Carrying case for the MacBook Air
My Air in its carrying case

I bought a MacBook Air. You know, that small puny computer that's been called a toy. The one that's overpriced. The one that fits in a manila envelope. Ha ha. I'm not going to review the product, but instead I wanted to explain why I ended up getting one. I wouldn't have gotten one if my MacBook hadn't deteriorated (due to my abuse), but since it was time to buy a computer, I spent a month evaluating how I use the computer, and ended up choosing the Air.

I've always been someone who enjoys the biggest, fastest, most powerful computer he can get. Until a few years ago, that's what I got. Back when people used CRTs, I got a 21" Sony that could display 2048x1536. I love high resolution (and still do) and love big screens (still do). Dual core? 64 bit? Lots of RAM? Love it! However…

Four years ago at work, I was assigned to a project in which I had to work in several different offices. They gave me a laptop for this. Eww. Tiny keyboard, slow processor, tiny screen, only 1400x1050 resolution. At the time Linux wasn't suitable for laptops so I got Windows on a Thinkpad. When I was in my main office I used my Linux workstation with a nice 20" LCD running at 1600x1200. But when I was away from there, I used the laptop with Cygwin + ssh + X to run things on my desktop, but display them on the laptop. It was less productive than having the big screen and full keyboard, but it was more productive than having nothing.

Then I discovered something. Portability is nice. Really nice. Really, really nice. I wasn't just working on that laptop in a few offices. I could work on the couch with the laptop in my lap. I could take it to meetings and show people the UI design on a projector. I could take it home and work from home. I could sit outside (if the lighting was right). The ability to move around was worth a lot to me. I found that although at my desk, the laptop is less productive than my desktop machine, the ability to move around (for example, find a quiet space away from distractions) made me more productive overall.

About two years ago I realized that even when I was back at my desk, I was still using my laptop. I almost never used the desktop machine directly. I did use it all the time for running programs. The laptop was a “dumb terminal” (X11 plus browser) for my desktop machine, and I could take it anywhere.

Once I realized how nice portability was, I decided to get a laptop at home. I wasn't thrilled with the idea of getting Windows, especially given that they'd be transitioning everyone from XP (which was reasonable) to Vista (which I'd heard horror stories about). So I decided to switch to Mac. I would've never switched when they had Mac OS 9 on PowerPC chips, but once they had a Unix base and on Intel chips, it became a reasonable option for me. I got a MacBook Pro. I've been reasonably happy with it.

Just as I transitioned from desktop to laptop at work, I found that I use the laptop for everything at home. Everything except games. For games I want Windows XP, a full sized trackball, a full sized keyboard, a big screen, a fast CPU, a fast graphics card, and nice speakers. I got none of this on the laptop. But for browsing, email, programming, editing, photos, music, and just about everything else, the laptop is great. So I now have a gaming desktop machine for games (and photos — I love Picasa on Windows and find iPhoto on Mac to be unpleasant) and a laptop for everything else.

At this point, a faster laptop wouldn't be any better, because I already have all the speed I need. I want: more battery life, lower weight, a screen that can be used outdoors, and higher reliability. Unfortunately none of the laptops I looked at were great. I'm sticking with Mac for now, but unfortunately the lightweight Mac laptops don't have great battery life (my Thinkpad got 7 hours, and newer ones can get 11). The Air does have a lower weight than my current laptop. With the flash drive I'm hoping for higher reliability, especially since I move around a lot when using the computer, and a majority of my crashes have been while moving the machine around. I generally prefer matte screens to glossy, but I've talked to several people who use glossy and say that it's much nicer than it initially seems. 64 GB is slightly small (100 GB is more than I need), but after going through my data and removing all the waste (like Apple's Mail app keeping two copies of all my emails, and the iPod sync program keeping a second, bloated copy of all of my photos), I think it'll be fine.

The Air seems like a reasonable upgrade for me, not for the usual things people want (CPU, graphics, RAM, disk, etc.), but for the things that matter to me (weight, size, reliability, portability). The standard complaints about the Air don't bother me: slow (it's as fast as my computer was two years ago, and somehow that didn't seem slow to me), battery isn't swappable (In 4 years I've never taken the battery out of my laptops), it's expensive (it does seem a little high, but that's always how it goes with early adopters, so if you're price sensitive, wait a few years), no DVD player or ethernet or firewire (I already don't use these).

My priorities have changed over the years. I used to want big: high speed, big storage, big screen, big computer, big keyboard, big mouse, high pixel count. Now I want small: low power consumption, low weight, easy to move around, ability to use anywhere. I can put the big stuff on servers; all I really want to carry around is a terminal — I can access my data remotely. The Air seems to be a good step in that direction.

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6 comments:

Rick C wrote at Tuesday, March 11, 2008 at 5:30:00 PM PDT

Couple of things--Vista, ignoring the issues of all the UI changes--is NOT horrible to use on a new machine with hardware that will have good driver support. I've been using it for almost a two years (since sometime shortly after Beta 1) on Dell XPS laptop with a Pentium M and a GeForce Go 6800 Ultra.

Also, as for battery changes--sure, there's plenty of reasons not to swap 'em out. Then again, if you buy a power hog like the system I mentioned above, which has under 3 hours of life even on a big battery, it can make sense to have more than one, and to swap 'em out. I generally like to do that anyway every month or two to make sure they both work.

M.B. McClendon wrote at Wednesday, March 19, 2008 at 6:27:00 PM PDT

Hi Amit,
Are you the Amit who graduated from Meadowdale high school in 1988? I'm hunting down classmates to let them know about our 20 year high school reunion. I hope it's you! If so, drop me an email.

Thanks!
Michele

Amit wrote at Wednesday, March 19, 2008 at 7:02:00 PM PDT

Sorry — there are thousands of Amit Patels out there, and I'm not the one you're looking for.

Anonymous wrote at Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 2:01:00 PM PDT

Happened upon your blog post here. I've been stuck in the same sort of position so it's interesting to hear your take. While I haven't yet gone to Mac, and I really do want to, what holds me back from buying a macbook are the battery life and weight. The 2.8-3lb thinkpad x31 I have is awesome, but it's dated now. The 5lb macbook looks like a great machine, but I hesitate to buy one because of the weight. The macbook air looks like the right weight, but it's too expensive for having worse battery life.

I guess I'll have to wait. :)

Amit wrote at Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 6:30:00 PM PDT

So far I'm getting 3–5 hour battery life (with wifi on, brightness turned up but not always maximum). However, misbehaving web pages can eat up battery life quickly — more quickly than on the MacBook Pro. So I use MenuMeters to keep an eye on the usage, and if something's using a lot of CPU, then I investigate. I wish browsers would tell you which tab was using up the resources (RAM, CPU, network).

Anonymous wrote at Friday, June 11, 2010 at 3:51:00 PM PDT

I had a macbook pro and changed to a mac book air ssd, never looked back, ideal laptop for next to tv and offhand things.