system utility that recognized this would be much appreciated.

Trackpad

The larger, glass trackpad of the Air is much nicer than the trackpad I’ve been accustomed to on my older MacBook Pro. Especially when it comes to multi-touch gestures. However, due to the larger size of the trackpad and the smaller chassis of the Air, trackpad is under the inside of my palms when typing and it often throws me off. The Air is smart enough not to respond to mouse movements when typing but there’s still a natural desire to avoid touching the trackpad while typing.

Clicking with your thumb while two fingers are on the trackpad does not always register the “right-click”. You have to click right towards the bottom of the trackpad. Though it works on the Magic Trackpad, and it’s what I got used to for right-click on my MacBook Pro (the kind that still had the actual trackpad button). Moreover, there is no option in System Preferences to enable 3-finger click.

USB and Thunderbolt Ports

My external HDDs are all FireWire — my primary backup drive uses FW800 and the secondary is FW400. I will now have to connect them via USB until I upgrade to either a Thunderbolt-equipped external drive or a Thunderbolt hub. It would be great to get the functionality of the new cinema displays without the cinema display. A Thunderbolt hub with FW800, FW400, USB, and additional Thunderbolt ports would be fantastic.

My 23-inch aluminum Apple Cinema Display works fine with the MacBook Air via a Mini-Display Port to DVI adaptor plugged into the Thunderbolt port. And, worth noting is that the Thunderbolt port in the Air is one-half the power and capacity of a standard Thunderbolt connection.

Keyboard

Since the Air has no optical drive, what would be the eject key on any of Apple’s other keyboards is instead the power button.

Moreover, the F4 key on the Air now brings up Launchpad instead of Dashboard. All of Apple’s new keyboards do this. It’s unfortunate for someone like me who never uses Launchpad, but does use the Dashboard dozens of times a day. There is a workaround, however, using a handy utility called Function Flip.

As you know, the top row of an Apple keyboard has the default hardware control buttons and the row of function buttons. What Function Flip does is swap the default action of those keys. And so when pressing the Launchpad/F4 button, I can use Function Flip to have it default to react to the F4 command rather than the Launchpad command.

With Function Flip installed I go into System Preferences → Keyboard → Keyboard Shortcuts → Mission Control and set “Show Dashboard” to be F4. Now I have my Dashboard hotkey back, and if I want to activate Launchpad then I can hit fn+F4.

Proper Baggage

The Air is the first laptop I’ve ever owned where I feel that putting it in a case is unfair — I’d rather carry it around caseless like I do my iPhone 4. But it still needs a good carrying case because a laptop and its carrying case go together like a suit and tie.

I am big-bag-averse — I much prefer smaller, rugged bags that don’t look like they belong on a space mission. I never did find a bag that fit my MacBook Pro that was just right. But, for the Air, I already have an old, rugged Timbuk2 bag that is full of character and happens to be exactly the right size for the new laptop.

In the Timbuk2 bag I use a sleeve for the MacBook Air: Acme Made Skinny Sleeve. If I didn’t already have the Timbuk2 bag then I would likely get the Acme Made Clutch bag or the Bomber Jacket Messenger bag from Levenger.

Guts and Glory

My history with computers is that I use them for about 3 – 4 years. Therefore, I wanted to get the most specced-out MacBook Air available. And I did. I picked up the dual-core i7 MacBook Air with 256 GB of SSD storage and 4 GB of RAM. If the Air had wings, it would fly.

Processors

Ordering the i7 seemed like an easy decision at first. For only $100 I could get a newer generation processor with a faster clock speed and more L3 cache. For the 13-inch model, going from the 1.7 i5 chip to the 1.8 i7 chip does not offer a huge jump in performance. In fact, it’s likely that in day-to-day use I wouldn’t even notice the difference. But, since I plan to have this computer for a few years, I wanted to future-proof it a bit by going with the i7 rather than the i5.

The i7 turned out to have a bit of drama attached. But now that the dust has settled, it’s clear that the i7 build-to-order option was the right choice.

When the new Airs were first announced, Apple listed the i7 as being build-to-order only. When buying a new computer, it’s always harder to order it online and wait for it to be built and shipped than to simply drive to the Apple store and buy one that day. However, I was in Colorado at the time and I knew that I wanted the i7 model. So I ordered online, expecting it to arrive back in Kansas City by the time I flew home. However, once I relieved my email confirmation from Apple, the shipping time had already changed from 24 hours into 5 – 7 business days.

The longer the wait, the harder it is to be noble and deny the temptation for instant gratification. So I called the local Apple Store to see if they had any of the new Airs in stock, but, alas, they did not.

The next day, at 7:15 am Mountain Time I got a message from a friend on the East Coast. He was just leaving his local Apple Store with a new i7 MacBook Air in hand. I was shocked that the i7 Airs were available in-store. I decided to do some research about the differences between the i5 and i7 processors — were the speed bumps really worth the extra cost and (in my current case) the extra wait.

