The MacBook Air – My Next Mac

I currently use two Macs on a daily basis – a 27″ iMac and a 15″ MacBook Pro. I use the iMac for gaming, graphics, photography, and heavy development work. I use the MacBook Pro for general internet surfing and writing.  My MacBook Pro is almost four years old now, and while it still handles my day to day needs well, it’s time for me to start thinking about its replacement. It’s a 2008 model, one of the first unibody designs, with a 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, 8 GB RAM, a 250 GB hard drive, and a dual NVIDIA GeForce 9400/9600M GPUs. It will be four years old in October, which is pretty much senior citizen status for a piece of technology, but the hardware is still pretty good. It can still run the latest version of the Mac OS (10.8 Mountain Lion, due out this month) and it can surf the web with ease so I think I’ll get another 1-2 years out of it. Its most logical replacement would be another MacBook Pro, maybe even a Retina model but lately I’ve been finding that I want something a bit, well, smaller. The MacBook Air fits the bill.

The Air has been on sale since 2008 and really started to come into its own with Apple’s refreshed 11″ and 13″ models in 2010. The newest models feature Intel’s latest i5 and i7 CPUs, HD 4000 graphics, USB 3.0,  and fast SSD storage while retaining the same 11″ or 13″ screens, 3 lb weight, up to 7 hour battery life, and reasonable pricing. There was a time when my laptop was my only computer and I wanted it to be as powerful as it could be. That meant I wanted the fastest CPU, a large screen, a solid GPU, and a large hard drive. Times have changed. I use the iMac for the hard stuff and just use my laptop for web surfing. I don’t need a blazingly fast system with a huge screen any more. What I want is something that has reasonable performance, reasonable screen area, and light weight: the MacBook Air.

The most significant change for me will be the reduction in size. I’ll go from a 15″ screen to a 13″ screen and cut out almost half the weight along the way. It’s true that I’ll be losing 2″ diagonal in screen size, but the pixel count of the 13″ Air is exactly the same as the 15″ Pro – 1440 x 900. I don’t lose any screen area, I just see pixels that are slightly closer together, which isn’t a bad thing. I do lose a DVD-RW SuperDrive, but I can’t remember the last time I used it. If I need to burn a CD, I can use my iMac. I gain a Thunderbolt port, USB 3.0, and an SD Card reader. I also “lose” Ethernet and FireWire, but only temporarily – there are Thunderbolt adapters available for both of those. I will lose the ExpressCard expansion slot, but the 15″ Pro hasn’t had one since mid-2009. I’ve also never used mine so I won’t miss it.

As for performance, the new Airs are easily twice as fast as my Pro and my guess would be that graphics performance is similar if not better. It doesn’t really matter though since I don’t play games on my laptop anyway. Storage space is a wash. I currently have a 250 GB hard drive and I can get a 256 GB SSD on the Air. It’s certainly nothing near the 750 GB available on the Pro today, but again, I’m not using my laptop for much more than web surfing, light development, and beta testing so 256 GB is enough. The only sticking point left is memory, which maxes out at 8 GB, the same amount I already have today. It’s soldered onto the motherboard at the factory so there is no way to upgrade it later. Eight gigs is all I’ll ever get. It’s enough for now, but it is the only thing that I can see becoming a problem in the future.

A current-generation Air would be a fine replacement for my MacBook Pro today, but I probably won’t need one for another couple of years. By then the Air will be an even better machine for me. My guess is that it I’ll be able to get 16 GB RAM, a 512 MB SSD, and a Retina display for the same price I’d pay today. By then it will be even faster than the MacBook that I have now and will probably be even closer to the full-size models in performance. It will be a no brainer.

For the interim I’ll rely on my trusty MacBook Pro. It runs well and still has a little bit of room to grow. I can replace my hard drive with an SSD which provides an immediate boost in speed because there are no mechanical parts. The computer starts faster, applications load faster, and everything feels more zippy. Prices for SSDs have fallen significantly in the past few years and I can get a 240 GB SSD for $240 from OWC. That’s not bad for the performance gain. I need USB 3 connectivity I can pick up an ExpressCard adapter, though I’m not sure if I’d really need it that badly. My memory is maxed out at 8 GB which should be fine for now. I usually have almost 4 GB free. My biggest bottleneck going forward will probably be graphics. Mountain Lion requires a minimum of a Mid 2007 or newer MacBook Pro which comes dangerously close to making my Pro ineligible in the future. I might survive one more upgrade but I’d be kidding myself if I thought I’d make it to Mac OS 10.10 (or 11.0, whichever they call it). Then again, it won’t be an issue by then because I’ll have the new Air that I’ve been talking about.

In the past few years my mobile computing needs have changed, technology has matured, and Apple’s ultra-light machines have become a very appealing option for me. Set the clock to two years from now and I’ll be writing this on a 13″ Retina MacBook Air.

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