Time for a MacBook Air

macbookair-cto-hero-xl-2013Almost exactly a year ago I posted that my next laptop would be a MacBook Air because I no longer need a cutting-edge portable machine. I have a desktop with a big screen that I can use for photo editing, gaming, and development if I need to. I said that I was ready to trade bulk and performance for lightness and battery life. In addition, the Mac that I’d be upgrading from was four years old and an Air would be much faster anyway. I said that I’d wait a while because my current machine still had some life in it. Since then I’ve upgraded my 2008 MacBook Pro to an SSD which has provided it with a bit more kick. I’m also running OS 10.9 Mavericks beta on it and I’ve seen a huge improvement in one of my other issues with my current machine: battery life. I’m getting about 3 hours now and that is enough to satisfy the needs that I have. I deliberately stayed away from purchasing a MacBook Air earlier this year because I knew that updates were coming soon. Apple tends to update the Air in the summer and Intel just happened to have a new CPU family coming up called Haswell that was supposed to increase graphics performance and improve energy efficiency. I was a bit tempted when 13″ Retina MacBook Pro’s were selling for thousand dollar discounts but I held through waiting for the summer Air update to arrive.

Apple announced its 2013 line of MacBook Airs at WWDC last month. From the outside they are basically the same save for an extra hole for the noise canceling microphone. On the inside they have Intel’s new Haswell CPUs, HD 5000 graphics, support for the speedy new 802.11ac wireless standard, and super fast PCI Express SSDs. Each model saw a huge increase in battery life with the 11″ lasting 9 hours on a charge and the 13″ lasting a whopping 12 (nearly double the previous model). The entry level 11″ Air has twice the storage space as before and the entry level 13″ model costs $100 less than before. Those are the changes. No new screens, cases, ports, or configuration options. Still the same lightweight machine as before but with really amazing battery life. Performance is about the same because Apple had to use slower clocked CPUs (1.3 GHz vs 1.7) to increase the battery life but balanced that out with faster storage.

Now that Apple has release new models I can finally make a decision… if I want to. The problem (if you can call it that) is that my MacBook Pro is still running well, especially with Mavericks. Performance is adequate for what I do and battery life has improved to reasonable amounts.  The only major drawback left is size. Regardless of what software I install or hardware I upgrade, I’m not going to make it any less large. It weighs 5 lbs, it’s wide, and it’s just too unwieldy for me. Sally carries her 13″ MacBook around the house with ease while I feel like I’m dragging the Titanic out of the ocean.

So assuming I decide to purchase an Air, my next question is which one. If I want the most portability I could go for the 11″ model. It offers the same performance as the 13″ model but with a lower resolution screen and shorter battery life (9 hours vs 12). It is lighter (2.4 lbs vs 3 lbs) and smaller – almost the size of an iPad. The two biggest hangups are the screen and the trackpad. The screen is lower resolution than what I have now (1366 x 768) while the 13″ matches what I have now (1440 x 900). If I went with the 13″ I wouldn’t lose any screen space. In order to reduce the size of the 11″ model Apple had to cut the height of the trackpad a bit. While it is still much larger than trackpads on PC notebooks, it isn’t as easy to hit as the trackpad on the 13″ model. Add to that the extra 3 hours of battery life that the 13″ offers and I think I have winner.

The 13″ Air starts at $1,099 with 4 GB RAM and 128 GB storage. I need slightly more space than that to store my music, some files, and have enough room left over for a partition to install beta releases so I’d have to spend an extra $200 for the 256 GB drive. Memory is soldered onto the motherboard and there is no way to upgrade it so I’d also need to shell out an extra $100 for the 8GB option (the maximum available). That brings the total up to $1,399 without Apple Care protection. I don’t use my laptop much so I don’t think I’d get Apple Care right away. If I want it I can purchase it for $250 any time within the included 1 year warranty period. The Air doesn’t have an optical drive and Apple offers an external one for $79 but I can also use one over the network at home. I’ve got plenty of Macs that support it. If I wanted an external drive I could get one from eBay or Craigslist for less anyway. Finally I can trim $50 or so off of the total price by purchasing from a reseller such as Mac Connection as they often have sales on them.

I’m not rushing out to purchase an Air just yet for a couple of reasons. I’m still in no rush because my current machine is running OK. I’m also waiting to see what Apple’s 13″ Retina update is going to look like. The current 13″ model is now outdated in comparison to the Air – slower SSD, slower wireless, and slower integrated graphics (with more pixels to push). The only reason that I’m considering the Retina model is the screen but not to use it at the Retina resolution. The Retina resolution is equivalent to a super-crisp 1280 x 800 even though the screen is technically 2560 x 1600 (every pixel is doubled which is what makes it more crisp). The cool thing about it is that Apple lets you simulate other resolutions by scaling the screen images in the GPU. While it’s default resolution equivalent to 1280 x 800 actually shows less than the 13″ Air’s 1440 x 900, the Retina can simulate 1440 x 900 and even 1680 x 1050. I’ve seen it in a store and it still looks very nice. The fact that I could actually have a larger display area is intriguing. Prices of the 13″ Retina are actually hovering a only a couple hundred dollars higher than a similarly configured Air which is tempting. Performance is technically better (not that much better though – GeekBench of 6829 vs 6105) but weight is higher by half a lb and it is a tad thicker overall with no tapering. Battery life is reasonable at 7 hours, but the Air can last almost twice as long. I want to wait to see what Apple releases for the next update (should be soon) to see if it is worth it. I’ve heard rumors that there are plans to shave a bit of weight off of it which would make it more enticing.

In summary I am definitely getting a 13″ machine to replace my  15″ machine. It will most likely be an Air but might be a Retina if the price remains competitive, the battery life goes up, and the weight comes down. I’m still going to wait, at least until I know what the new Retina model is going to look like. Even after that I may wait longer for a sale or something. At the moment I’ll continue humming along on my five year old Pro. I can’t really complain.

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