From MacBook Pro to MacBook Air

When I bought a new 13" MacBook Pro last year (2.66GHz, 8GB, 512GB SSD) I was pretty sure I wouldn’t want to buy a new computer again for a while. It had plenty of speed, way more than enough RAM, and a generous amount of very fast storage. It was also nice and small, had a great looking display, and even an SD card slot.

Then Apple announced the new MacBook Air. I realized that although my MacBook Pro had everything I needed, they could still tempt me by taking out the things I didn’t need. I couldn’t believe they fit a computer pretty close to my Pro into something so small. With a high res display no less. My mouse pointer hovered over the “Buy” button for a long while, until I finally just gave in.

Honestly, if you secretly stuffed this 13" MacBook Air (2.16GHz, 4GB, 256GB SSD) inside my MacBook Pro I’d probably just be wondering where my disk space went. I have it hooked up to a 27" LED Cinema Display and it seems to run all the usual stuff I throw at it just fine. Light Photoshop work is no problem. (I don’t do a lot of heavy Photoshop work these days.) Building Delivery Status touch seems just as quick. Even VMWare Fusion with Windows XP boots up as fast as ever, without slowing down OS X. Gaming performance seems pretty similar too—I’ve tried Half-Life 2, Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2, and Tales of Monkey Island. I can run games at 1920x1200 with medium settings and get what I consider acceptable performance. (More demanding games like Left 4 Dead 2 do have occasional hiccups when a lot is going on.)

My only real complaint is the fan—it does kick into high gear a little more often than I’d like. The worst is if I’m gaming. Fire up any of Valve’s games and the fan revs up immediately. I’ve also had the fan kick in random other times, usually if I’m doing a lot at once, but rarely for very long. While working in Xcode, the only time I hear the fan is if I have something else heavy working in the background—like an initial Time Machine backup. HD Flash video can get the fan up to an audible level sometimes, but things stay silent with 1080p H.264. Obviously this isn’t a major issue, but it is an occasional annoyance. With my Pro, once Flash had GPU acceleration, I pretty much never heard the fans kick in. On the plus side, even after gaming for a while it never seems too hot. The top edge above the keyboard gets very warm, but it’s not uncomfortable in my lap at all. Also, closing the lid cuts down on the fan noise significantly. Of course it does heat up a bit faster that way, but not significantly so.

It’s tough to compare battery life without doing a lot of thorough tests, but informally it seems pretty close to my 13" Pro (which gets excellent battery life) though not quite as good. Based on what I’ve read elsewhere, it gets a little more life than the Pro doing light tasks, but a fair bit less doing heavier work. Makes sense. I mainly do lighter stuff when I’m working unplugged so that’s fine with me.

One little thing I love: not hearing that optical drive making noise when I boot it up.

Connections and Accessories

Since the various ports are on two sides now, I was worried it’d be a pain to stretch out the cord on my Cinema Display to plug everything in. Fortunately, it’s totally fine (with both the 24" and the 27"). You do lose a little cord length when you stretch the DisplayPort connection around to the right. There is a pro to these cons: having a USB port on the right has come in handy several times.

I previously had a Rain Design mStand to lift my computer off the desk. It works with the Air, but not very well. If the lid was closed and I wanted to open it, I had to lift the whole thing up first—there’s not enough room to just grab the latch. Also, since the bottom of this machine is so light, I had to hold down the base to open it the last quarter of the way, or it kicks up. Since I rarely use my laptop’s display when I’m at my desk, I’m now using Twelve South’s BookArc for MacBook Air, and I’ve been very happy with it.

Early on I had some major Bluetooth issues—the pointer kept jumping around wildly—when I had the Air’s lid closed. Switching my Magic Mouse off and on seemed to fix it, and I haven’t had any problems for months now. With at least one of my previous MacBook Pros I had occasional problems where mouse movement over Bluetooth would get jerky if there was a lot of Wi-Fi activity and I had the lid closed. I’ve never run into this problem with the new Air.

I’ve had some issues with the USB-to-Ethernet adapter, which I mainly picked up just to transfer my files from my old computer. I think the problems are software related. One time a restart got it working immediately, another time I had to delete the connection from the Network preferences and re-add it. Aside from that, ethernet worked pretty well with Migration Assistant. I had about 220GB of data which transferred in around 6 hours. I miss FireWire, but honestly I’ve only used it once or twice a year lately, so I’m doing okay without it. Thunderbolt looks like an excellent alternative once it comes to the Air, especially since it includes Target Disk Mode support (which the Air doesn’t have at all right now).

I was very happy to find out that with a compatible DisplayPort to HDMI adapter, it does include audio without requiring a separate connection.

The power supply is actually smaller than the one that comes with the latest 13" MacBook Pro, which was a nice surprise. (They’ve also slimmed down the plug on the extension cord this year—both the Pro and the Air have a smaller plug than previous models.)

Since there’s no disc drive, Apple included a USB stick with OS X and iLife on it, in case you ever need to restore. It is crazy small. Like… about the size of a stick of Dentyne gum. I wish it came with a case or something because I’m worried I’ll lose it if I just toss it in my bag.

