As I was finishing recording the Microsoft Certified Master videos last month, my beloved and well-traveled MacBook Pro started giving me fits. It survived three very rough years on the road, encoding HD videos at home, and running multiple simultaneous heavy-load VMs. I was really pleased that it lasted as long as it did, but I have to confess that I’ve had my eyes on a new MacBook Pro for a while.
As much as I love whipping out the plastic at the Apple Store, December 2010 was a really, really bad time to buy a new laptop. Intel’s new Sandy Bridge processors were scheduled for release at CES in January, and that meant an all-new lineup of laptops arriving too. Sandy Bridge CPUs were said to be 10-23% faster while using less electricity – great numbers for a laptop.
I took a deep breath and evaluated my needs:
- One heavy-duty laptop to demo clustering – and I really wanted that to have 16GB of memory, something unavailable in Apple’s 2010 laptop lineup.
- One backup presentation device – ever since my epic 2009 European trip disaster when my laptop failed and I had to use a Swedish-speaking netbook, I always travel with two devices capable of giving presentations. The iPad fulfilled that role.
I was pretty happy with the iPad, but not completely. It has a phenomenal 8-12 hour battery life, keeps me occupied on airplanes with movies & games, and shows PowerPoint slides. Well, that’s not entirely true, because it doesn’t import all PowerPoint features perfectly. Custom fonts, SmartArt, and animations don’t always work, and I hated having to make excuses for imperfections in my slide decks. (Other than the factual errors, which everybody expects from me anyway.)
Suddenly the light went off – what if I bought a new MacBook Air to be my backup presentation device? It could run the real PowerPoint, displaying my slides in all their font-perfect glory. Sure, it would suck as a primary laptop due to its limited CPU power, memory, and storage space, but as a backup presentation device, it made pretty good sense.
Choosing Between the 11″ and 13″ Air (2011 Model)
The 13″ has faster available processors, longer battery life, and an SD card slot, but for me, the decision point boiled down to this:
- 11″ – sexy, but maxes out at 128GB of storage
- 13″ – conventional laptop footprint, 256GB of storage
The drive space is especially important because the Air uses a new format of SSD drive that isn’t available to consumers yet. It’s technically end-user-replaceable, but you just can’t buy a replacement off the shelf yet, so love the one you’re with. For me, that made the 128GB drive a deal-breaker because I wanted to sync my complete home directory with all my client documents, presentations, and music. I didn’t want to hassle with picking a subset of data to sync.
One of the cool things about replacing Apple gear is the Time Machine backup system. You simply boot up your new Mac at home, and it asks if you’d like to transfer data from an existing Time Machine backup. I use an Apple Time Capsule for my backups, and the Air detected it automatically and asked which of my Macs I was replacing with the Air. I picked my old MacBook Pro, and a few hours later, it was just as if my old laptop had been transformed into an Air. OSX backups include all of your applications, settings, documents, you name it.
The problem with replacing your main machine with an Air is that the Air probably doesn’t have enough hard drive space to accommodate your years of junk. Before I did the Time Capsule boogie, I did some strategic drive planning.
How I Store Stuff on the Air
Before the Air, I had a simple strategy – all my stuff went on the laptop’s internal drive except virtual machines. I stored my VMs on an external hard drive. My old MBP had a 750GB internal drive with around 400GB used, and I needed to identify the drive space hogs.
I fired up GrandPerspective, a free tool that scans your hard drive and builds a graph of the big files and directories. It’s easy to move your mouse around over the map and figure out which paths and files are sucking up too much space. I made a few quick passes, deleting stuff I didn’t need anymore, and suddenly my entire drive was down to just about 300GB used. I got excited – what if I could actually use my MacBook Air as my primary machine? Unfortunately, one big thing kept me from squeaking under the 256GB border: my iPhoto library, already over 100GB and growing daily.
After a lot of sighs – really, just 256GB, Apple? – here’s how I decided to carve up my storage:
Internal 256GB SSD drive – my documents, music, and my most commonly used virtual machine. I run one VM with SQL Server 2008 R2 for most of my demos and client work.
USB 1TB drive – my iPhoto library, movies, virtual machines, and downloaded software. The drive has four folders:
- \Backed Up and \Not Backed Up – almost everything goes into subfolders of these. For example, my downloaded Microsoft software goes to \Not Backed Up\Software because I can always re-download it from MSDN, but software I buy online goes into \Backed Up\Software.
- \iMovie Events and \iMovie Projects – I’m futzing with iMovie to produce a HD podcast on the cheap, and that means lots and lots of big video files. I don’t want those on the solid state drive, so I put them on the external, but iMovie won’t allow you to pick a specific FOLDER to store your videos – only a drive. Ideally I’d put these in \Backed Up, but I’m sure Apple knows better about this sort of thing than I do. </sarcasm>
I use the built-in Time Machine software for backups, and by default, Time Machine doesn’t back up external USB drives. It implements that by adding an entry in the exclusions list for the root of each USB drive. I removed the exclusion for my 1TB USB drive, then added an exclusion for its \Not Backed Up folder. That way my \Backed Up and iMovie folders automatically find their way to my Time Capsule. (Yes, the Time Capsule is overpriced, but it matches my computing lifestyle: I’m willing to pay more if things get easier so I can focus on what I love to do.)
My storage design means I can’t use iMovie or iPhoto if I’m on the road without my USB drive. Not a showstopper for me, since I use an Eye-Fi SD card anyway, which automatically uploads my photos to Flickr or Facebook. However, it’s a little annoying when I plug in my iPhone – OS X asks what iPhoto library I’d like to use because my USB drive isn’t plugged in.