I had a very hard time finding accurate reports and information about the latest, mobile Sandy Bridge processors. And therefore, my initial research was way off. At first, it appeared that the i5 chips did not have Hyper Threading enabled and that the i7 chips did. If this were true it would make the i7 chips far superior to the i5.

However, as it turned out, the i5 chip does have Hyper Threading enabled. Making the speed bump to the i7 nice, but negligible. I decided to cancel my online order, drive to the local Apple Store and buy the best MacBook Air they had. If, like my friend on the East Coast, I was lucky enough to get an i7, then great. If not, then I’d be content with the i5.

Fortunately, they had the i7 MacBook Airs in stock and I happily picked one up.

My personal MacBook Air has a Geekbench score of 6281. This is about double the average Geekbench scores of the previous-generation MacBook Airs. The i5 Air scores around 5900.

According to Macworld’s lab tests, upgrading to the i7 chip in the 13-inch Air (which comes with a 1.7 GHz i5 chip) is a negligible gain. Upgrading to the i7 in the 11-inch Air is much more noticeable because the 11-inch Air comes with a 1.6 GHz i5 chip.

Now that I had the i7, next came the concerns of battery life. Sure I had a faster MacBook Air, but just how much is my battery suffering for it?

Battery Life

In my real-world, this-is-how-Shawn-uses-his-laptop tests, the battery easily lasts 5.5 hours. This is with brightness at 80%, a select few utility applications running in the Menu bar (Dropbox, Text Expander, Fantastical, Droplr), and doing work with Safari, MarsEdit, Mail, Yojimbo, Twitter, and iTunes.

No doubt I could get 6 or more hours out of the battery with the brightness turned down. The worst I’ve gotten out of the battery so far has been 4.5 hours. During that time I had Rdio streaming music the whole time, except for a 70 minute stint where I recorded an episode of The B&B Podcast and powered my USB microphone.

When the battery gets down to the red (less than 10%) I still get 45 minutes worth of use. And what else is so impressive about the battery is how quickly it recharges. Just 30 or 40 minutes plugged in and the battery will charge back up and I’ll easily get another 3 – 4 hours.

In short, having a battery that lasts for so long inspires a lot of confidence in your machine. The guaranteed 5 hours of use isn’t mind-blowing, but it isn’t poor by any means either. When you’ve got a portable office, you want to grab it and go.

Moreover, recent tests by Anand Tech show that the battery life of the i5 compared to the i7 was nearly identical. Though the i7 draws more power, it works faster and therefore gets approximately the same battery life as an i5 MacBook Air. However, This Is My Next was able to get just under 7 hours of battery life on an i5 MacBook Air.

Solid State Drive

My MacBook Air cold boots in under 20 seconds. Faster than any other device in the house.

Speedy launch times like these are becoming more and more common, but most of us have been around computers long enough to remember when you would start your computer and then go down to make coffee. Just because a 20 second boot-up is less rare doesn’t make it any less delightful.

In addition to the speed, having a drive with no moving parts can be a relief when you’re using a laptop. No need to wait for the drive to spin down before you toss it in your bag because, other than the fans, everything in the MacBook Air is stationary.

Not every SSD has been manufactured equally. Some of the MacBook Air drives are made my Samsung and some are made by Toshiba. The Samsung drives are slightly faster than the Toshiba drives.

According to Disk Speed Test, the Samsung drive in my MacBook Air has a write speed of 248 MB/s and a reed speed of 265 MB/s.
Compare that to the Toshiba which, according to Engadget’s review of their Air with a Toshiba SSD, has a write speed of 184 MB/s and a read speed of 202 MB/s.

They say the speed difference between the faster Samsung drive and the slower Toshiba drive is not even noticeable. However, as a nerd, that’s not the point. Buying something new that’s even the slightest bit slower than another available option makes you want to shake your fist in the air and shout, “Arrg!”

Fortunately, the 256 GB SSD that came with my MacBook Air is made by Samsung, which means that I have the fastest MacBook Air I could possibly own. And that feels good because I plan to use this machine for several years.

Even if I had gotten a Toshiba SSD, it still would have been faster than the OWC Mercury Extreme Pro that I put into my MacBook Pro less than a year ago. Using Disk Speed Test, my OWC reports a write speed of 109 MB/s and a read speed of 134 MB/s — or, about half the speed of the Samsung SSD that’s in the MacBook Air.

Remote Disc

One of my favorite “features” of the Air is its lack of an optical drive. Too many times have I opened the lid to my MacBook Pro and been forced to listen to that horrendous wailing cry of the optical drive as it checked for physical media.

