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Contemplating a new MacBook Air

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When the MacBook Air first came out, in early 2008, I thought it was totally cool, but I figured it would be a couple of years before it would work for me as a primary computer.

The latest model, released a couple weeks ago, is almost there, and very tempting.

There are actually two new models, and I figured I could go one of two ways:

  1. The 11.6" low-end model, with no improvements added, as a secondary machine to take a subset of my data along when I go sit in a cafe to write, or when I go to a con, or maybe even whenever I travel.
  2. The 13.3" high-end model with all improvements added—4GB RAM, 256GB of hard-drive-equivalent storage, 2.13GHz processor—to be my primary machine, replacing my MacBook Pro.

The problem with the first option is that I'm a packrat; I don't like not having all my data all the time. This point was driven home while I was in Boston the other week and had occasion to look at email from 1987. If I were using an 11" Air as my travel computer, I wouldn't have had that email with me. That would've been terrible! (I say that sarcastically, but the truth is that I would've been at least a little sad/frustrated/disappointed.) And of course this approach would result in the usual issues of having to keep two systems synchronized, though I think there are good automated ways to do that now.

So I think the 11" option is off the table, nifty as that machine is.

The problems with the second (13") option are:

  • The storage space isn't as big as my current hard drive. I'm currently using 300GB of hard drive space (on a 500GB drive); I could probably delete 50+GB of old applications and installers and such that I don't need, but even so, I would likely be running near the edge of a full disk from the start.
  • That problem's likely to get worse as I take more higher-resolution photos and buy more music and especially as I do more with video—the amount of space I need per unit time is gradually going up.
  • I do use the CD/DVD drive pretty regularly, even while traveling. I watch movies or TV episodes, I rip music (some of which I still buy on CD because it's not available for legitimate download), I occasionally even install software. I could just download movies and TV episodes, but that would mean not watching the DVDs I already own, nor Netflix ones, on my primary computer. I could rip DVDs I already own, but that would take lots more storage space (and possibly a lot of time per DVD). I could (and would) buy the Air's external DVD drive, but that would mean an extra thing to carry around while traveling.
  • My current MBP has 8GB of RAM; going down to 4 probably wouldn't be a big deal, but might make things at least a little slower.
  • I'd also be taking a small step down in processor speed (from 2.53GHz to 2.13GHz), but I suspect I wouldn't notice; I don't tend to do much that really needs all the processor speed I've got.
  • I do sometimes still use Ethernet. (Though not often.) I could carry an Ethernet adapter dongle, but that's yet another thing to carry around.
  • It's not upgradable in various ways. My current hard drive and RAM are third-party upgrades (bigger drive and more RAM than the machine came with); the Air's storage and RAM can't be upgraded beyond the maximum Apple provides. (I'm slightly oversimplifying here.)
  • The 13" Air's advertised battery life is 7 hours. The 13" MBP's advertised battery life is 10 hours. I get about 6-7 hours on my MBP with power-draining stuff turned off or down, so I imagine I'd get less with an Air, which makes cross-country flights tricky. Which really just means I would still have to carry the heavy external battery; but I already do that, just in case, so this isn't a huge disadvantage.

So, a bunch of smallish but fairly significant disadvantages. What would be the advantages?

  • Significantly lighter weight: 2.9 pounds vs my MBP's 4.5 pounds. But the weight of the MBP doesn't really bother me most of the time. It would be nice if it were lighter, but most of the time I don't even notice the weight. (Also, for an interesting though less relevant-to-me comparison, the 13" Air is still twice the weight of an iPad, though not twice the weight of an iPad+keyboard+stand.)
  • Noticeably cooler look. A relevant factor, but not nearly enough to outweigh the disadvantages.
  • A little bit faster in some areas, like wake-up speed and disk access. But (after playing with one of the new Airs in the Apple Store the other day) not as much faster in perceived speed as I would've expected.
  • Slightly higher resolution. My current 13.3" MBP is 1280x800 (113ppi); the new 13.3" Air is 1440x900 (128ppi). Probably not enough difference for me to notice.

So what it comes down to is that the Air still isn't quite what I want, and its advantages aren't things that would make a big difference to me. So, no MacBook Air for me.

But it's pretty tempting.

And I suspect that by two iterations from now (probably one to two years), it will have achieved close enough to feature parity to make it work for me. In fact, given the new slogan “The next generation of MacBooks,” it wouldn't surprise me too much if they were to gradually phase out the MacBook Pro and replace it with the Air.

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