May 22, 2008
David Schloss, Technology Editor

Macbook Air

The Macbook Air from Apple
Upon release, the super-light, super-thin MacBook Air was probably the first computer from Apple that didn’t have me running straight to the Apple store. And as an eager crowd descended upon the Macworld trade show early this year to hear Steve Jobs’ follow up on the company’s revolutionary iPhone, it seemed that I wasn’t the only gear-head to feel let down to learn that the portable laptop was the sole groundbreaking product at the show.

Like most Macworld attendees that day, I simply discounted the computer as an accessory for those who like to be seen in cyber cafes, not a tool you could actually use to work. Various online tech columnists (myself included) crowned it as a great achievement in industrial design, but no one touted the MacBook Air as a serious workhouse—which is exactly why I decided to see just what the pretty little thing could do.

Two years ago, I wrote an article for PDN called “Traveling Light.” For the article, I spent two weeks in Mexico with a camera, a few lenses, Compact Flash cards and a variety of then-popular portable image storage devices that taught me that it was possible for photographer to travel without a computer.

More recently, with an upcoming trip to Europe planned, I decided it was time for a follow up article. I called Apple PR to arrange for a sample MacBook Air (one of the perks of the job) that I could test drive while in Amsterdam and Brugge. This trip convinced me that the MacBook Air is the ultimate travel companion. And while I stick by one of my original assertions that the computer is best suited for a particular type of traveler—a frequent flier who needs a tool to check and compose emails, as well as perform word processing tasks, like myself, I’ve also expanded my assertion to include photographers who need a lightweight computer for photo shoots on location.

To road test the MacBook Air I put together a travel kit that consisted of a Canon 5D, which I believe is the most travel-friendly camera ever made as the body resembles the company’s consumer offerings, yet produces images like their pro models, lenses, Compact Flash cards, the MacBook Air, and a USB-to-Ethernet adapter cable, hub, portable hard drive and the MagSafe airplane travel adapter.

Thanks to the small size and weight of the MacBook Air, I was able to forgo carrying my massive InCase computer backpack (as I normally do with my MacBook Pro) and fit everything inside a relatively small-sized Crumpler messenger bag. This enabled me to easily tote both camera and computer on location without being bogged down by the weight. So I was able to shoot images, then review and edit them on location, or on the train between cities, without breaking my back.

Overall, the MacBook Air was a much better photo editing machine than I thought it would be, but some precise handling was needed. To dig deeper into the pros and cons of the system and the setup, let’s review how it performed from start to finish:

Packing — Getting ready to fly is often an annoying affair. While I use my MacBook Pro for a great number of tasks, I don’t always need to have it with me when I travel. However, I tend to bring it anyway, and so my packing usually involves putting the six-pound computer into a large Incase brand backpack—the most comfortable I’ve found—along with a very small camera like the Canon G9 in order to save weight. I also typically bring a collection of cables—Ethernet, Firewire, USB—an EvDO modem and a FireWire LaCie Rugged drive. I used to bring spare batteries for the MacBook to ensure that I could watch movies on a cross-country flight, but recently I’ve been loading my iPhone with movies and skipping the batteries.

For this trip, I was able to pack the MacBook in a significantly smaller Crumpler bag and was still able to bring a 5D and four lenses. I skipped the FireWire cables (there’s no FireWire on the Air) and the EvDO card (there’s no ExpressCard slot on the Air and there's no EvDO in Europe), and just packed the hard drive and Ethernet cables, along with a USB hub and cables.

Setup — Setting up the Air is a bit odd, as it has no internal optical drive, but I was able to easily access discs mounted in other Macs in my house to install software. It was also a cinch to install most software as 'net downloads, though as many have observed I noticed that the Air is significantly slower in transferring files over WiFi than other machines. This doesn’t seem related to the speed of the internal drive, so I’m hoping that this is something that will change with firmware updates at some point.