Moreover, I cannot remember the last time I used the Super Drive on my MacBook Pro. All the music I buy is digital; all the music I listen to is on my iPod or iPhone; all my software is downloaded (now, even my OS); and all my movies I get from Netflix or iTunes.

The only time I need to put a physical disc into my computer is to reinstall Adobe Creative Suite, or if I am sending a large file to print and I have to burn it onto a DVD. You can buy a USB-powered external Super Drive from Apple, or you can use another computer’s optical drive and connect to it remotely. The latter is aptly named Remote Disc.

Setting up Remote Disc is a piece of cake (I used it to install Adobe CS3 onto my Air).

  • On the Mac that has the optical drive, go to System Preferences → Sharing, and turn on “DVD or CD Sharing”.
  • On the MacBook Air, go to Remote Disc, which is found in the sidebar of the Finder window, and you’ll see the computer that has the optical drive shared.
  • Choose “Ask to Use” and a dialog box will appear asking if you want to give permission for the MacBook Air to access the CD drive.
  • Say yes, and then in the MacBook Air’s Finder, you’ll see what’s in the optical drive as if it were on the Air itself.

The downside to Remote Disk is that it slower than if the optical drive were internal. It took 40 minutes to install the 2.4 GB of Adobe Creative Suite software (Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop) over Remote Disk. An install speed of about 1.02 MB/s

An alternative to Remote Disk is to create a Disc Image (.dmg) of the physical media and install it that way. This is also a great way to digitally store your physical media and finally toss out those boxes of CD-ROMs.

If you want to take your software that still exists on physical media and turn it into digital disk image files, the process is quite simple. With the disc in the optical drive, go into Disk Utility, select the CD or DVD that is in the optical drive, choose “New Image”, and then save the .dmg file to your computer.

Starting Fresh

When installing a new operating system or setting up a new computer I love to start from scratch. Or, as I said earlier this month, it’s when I do my most serious tinkering.

Starting fresh is a perfect way to re-evaluate what I want to keep on an app-by-app basis. It also assures me that any cruft which slowly accumulated on the previous system is left in the dust.

Nothing makes you appreciate building out your clean install more than the Mac App Store. Once I had unboxed my MacBook Air and done the initial admin setup, I logged into the Mac App Store and downloaded half a dozen apps right off the bat (Byword, Twitter, Take Five, and a few others). There are more in the Mac App Store available for download, but I wanted to wait until I needed or wanted them before I downloaded them.

While the Mac App Store apps were downloading I downloaded and installed Dropbox to get it syncing.

Then I installed LaunchBar and Keyboard Maestro because without them I can barely navigate my Mac. Once these two apps were installed I replaced their Application Support files with those from my MacBook Pro, instantly re-enstating my LaunchBar preferences and Keyboard Maestro macros.

While everything was downloading, I took a lunch break. When I returned, and Dropbox had fully synced up, I then installed the rest of my necessary apps:

For Yojimbo and MarsEdit I manually imported the Application Support folders, just like I had with LaunchBar and Keyboard Maestro. OmniFocus and 1Password both sync with the cloud so I just logged in and let them do their thing. For Transmit and Coda I simply exported their keychains from the my previous system and installed it onto the Air.

The only other files I needed to manually move over were my music, all my fonts, and a few document folders. Previously I’d been storing my iTunes library on an external drive because my MacBook Pro’s 120 GB SSD wasn’t big enough to hold my music and movies. Since the Air has a 256 GB SSD, I was able to bring my music back to the local drive.

All in all, it took me a whole work day to buy the computer and get it set up and ready to use. I’ve since installed a few more apps, such as iWork and Adobe CS3. And the grand total ads up to 68 applications currently installed and 86 GB total in use.

Nothing beats a new machine running clean.

The New 12-inch PowerBook

After using the 13-inch MacBook Air for almost two weeks, it has been difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about this laptop that makes it so great. I don’t think it’s so much in what the Air is, but rather what it is not — or rather, what it doesn’t have. The Air doesn’t have an optical drive, it doesn’t have many ports, it doesn’t have a removable battery, and it doesn’t have much weight.

It’s the subtraction of all these things that adds up to make the Air such an attractive and incredible computer.

Everyone I know who has owned a 12-inch PowerBook G4 looks back with fondness about that being the best Mac they have ever owned. It was a perfect blend of power and portability, and it invoked an affinity from its owners that few Macs in history have.

A few years from now, I believe we’ll look back and say the 12-inch PowerBook was the best laptop we ever owned until our MacBook Airs. The MacBook Air is the new 12-inch PowerBook — the new blend of power and portability that also invokes a fondness that few Macs in the lineup can.


  1. Lest you think my math is wrong: the aluminum 15-inch MacBook Pro has a viewable area of 15.2 inches, the unibody has a viewable area of 15.4 inches. Since they both have the same number of pixels it means the pixel density of the older model is just slightly higher than that of the newer model.
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