Should You Get a MacBook Air?

For the past several months, I’ve been debating putting my 2006 15” MacBook Pro out to pasture. After the October 20 Apple Event, the deal was sealed. I ordered a new 13” MacBook Air. I opted for one with “the works” — 256GB flash storage, 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo processor, and 4GB SDRAM. How has it worked out so far? What insights and recommendations might I be able to offer even at this early juncture? To get to the answers, I graciously agreed to interview myself. What follows is a transcript:

Let’s start with the bottom line. Are you happy with the new MacBook Air?

Delighted. Spectacularly so. The MacBook Air is all that I expected it to be — and more.

My old MacBook Pro (MBP) had been a reliable workhorse. But I can’t say I ever enjoyed using it. In fact, if I had any other choice — my Mac Pro, my iPad — I would use these alternatives instead. The MBP was reserved only for when I travelled and absolutely needed to lug its 6 pounds around. And with each passing year, the MBP seemed to gain an extra pound — which became a major factor in my decision to replace it.

My new MacBook Air, on the other hand, is a joy to use. I find myself thinking up reasons to lift its lid and perform some task. I’m sure this is partly my enthusiasm with a new toy — it’s only a week old — but it is just as much due to the Air’s sleek design, snappy performance and feather light weight. It’s hard to appreciate the difference 3 pounds can be — until you lift the Air with one hand and my old Mac Pro with the other.


Aside from its light weight, what most impressed you about the Air?

The Solid State Drive (SSD; flash).

More than anything else, the flash drive is what provides the Air with the “snappy” feel I was just talking about. You may read complaints that the Air is hindered with an older and slower Core 2 Duo processor (especially as compared to the Intel Core i5 and i7 processors inside the 15” and 17” MacBook Pros). It’s true that, with standard benchmark tests, the MacBook Air lags behind these Pros. On the other hand, the new Airs (especially the 13” model) compare very favorably to the 13” MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops (both of which similarly still use a Core 2 Duo processor). The new Air clearly outperforms the older 2009 MacBook Air models.

But processor speed is only half the story. In the most common situations, the SSD more than makes up for whatever the processor may lack. The flash drive completely eliminates slowdowns resulting from a drive spin-up. Read-write speeds on the flash drive are almost instantaneous.

The new Air no longer offers a choice between a hard drive or a flash drive. The flash drive is mandatory. As such, Apple could design the new Air to take maximum advantage of the SSD. The result? When you wake the drive, it’s typically ready for action within a second or less. A cold boot goes from bong to ready for action in an amazingly brief 12 seconds. And with the Air’s standby mode, “the state of the computer is saved to the flash storage drive,” allowing it to last as long as a month without you needing to recharge or restart the machine.

Without the battery-drain of a near-constant spinning hard drive (as well as no optical drive), the Air’s battery lasts a good deal longer than it otherwise would. Finally, with its no-moving-parts flash drive, the Air runs in complete silence (except for the occasional sound of the fan)!

SSD is definitely the future direction of all Mac laptops.

There are processor-intensive tasks where the Air’s slower processor will take its toll. If this is critical, the Air is not for you. But many users (and count me in this group!) will gladly pay the toll in exchange for the benefits that the Air offers.

True, you don’t need an Air to get a Mac with an SSD. You could purchase a MacBook Pro with the flash drive option. However, the Pro would be significantly more expensive than a comparable MacBook Air and — as I’ve already discussed — not as optimized to take advantage of the drive.

The 2009 MacBook Air came with an SSD. What made you wait for the new Air before trading up?

To some extent, it was a matter of timing. It was only in the last few months that I decided to “dump” my old MBP. With the rumors of a new Air coming soon, I decided to wait for its arrival. I was hoping that the new model would overcome at least some of the weaknesses of the 2009 Air. I made a wise decision. The specs of the new Air best those of the 2009 model in almost every respect.

Why did you opt for the 13” model instead of the 11” Air?

For me, this was a “no-brainer” decision. I viewed the Air as a replacement for my 15” MacBook Pro. As such, the 13” Air was already smaller than what I was replacing. I didn’t want to go any smaller. Actually, with its improved resolution, the 13” display offers about the same screen real estate as my 15” MBP (although the trade-off is that everything is a bit smaller, which can sometimes be a problem for my aging eyes).

I also preferred the shape of the display on the 13” model. It has a moderately rectangular height-to-width ratio typical of computer displays. In contrast, the 11” model has a “16x9 wide-screen” shape that cuts off vertical space too severely for me.

Finally, I appreciated the bump-ups in the specs for the 13” model. The larger Air offers a faster processor, more SSD storage, more shared L2 cache and a faster frontside bus. The 11” model also comes out on the shorter end via the omission of an SD card slot, smaller function keys and a smaller trackpad.

I know there are others who take a different view. Jason Snell, writing in Macworld, laments that the 13-inch Air “looks like a hog in comparison to the 11-inch model.” For him, the smaller size of the 11” model is precisely why he prefers it. It’s more portable and more sexy. It’s Apple’s (albeit pricey) answer for people who want a Mac netbook — a computer primarily for surfing the Web, checking email and such. If that’s you, I can understand your preference for the 11” Air. But that’s not me. I have an iPad for that.

It’s interesting to note how times have changed. There was a time when the most desired laptops seemed to be the ones with the largest screens. Now the situation has flipped. A 11” MacBook generates the most lust — despite the compromises that its small size entails.

