Macbook Air Review

• ~1,000 words • 4 minute read

I've decided to jump into the probable future of laptop computing with both feet by making my new 13" Macbook Air my primary machine for web development. You can read the specs on Apple's website, but I picked up the fully-loaded model from Apple's refurbished section. The tricked-out specs:

  • 4GB Ram
  • 256GB SSD
  • 2.13ghz Core 2 Duo CPU
Macbook Air

Two weeks in, I'm extremely pleased with my purchase. To be fair, compared to the machine I had been using (A crusty, 2007 Macbook with a failing keyboard, only kept alive and usable via multiple after-market upgrades), anything would have felt like a major upgrade at this point. However, there are a number of reasons this particular machine feels ideal for my workflow:

SSDs are as amazing as you think they are

Everything feels borderline instantaneous. Applications and files open in a snap. When I close the lid at the end of the workday or to take a break it's ready to go, exactly where I left it, the second I open the lid. In short, the number of times and amount of time I'm sitting there waiting for my computer to respond to something has been virtually eliminated. You may have heard that drive speed is the real bottleneck for most home systems in this day-and-age of duo and quad-core processors, but you don't fully appreciate it until you see it in action.

Processing speed isn't the most important thing

I had two major trepidations in making this plunge. First, the RAM isn't serviceable, meaning I'm stuck with 4GB until I buy a new machine (Good enough for what I do, though a part of me really wanted 8GB). I could get past that once I realized the machine I had upgraded to 4GB last year was actually only using 3GB... The second trepidation was the processor speed. On paper, the 2.13ghz Core 2 Duo just doesn't look nearly as sexy as the i5 and i7 Macbook Pros and iMacs. I read all the articles comparing benchmark speeds, video encodings tests and Photoshop tests, all use-cases I'm not sure are particularly useful to anyone except those who like to run benchmarking software. Even when you're not sure how a larger number translates into real world performance, you can't help but be swayed by seeing scores that differ by the thousands, though thousands of what exactly I'm not sure.

However, like I mentioned above, processing speed isn't really the bottleneck in this day and age. At least, not for the majority of my day-to-day doings. The only time I have noticed the fan kicking in, a good indicator of when additional horsepower might speed a job along, have been when I'm compiling the tools and extensions I need to run various web technologies. Specifically, NodeJS, Perl, Python, MongoDB, some PECL installations, ImageMagick and a host of similar tools I pretty much online use in the command line would have likely compiled and installed more quickly on a machine with a faster processor.

But you know how many times I have to typically install these things? Once. You know how many times I'm doing much less CPU-intensive stuff that benefits immensely from having an SSD? Hundreds. A day. The tradeoff is really a no brainer, but I had to talk myself out of the psychological aspect of buying a CPU that was not as cutting-edge as the rest of the machine.

Two pounds is two pounds

I'm an avid cyclist and like working remotely. Having a machine that only weighs two pounds is a godsend. I hardly notice it's there; I almost never have to make that "Should I bring the computer?" decision. If I'm bringing my bag, it might as well be in there because I can hardly notice. This has slowly become my favorite feature!

CDs are 21st-century floppy disks

You know how many times I used a CD or DVD this past year? About three. Right now still have the old machine around and it's been effectively relegated to DVD player status. Still debating if I want to get teh Smart Drive. Probably will eventually. I've never tried Remote CD.

It's in the details

Little details worth mentioning:

  • It's dead quiet.
  • The screen may only be 13.3", but the increased resolution is really noticeable and stunning. It's like looking at an iPhone 4 Retina display compared to the original.
  • Battery life is fantastic, though it depends on what you're doing. Watching streaming video for an hour will drain the battery much faster than doing my usual work stuff.
  • It bears repeating: it's two pounds!
  • My workflow is very cloud-based, between Dropbox and Amazon Web Services mostly. This might be a big part of why I'm not concerned with storage space or CPU power. Storing stuff in the cloud is dead simple, but for computationally intensive tasks, I can fire up an Amazon EC2 instance with more horsepower and let it do its thing in the background without slowing me down a hitch. This solution may not work for everyone, but it works beautifully for me.

Hope this has been helpful to anyone else considering using a Macbook Air as his or her primary development machine. I seriously went back and forth between a MacBook Pro and iMac for a while, but had to seriously consider the MacBook Air once I decided my next machine should have an SSD. After-market SSD upgrades on those other machines still seemed a little too expensive right now and after reading about how the SSD in the MacBook Air is tightly integrated with the firmware, along with the sleek, ultra-mobile form-factor, I decided it was an experiment worth trying... So far so good!

Feel free to ask me questions in the comments and I'll try my best to respond.