Two Weeks with a MacBook Air

My MacBook Air on the desk of the Hyatt Grand Cypress in Orlando

My MacBook Air on the desk of the Hyatt Grand Cypress in Orlando

I’ve been working with my 11-inch MacBook Air for two weeks — time to walk through my initial impressions. First, though, it’s important that I lay out what in technology-land is called my use case — what I need my MacBook Air to do. If you don’t understand my expectations, my conclusions might not make sense to you.

I’ve been looking for a Travel PC since the beginning of the year when I changed jobs and had to give back my Lenovo ThinkPad X61. With a 12-inch screen, a full-sized keyboard, a battery that would last from Chicago to LA, and weighing only 3½ pounds, it was the perfect Travel PC for me. Some might look at those specs and think “What a wimpy machine!”, but that’s why it’s important to know the use case.

My Travel PC is not my primary computer.  My primary rig is a big custom-built Windows 7 box that’s spread across and under the desktop in my home office, complete with a quad-core AMD processor, 2 21-inch monitors, 3 500-GB hard drives, a Blu-Ray DVD burner, and a combo sub-woofer/foot rest.  If I want to do video editing or play with After Effects or have a serious Photoshop session, my desktop is purpose-built for it.

Which allows my Travel PC to be purpose-“spec’d” for what’s important to a frequent traveler — light weight, long battery life, and reasonable processing power (in that order) — and leaving behind what’s not — optical drives, superfast processors and video cards, big hard drives, and large monitors.  For the past 5 months, my Travel PC was an HP netbook, which I compared to my iPad in an earlier blog post.  It worked pretty well, though the 10-inch screen was a bit tight for comfortably working in Outlook, and the Atom processor choked whenever my boss rang through to me on a video call (which is surprisingly often). Looking for the next step up from the netbook, there weren’t many machines that met my Travel PC spec.

And then Apple announced their new MacBook Air.  The specs are perfect.  And it is a very cool looking machine — something my old ThinkPad X61 was definitely not.  But is there enough substance under that brushed aluminum unibody?  The answer is “yes”, provided you’re willing to upgrade off the base package.

The solid state disk drive makes the MacBook Air fast.  Small applications like Cisco’s VPN client instantly appear.  And when you open the lid, the MacBook Air instantly wakes up — much quicker than any PC coming out of Sleep mode.  Such performance reminds us how artificial many of the tech web site benchmarks are. Though many reviews have commented on the Air’s under-powered processor, for most knowledge workers who spend their time in e-mail, Office, and a few web apps like Salesforce.com, memory and disk speed are at least as important as CPU speed.

However, for most corporate users, the 64 GB drive that comes standard with the 11-inch MacBook Air just isn’t big enough — because you’re going to need at least 30 GBs for a Windows image.  Though Apples seem to be popping up everywhere, Microsoft still owns the world. On a Mac, the easiest way to do things like resetting network passwords or editing Microsoft Visio diagrams is to run a virtual Windows 7 session.  I tested Parallels and VMWare’s Fusion virtualization products. After a week of using them both, I didn’t have a clear favorite, so I went with the cheaper one — VMWare’s Fusion.

The other add-on you’ll need is the USB Ethernet adapter.  Contrary to Apple’s view of the world, many companies (especially those in the defense and financial services industries) frown on the use of wireless networks.  Even at my company, I needed to “jack in” to the network to configure my MacBook Air for wireless access.  You probably won’t need the Ethernet adapter often, but when you do…

I’m surprised how much I like the Multi-Touch trackpad.  I’ve always hated the “mushpads” on PCs.  I usually turn them off and use the ThinkPad-like pointer on the keyboard (which I love) or an external mouse.  However, after watching the Help video a couple of times and practicing the different 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-finger trackpad swipes, I’ve grown to like this trackpad enough to leave my wireless mouse at home.

After two weeks of hands-on-the-keyboard experience with my MacBook Air, it is the best Travel PC yet.  It’s over a pound lighter than my ThinkPad X61. The screen, though smaller, is brighter and easier to read.  The battery life takes me to the West Coast with power to spare.  The solid state drive makes it applications snap onto the screen.  It instantly wakes up when I open the lid, making it easy to dash off a quick e-mail before the airplane door closes.  But the feature that cements it as the best Travel PC yet — the TSA says that it can stay in my backpack during security screening.

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