While setting up the Air I was really impressed with the glossy screen. I’ve previously been against them, but images and video look better on them. The Air’s keyboard is the best I’ve ever used, period. It’s fast and responsive, making it easy to type. However, one of my few ergonomic complaints about the Air is that its outer edges of the Air are particularly sharp, in much the same way that the edges of the first iPod were. This makes typing for a long time uncomfortable, and even painful if you’re typing on a surface where the keyboard is a raised above normal hand position and there’s pressure on the armrest. (I’ve half-jokingly told my Apple contacts that I was going to find a machine shop to smooth the edge of my Air.)

Flying — Getting through TSA with a small, light laptop is infinitely easier than doing so with a MacBook Pro in the same way that it’s easier to go through security with loafers than it is to try to get through the line with lace-up hiking boots. While waiting for the plane I found myself taking the laptop out, checking email and surfing the Web more often than I would normally simply because it was so easy to do so.

On the plane I was treated to in-seat power and so spent the portion of the flight where used the DC power to keep the Air going. (On succeeding tests without a power source, I easily got more than three hours of battery life with WiFi off.) My Lunesta kicked in before the first episode of The Soup was over so I wasn’t able to evaluate much more than that.

In-Country Performance— Once at our hotel room in Amsterdam, the MacBook Air really came in handy. Years ago I used to relish showing up in a country with no idea how to find good restaurants and attractions, but I’m pretty happy to leave those days of wandering famished around a city behind. With the Air, my wife and I were able to hop right onto the hotel’s wired Internet connection and find restaurants in the area, look up directions to museums and shops, get live weather reports, and more.

The USB to Ethernet cable proved to be a tad of an annoyance, not so much for the need to plug a network Cat 5 into an adapter cable but for the need to take up a USB port just to get on a hardwired net connection. This necessitated the use of a USB hub just to surf the Web and do anything else at the same time. A second USB port would be a tremendous enhancement to the Air, and wouldn’t take up much more room on the existing device. In many cases over the course of the two weeks I found myself connecting a hub just to do two things at once—surf the Web and connect my card reader. Adding a hub to the mix reduces the compactness of the Air’s design because of the pile of cables and devices.

At the onset of this review I had expected the real-world performance of the MacBook Air to be mediocre at best. But for a lot of what I do—writing emails and articles like this one, as well as looking up things on the Web—the Air is naturally perfect. The 1.8Ghz processor is more than fast enough for programs like Microsoft Word.

Photo Tasks — While I didn’t expect much from the Air using more heavy hitting programs like Aperture and Photoshop, it was actually much faster than I thought it would be. Aside from relatively slow transfer speeds (moving images over USB 2.0 to a 4200 RPM drive isn’t as fast as the same process using MacBook Pro with a FireWire 800 reader and 7200 RPM drive), and the fact that it uses the main processor instead of a dedicated graphics card, the unit was really pretty zippy.

When viewing hundreds of images in Aperture the Air kept up with scrolls and screen redraws. In Quick Preview mode, where Aperture only loads the preview to boost browsing speed, there was no discernible difference between the Air and any other Mac. I was able to quickly review, caption and rate my images without waiting for the system to catch up. When I needed to edit images, it took only about five to eight seconds to load the raw data, as opposed to one to three seconds on the MacBook Pro. That’s certainly within the range of tolerance.

Photoshop and my new favorite lightweight editing tool, Pixelmator, ran at decent speeds as well. It was only when files became encumbered with multiple layers that things started to slow down. This brings up my main issue with the Air, the one point that might make it worth holding out for a revision: the system needs more RAM. It’s impossible to upgrade RAM in the Air, one of the tradeoffs for the size and weight, but 2GB isn’t enough for today’s programs.

Sure, the Air can get by doing most tasks, but as soon as any complicated activities are thrown at it, things start to slow down. It’s clearly not an issue of processing power because the system was able to handle each task when I threw it at the Air one at a time. However, when multiple applications were open at once, the Air started to spin the colored beach ball and choke on requests.

Nevertheless, after two weeks of working with the MacBook Air, I ordered one. It won’t be my main photographic tool as the horsepower isn’t quite there for the demands of high-end editing work, but it’s handy to have for simpler tasks, and I predict it's going to become a constant companion on future flights.

Do I wish the system had more RAM? Absolutely.Will I replace the Air the moment a model comes out with model with more memory? Absolutely.

Now, if mine will only hurry up and arrive.

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