Regardless of which size you buy, I’d recommend spending the bucks to upgrade to 4GB of RAM. You can’t add RAM later, so it’s an irreversible decision at the time of purchase. In my experience, Macs have always performed much better with 4GB over 2GB of RAM. I am assuming this will hold up for the Air as well.

I’d also give serious consideration to getting the external MacBook Air SuperDrive. While you won’t need the drive often (and I am glad Apple stripped an optical drive out of the Air), it’s great to have the drive around for when you do need it (such as to install software or transfer music from a disc). There are viable alternatives (such as Remote Disk) but the external drive is the simplest and fastest solution. Still, I don’t plan to take the drive with me when I travel.

If you were forced to choose between a MacBook Air or an iPad, which one would win?

First off, the iPad is not intended to exist independently of a Mac. You need both. For starters, you’ll need a Mac to sync and back up the iPad’s content. In theory, you could bypass a Mac by storing your data in the cloud — such as in MobileMe — but this isn’t really a practical solution yet. Most people will also want a Mac for access to software — such as Microsoft Office or Photoshop Elements — that goes beyond what you can install on an iPad. For software that exists on both platforms, such as the iWork suite, the Mac versions still offer significantly more features. And even after iOS 4.2’s AirPrint comes out, most people will still need a Mac for printing.

In contrast, a MacBook Air could be your only computer (and numerous bloggers are already describing their success in doing so). As a bonus, for those times when even a 13” screen is not big enough, you can set up the Air to work with a Cinema Display; you can’t do this with an iPad.

However, because of the Air’s limitations (256GB maximum storage, no FireWire nor FireWire Target Disk Mode, no built-in Gigabit Ethernet, no built-in optical drive, etc.), I suspect most people won’t want it to be their solo device. MacBook Airs work better as secondary to another main Mac.

So…assuming that I was in the market for a “secondary” computer to a desktop Mac, which one would I prefer: an iPad or an Air?

I’d go with the iPad overall (despite my frequent laments about the restrictions of a “curated” iOS). Whenever I want to do a Google search, check the weather, read the latest news, scan my Twitter feed or almost any other casual task — it’s always the iPad that I grab. The best of the iPad’s apps (such as the New York Times, NPR, Flipboard, and so forth) are almost always a more pleasant and more convenient interface for accessing the Internet than any web browser on a Mac. Ditto if I want to play a game or watch a movie: the iPad remains my preferred choice. The iPad is also the cheaper alternative and offers the option of built-in 3G access (for when you don’t have a Wi-Fi network in range). Of course, this assumes that it’s not essential to have a Mac with me when I travel and that, for times when my computing needs exceed what the iPad can handle, I can shift to my Mac.

There is one critical caveat: If I expected to frequently use the device to do significant typing (such as writing this article or any other keyboard-intensive task), I’d go with the Air. Hands down. For extensive typing, the iPad is simply not up to the task — even if combined with an optional Bluetooth keyboard.

Let’s ignore the iPad for now. What about deciding between a MacBook Air vs. a 13” MacBook? Both go for a base price of $999. Which one would you recommend?

This comes back to the same issues we’ve already discussed. Any standard MacBook makes a better solo device than a MacBook Air. Even the 13” white MacBook is a more capable full-featured computer.

For my primary computer, unless the Air’s lighter weight was an overriding factor, I’d go with the 13” MacBook. Still, there’s a “cool” factor associated with the Air that is hard to resist. I’d be tempted to give the Air a try in any case — and hope for the best.

As a secondary computer to a desktop Mac, I’d go with the Air for sure — which is what I did.

You have the luxury of owning both a MacBook Air and an iPad. Which one will you take on your next trip?

If my trip is primarily a vacation, I’d take the iPad and leave the Air at home. Of the two, the iPad is lighter, smaller, and more portable. Plus, for casual use, iOS offers an overall superior interface — with apps that the Mac can’t match. On a vacation, the iPad is definitely the way to go.

If my trip is primarily for work (such as going to Macworld Expo), I’d take the MacBook Air. If I expect to do extensive typing or absolutely need access to Mac-only software, whatever the nature of the trip — I would again take the MacBook Air.

For anything in between these extremes, and especially if I planned to stay mostly at one destination, I’d opt to have my cake and eat it too: I’d take both. After all, the combined weight of a MacBook Air and an iPad is still almost 2 pounds less than my old MacBook Pro. This is probably what I will do most often. 

I have seen the MacBook Air, especially the 11” model, described as an “iPad Pro” — the solution for those who have tried to get by with just an iPad but found it insufficient. There is merit to this argument. But it’s not yet a perfect fit. Perhaps down the road a bit, it will be. I can imagine a future where iPad apps, slightly modified, run on a MacBook Air (as well as other Macs). I can even imagine a future MacBook Air where you can turn the display around, close the lid, and run it in a touchscreen iPad mode. That would be a true iPad Pro.

At the other end of the spectrum, I see the existing “non-pro” iPad evolving to the point that it becomes a more viable solo workhorse — capable of standing on its own with no need to ever say hello to a Mac.

In the meantime, today’s MacBook Air and iPad are both already great computers. Right now, I’m especially enthused about the new Air. It’s the first laptop I’ve owned where I find myself preferring to work with it even though my desktop Mac is standing nearby. That’s about as high a compliment as I can give to a laptop.