Design and Display

This is a beautiful computer. My only minor design complaint is the frame around the display. When you have them open side by side, the Pro looks much classier. Looking closer at them I understand why it’s like this: the black frame seems to be painted on the back side of the glass, and the Air doesn’t have glass over the display. So they’d have to paint the aluminum (no thanks), use a different material like black plastic (no thanks), or maybe use a black anodized aluminum like they’ve used for some of the iPods (which might look nice). Still, it’s a great looking computer regardless.

The screen itself is very nice. Compared to the 13" Pro, the resolution is the main difference. Photos look really great on it thanks to the extra pixels—edges are crisp instead of pixelated, and you can see more detail at once. It’s nice to have that extra work space, though sometimes text can be a bit too small—command-plus is definitely getting more action than it ever has before. The screen is glossy, but significantly less glossy than the glass on the Pro, so that’s a bonus. Viewing angles seem about the same to me. I do prefer the color on my Pro—bright colors in particular are just richer, more vibrant—but that’s the only advantage, and I prefer the Air’s display overall.

It really feels great to use, sitting on a desk. The low front edge especially, and the slight angle of the keyboard… so nice. It’s also nicer to use on the couch or elsewhere—I don’t end up with a sharp edge poking my wrists like I often did with Apple’s other recent laptops. Going back to the Pro after getting used to this really makes it feel like a hulking beast. I really don’t think I could do it.

The trackpad click is a little higher pitched than my Pro. The clunk of the Pro is a bit more satisfying, but it’s very minor. That’s basically the only difference I’ve noticed with the trackpad—it feels identical.

The feel of the keyboard is no different than Apple’s other recent keyboards, which is great. Unlike the Pro, it’s not backlit. The biggest downside there is that the F-keys have changed a bit, to make room for the new power button, which is now part of the keyboard. That means I’ve had to re-learn where the media keys are, and adjust when I go from my desktop keyboard to the Air’s own keyboard. It can be a little annoying in the dark. I sometimes turn the volume up when I mean to turn it down. I do actually like that the power button is no longer where it used to be, because I’d often press it accidentally if I picked up my Pro while it was open.

One downside I hadn’t even thought about until someone else mentioned it: there’s no external battery charge indicator. Like the backlit keyboard, it’s not vital, but it is super useful when you need it. Then again, with the ridiculous 30 day sleep time, the times I need it are pretty rare.

The SSD

My previous computer had an SSD, so for me this wasn’t much of a change. The flash storage in the Air performs about the same as the SSD that came installed in my Pro. It’s very fast. If you’re used to a hard drive, especially a 5400 RPM drive like Apple usually installs in their laptops, you’ll be amazed by how fast things open.

With both computers completely off, booting up is actually a little faster on my MacBook Pro. Since the Pro has a faster processor and double the RAM, that’s not too surprising. They’re both very fast, and the Pro is only a couple of seconds faster. Waking from sleep is a bit faster with the Air. Waking from hibernation is where the Air is really impressive. If it’s been asleep for a long time, or the battery runs out completely, it will go into hibernation mode. The Pro takes several seconds to wake up from this. With the Air it’s nearly instant, about as fast as waking from sleep. (Unless it decides to shut down completely, which has happened a few times. That problem isn’t unique to the Air though.)

Software

Of course the software is basically the same as previous Macs, but starting with the Air, Flash is no longer installed on new Macs. It was weird to boot up a new Mac and see YouTube not working. The HTML5 beta works fine without Flash, though you do still get a message about upgrading Flash (it’s easy to dismiss). Of course you can install Flash on your own, and I haven’t had any performance issues with it. Well, no more than usual. I use ClickToFlash in Safari, so Flash only loads when I want it to.

On a side note, using Migration Assistant after the initial setup is complete is a horrible experience. I wanted to try out my new computer right away, so I created a user and started playing around. Later I opened up Migration Assistant and tried to move all my stuff over. I couldn’t replace the account I was using, and I didn’t want to change my username. Okay, no big deal—I created a new dummy account and ran Migration Assistant from there. I told it to replace the account on the Air with the one from my Pro. It did that… sort of. Various settings weren’t copied at all. As far as I can tell it kept any files (including preferences) that were already in the account, instead of replacing them like I told it to. (Which is especially odd since it also moved those files to a folder for deleted accounts.) It also refused to copy one file because it was too big, something I’ve never run into before. So, I highly recommend just transferring your stuff after you first boot the computer, when it asks.

The Biggest Problem

The one major issue I’ve had with my MacBook Air is kernel panics. I’ve had Apple look at it, and the hardware seems to be fine. Eventually Apple released a software update to fix the problem, and it does happen less now, but it still happens once a month or so. I believe it’s a known software issue, and I think it will get resolved eventually, but it’s disappointing that it’s taking so long. It seems to mainly come up when I’m pushing the computer fairly hard, with a lot of apps working at once. So that may be something to consider if you do a lot of demanding work.

The Bottom Line

I was unsure at first, but after using the Air for a couple of weeks I retired my MacBook Pro. I’ve had it for around seven months now and I don’t regret it at all. I think a top of the line 13" MacBook Air is an excellent choice for anyone that needs a decent amount of power, and doesn’t mind paying a bit extra for a beautifully designed, highly portable machine. I absolutely love it.

Posted June 05th, 2011 by Mike Piontek
Link to this entry: http://mikepiontek.com/go/8637

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