One Month With Apple’s 11.6” MacBook Air: It’s A Keeper

After years of chasing the bleeding edge and paying higher prices, I’m now accustomed to purchasing “fast but not fastest” computers—I went from a Power Mac G5 and Cinema Display to an iMac, from a 15” MacBook Pro down to 13” MacBook (metal) and 13” MacBook Pro models, and then, in two recent, rapid-fire devolutions, to a 13” MacBook Air and an 11.6” MacBook Air. Though these might sound to some readers like downgrades, they make sense given the way I and an increasing number of people are using computers these days: there’s a bigger-than-ever monitor with strong CPU horsepower at my desk, and a smaller-than-ever monitor with less horsepower for the road.

Last month, I explained that I had picked up and returned a top-of-line 13” MacBook Air, realizing that the space savings it represented over a 13” MacBook Pro wasn’t personally justifiable given its considerably higher pricing, diminished screen quality, and weaker overall performance. Yet its replacement, the new 11.6” MacBook Air, has turned out to be one of my favorite Macs ever. It is the machine I wanted to buy years earlier when Apple introduced the notoriously hot 12” PowerBook G4, which I wasn’t about to put on my lap despite its otherwise appealing form factor. In short, the 11.6” Air has turned out to have all of the assets I was looking for in both the 12” PowerBook and the original 13” Air, and after a solid month of relying upon it alternately as a primary and secondary computer, there’s no doubt: it’s a keeper.

One of the biggest question marks I dealt with when making the purchase was whether the performance differences between the 1.6GHz and 2.13GHz Airs would be noticeable. In practice, at least for the things I’ve been doing, the answer has been no. Due in large part to the solid state memory in the Airs, loading applications, huge photographs, and the like is so fast on even the 1.6GHz model that there isn’t time to stare at the screen and wonder why things are taking so long. There are certainly gaps in application performance that could be and have been measured elsewhere, but in real-world use of the machine for day-to-day tasks, they’re just not noticeable to me. Simple Photoshop editing, multi-window web browsing, and streaming videos from wherever—it all just happens without huge lags.

Another question mark was heat, specifically whether the Air would ever become hot enough to the touch that I’d notice or care. Answer: no. Not once in a month has the temperature ever been an issue, no matter what I’ve been doing with it. My guess is that the 1.6GHz processor was picked for the 11.6” model because it was as fast as Apple could go without running the machine hot or rapidly draining its power. Until there’s something even more efficient out there, it strikes me as a very good choice.

There have only been two hiccups in the past month, one major, and the other minor. The major one is battery life. Apple’s most recent performance metrics still don’t capture the reality that the Air will be dead in under three hours if you’re using it to play back video or do anything else that’s reasonably demanding on its processor. By “under three hours,” I’d say 2.5 or 2.75 hours are common under high-stress situations, even with the screen dimmed somewhat. Leave the Air doing nothing but displaying a previously loaded web page and it’ll stay turned on for a really long time—quite possibly in excess of the promised 5 hours, as estimates have suggested 6 or even 8 hours under unrealistic usage conditions. But for the way I use computers, 3 or 4 hours is about what the 11.6” Air will do, and that just doesn’t feel like enough.

The minor hiccup was partially my fault. I made an impulse purchase while on vacation last month, buying the Viva Elvis CD on a whim when I discovered it on the shelves of a Cirque du Soleil store. Before the transaction was even complete, I realized that I had no way to rip the CD into iTunes in the absence of an optical drive on the Air—the first time I’d ever had a problem like that with a laptop. Since I can count the total number of times I’ve used any optical drive over the past year by using my fingers and toes, this really isn’t an issue for me; I’ve similarly found the Air’s USB ports abundantly capable of handling my I/O needs when connecting an external hard drive. The absence of FireWire, Ethernet, and the like just haven’t mattered to me. Ditto on the bigger speakers of the 13” machines and all the extra space around their keyboards. Given how well the 11.6” Air’s full-sized keyboard works, and how adequate the speakers are under most circumstances, they feel like no loss at all.

One mixed surprise has been the new MagSafe power connector, which I was originally excited to be using—the side-mounted cable on the now metal connector looked like a better design than the centrally-mounted cable on the prior plastic one. In practice, however, the cable doesn’t feel quite right in either direction it can point, obscuring a USB port or hanging straight off the Air’s back, albeit only modestly in both cases. As nice as the new connector looks, the prior style worked better for my needs.

Where the Air really has proved to be awesome is in size. My wife typically inherits my prior-generation computers when I’m ready to move on to new models, and has said that she isn’t quite sure that she’d want to switch from the 13” Pro she’s using to the 11.6” Air because of the smaller screen. But all it takes is having to lift her now hulking computer off of a table for a few seconds, coupled with the simultaneous realization that my machine does virtually everything as well as hers in a smaller package, to confirm that the new Air’s a better fit for my needs. I can stack an iPad on top of it in a bag and still have more room inside than I did with the 13” Pro; the load on my back when carrying it is noticeably lower. Opening up the screen yields a display with more pixels than the Pro, though not, as noted before, as many colors. Under most circumstances, this doesn’t matter.

It sort of did when we were traveling for two weeks and I relied upon the Air as my primary computer. I was never certain whether the pictures I was sending out looked as good on other monitors as they were looking on the Air. When I returned home, I found that they did—they actually looked better. Unfortunately, using the Air doesn’t allow for the sort of accurate color correction I’d really like to be able to do on the road. Apple will eventually get around to fixing this on the Air, but I suspect that its desire to shave off further microns from the next-generation model’s thickness may impede its ability to improve upon the components that could stand to be better in the future.

So is the current-generation 11.6” MacBook Air the best MacBook ever? From where I stand, no. I’ve had Macs that were so close to perfect straight out of the box that it would be hard to imagine something being much better at that point in time. This new model does so much right that I wouldn’t give it up, but also leaves enough room for improvement that I’ll be anxiously awaiting its successor or successors. What I can say with certainty is that it would be virtually impossible for me to consider going back to a 13” machine at this point. Apple picked the right screen size, keyboard, and other components to make this little MacBook feel just right—battery, CPU, and screen tweaks would make it just that much better. And I’m loving NLU’s BodyGuardz for it, too, which have made it feel a lot less delicate despite its tiny frame. If Apple sold the equivalent glossy body protection for the same $50 price—or better yet just used iPod nano 5G-style gloss finish—a lot of people would be very happy to pay a little premium to keep their machines safe.

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