Mini-review of the Eye-Fi SD card: As long as I’m mentioning it, everybody should own an Eye-Fi Explore. It’s a $90 SD card with built-in geotagging (marking your photos with physical locations), WiFi, plus hotspot access. Your friends and family at home can follow along with your adventures without you having to drag a computer around to upload stuff. It’ll even selectively upload only the pictures you choose (handled by your camera’s lock-image function – if it’s locked, it gets uploaded). Even if all your pictures are taken at home, you’ll appreciate the Eye-Fi’s automatic uploading of pictures to your desktop computer – my photos automatically go straight into iPhoto as soon as my camera is turned on within wireless range of my Mac. I can configure the Eye-Fi to tweet, post FaceBook messages, or send emails whenever new photos go out, so my friends & family can see what I’ve been up to. Topping things off, the Eye-Fi has an “unlimited memory” setting: when your card hits 80% used, it starts deleting images that have already been uploaded to your computer. Your friends and relatives who hate computers will love this card because it’s automagical. (Your friends who take dirty pictures, however, should think twice.) $90. Just do it.
Now back to the laptop. The Air has an SD card slot, and while 32GB SD cards have gotten pretty cheap, I wouldn’t recommend using those as a full-time storage device. The Air’s SD card slot isn’t full depth – cards stick out of the side – and the klutz in me would break that pretty quickly. I do use a 32GB SD card to back up my primary demo VM because it’s just so darned convenient. I leave the postage-stamp size card in my laptop bag as insurance against demo disasters.
What I Like About the 2011 Air
When I want to work at a cafe, I grab the Air and go. No charger (not that the charger is bulky, either), no cables, and most of the time, I don’t even put the Air into a case. I just walk out the door with it under my arm because the one-piece aluminum body is rock freakin’ solid. The battery life is astounding for such a lightweight device, and the best way I can explain it is to say that I don’t care about battery life anymore. The Air’s battery can outlast my ability to work at a cafe, period. I’ve ordered coffee at 7AM, worked until 1-2PM, and still had battery life left. Anandtech said it best in their Air review:
“The 11-inch Air delivers nearly 7 hours on a single charge and the 13-inch managed 11.2 hours. For a writer, you can’t do better than this.”
As an IT professional, though, we need more than web browsers and Word, and that’s where virtualization comes in. With just 4GB of memory, I can’t do complicated clustering demos on the Air, but for a single virtual machine running SQL Server 2008R2 and my array of utilities, it’s perfectly fine.
What I like the most, though, is the speed. The Air uses an ancient CPU, but the solid state drive and the OS optimizations make it feel blazing fast. Close the lid and it sleeps instantly – then open the lid again, and you’re working within two seconds. Tell it to shut down, and the screen’s dark within three seconds. Coming from my three-year-old MacBook Pro with a spinning hard drive, the Air is an upgrade. Sitting next to Paul Randal’s brand-new $6,000 laptop running Windows, the Air still seems faster at basic tasks – I shake my head while I watch him power down. “I just need another few seconds, it’s almost there…”
What I Meh About the 2011 Air
To get to this tiny form factor, Apple stripped out a couple of features that Apple veterans loved: FireWire and a backlit keyboard. I miss the backlit keyboard when I’m working on dark flights. I miss FireWire every time I do a videoconference because I used to use a real camcorder plugged in via FireWire. The built-in iSight camera isn’t bad, but it doesn’t hold a candle to a real camcorder. (Those of you who think your HD webcam is good should check out the results of even a $250 consumer-level camcorder with FireWire out – the camcorder’s low-light handling is much, much better.)
I thought the lack of integrated 3G wireless would bother me, because that seamless connectivity is one of the things I love about my iPad. It hasn’t been an issue because the Air pairs over Bluetooth with my iPhone whenever I can’t get WiFi coverage. That does deplete battery life quicker on both the phone and the laptop, though, so it’s not ideal.
High definition Flash videos make the fan kick on. Most PC users I know don’t notice this because their computer fan always runs anyway, but on a completely silent Air with a solid state drive, even the slightest noise stands out. This isn’t really a problem with the Air as much as it is a problem with Adobe’s craptastic programming, but it bears mentioning. The Air can still play 1080p videos without stuttering.
Okay, let’s get to the elephant in the room – money. The total purchase price including AppleCare and a few video adapter cables rang up a little over $2,300. That is one hell of a lot of money for a backup presentation device, and it’s the most I’ve ever spent on a laptop. (My prior laptops have all been company machines or gifts.) It’s pretty much the cost I would expect to spend on a very nice primary laptop, which brings me to…
What Surprised Me About the MacBook Air
1. It’s become my only laptop.
With my trusty $320 28″ monitor, my old-school Microsoft Natural Keyboard, and my Magic Mouse, I work on this thing all day long and it rarely crosses my mind that this is an ultralight laptop. Even the new Sandy Bridge laptops haven’t tempted me at all, and I can see using the Air as my only laptop for the next couple of years. Now I just have to figure out portable demos for clustering & virtualization – right now, I’m leaning toward cloud-based solutions.
2. It’s almost replaced my iPad.
I loved my iPad for its light weight, more-than-good-enough speed, and long battery life. It’s such a pleasure to use that I found myself trying to figure out how to make it my primary travel device, but the iOS apps just aren’t there yet. The Air sacrifices some of the iPad’s strengths – it’s a little heavier, and the battery life isn’t quite as good – but adds in all the application goodness of a real laptop.
If you’re considering an iPad with 3G, go take a MacBook Air for a spin. You were probably going to spend $899 on the 64GB iPad, and for just $70 more, you can get the MacBook Air 11″.
Just be careful.
Once you take a sip of the OS X Kool-Aid, you’ll never be the same.