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Hands-on with the 13″ MacBook Air, one month in

Sections: Features, Hands On / First Looks, Laptops, MacBook Air, Macintosh/Apple Hardware, Originals

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MacBook Air

It’s been a little more than a month since my new 13″ MacBook Air arrived, and I still don’t have it fully in the workhorse harness yet. Blame a lack of free time and extraordinarily cold weather this winter that tends to keep me on theiPad and not in my chilly office where the MacBook Air is on its stand, connected to a keyboard, mouse, rollerbar, and other peripherals as my nominal “anchor” Mac.

Of course the MacBook Air is portable and can be disconnected from the spaghetti of USB cables, but with the iPad and three other Mac laptops, I haven’t felt the need.

As for the time aspect, my workflow configuration is fairly complex after 23 years of customization, and requires a lot of tedium in order to get it set up the way I like it. If I was a bigger fan of Mavericks there would probably be greater incentive to get it set up, but I like OS X v10.9 even less than Mountain Lion I have installed on my old Core 2 Duo MacBook, which also still boots into Snow Leopard (my favorite OS X version, not least because it can run several old Power PC Carbon apps and utilities for which I have yet to find really satisfactory post-Rosetta substitutes). I also havent done a really fresh from-scratch setup of my operations for many years, and I figure there’s a lot of accreted unnecessary baggage that would come with just porting my stuff over from the MacBook or cloning and transferring the MacBook’s hard disk contents.

Moreover, MacBook Air’s keyboard is pretty good, and it’s nicely backlit, but it’s not up to the comfort standard set by the keyboards in my 14-year old Pismo PowerBooks, and which keeps me using them when I don’t need Intel Core power.

The MacBook Air as my first new anchor PC system in nearly five years has a tough act to follow. My late-2008 unibody MacBook has been a flawless performer throughout, and is definitely seeing continued use in portable mode.

Notwithstanding those observations, the new MacBook Air is a really nice piece of work, with Apple’s customary build solidity and precision feel. I went with the base 4GB RAM and a 256GB SSD upgrade configuration. I may kick myself in the future for not ponying up another $100 for a RAM upgrade to 8GB, but financial realism obligates drawing the line somewhere.

I had also considered both a 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro and the holdover non-Retina Pro, and might’ve gone with the Retina MacBook Pro had Apple not jacked its price in Canada to 50 bucks more than the U.S. price while the MacBook Air’s price in $Canabucks remains at par with the greenback so far, enhancing the Air’s comparative value equation for Canuck purchasers. I’m doubtful that will last much longer, with the swooning Canadian dollar briefly dropping below 90 cents U.S. this week before recovering to the 91 cent exchange rate.

My previous two anchor Macs were Apple Certified Refurbished units, but the mid-2013 MacBook Air’s relative bargain price dropped by $100 with the Haswell et al. upgrade in June, plus I also got a $150 gift certificate for ordering it on Black Friday, which will likely be applied to purchase of an iPad Air sometime next year. A similarly configured ACR mid-2013 Air would’ve been only $100 cheaper with no Gift Card and possibly not even Mavericks and the newly bundled iWork software suite, so buying new this time was a much better value.

You can’t really evaluate a workhorse computer until it’s been used for a while in your work environment, but early days impressions are mostly positive. It’s amazingly slim, but not much different footprint-wise than the old MacBook. I had been curious about how it would perform and feel in tasks and venues that have been more and more shunted to the iPad. My verdict is that this 13-inch Air really isn’t an iPad substitute. Perhaps the 11-inch MBA would come closer as a rival for portability, and I considered it, but the 13-incher’s 1440 x 900 display resolution, one-third longer battery runtime, and SD Card slot seemed like too much extra value to pass up for only $100 more up front. In general I think the current 13-inch MacBook Air at $1,099 represents the most laptop for the money Apple has ever offered. I’ll always love my Pismos, but they would’ve cost some CAN$4,000 a piece when new.

MacBook Air

I have mixed feelings about the 1,440 x 900 display resolution occupying the same physical space as the 1,280 x 800 screen on my old MacBook. The 1,440 x 900 resolution was quite comfortable on my erstwhile 17-inch PowerBook G4, but squeezing it into a 13-inch panel makes stuff awfully small for my now in their seventh decade eyes. As fore-noted, I use my anchor Mac mostly as a desktop substitute in my office, on a laptop stand to elevate the screen closer to neutral eye level, with external keyboard and pointing devices connected, and with myself sitting about three feet away from the monitor. This has worked fine with the MacBook, thanks to its less ambitious panel resolution and my mid-range computer bifocals. I can manage with the smaller default images on the MacBook Air’s panel, but I’m thinking seriously about getting an external monitor—something I’ve never before bothered with over the years.

The resolution issue was one of several points that had me seriously considering opting for a last of the Mohicans 13-inch non-Retina MacBook Pro, which shares its form factor and panel resolution with my late-2008 MacBook. However, that seemed like too much yesterday’s technology, and the second-generation MacBook Airs have intrigued me since they first arrived in 2010. The Haswell CPU upgrade and price cuts last June made the MacBook Air pretty irresistible, and as well I wanted to experience what SSD speed could do for my workflow. The 802.11ac Wi-Fi will probably also be appreciated in the future if I upgrade to the new AirPort Extreme base station or other wireless router that supports it. Not a big priority for me, as my primary bandwidth bottleneck is the wireless throughput to my wireless ISP provider—the only nominally high-speed Internet service available in this neck of the woods. The bad part is that AirPort Extreme sells for a suggested retail price of $199, which is more than twice what I paid for my current Belkin router.

There’s also the MacBook Air’s more powerful Intel HD Graphics 5000 integrated processor units, claimed to give the MacBook Air up to 40% faster performance than the HD Graphics 4000 IGPUs in the 13-inch MacBook Pro. I don’t do much work with graphics intensive apps, but more graphics power stands to be better future-proofing, and I keep my computers for a long time. Apple also claims the upgraded flash storage provides speeds up to 45% faster than the previous generation SSDs used, and nine times faster than traditional hard drives. I would have liked to have the old school MacBook Pro’s FireWire support for backwards compatibility, but I’ve managed with the FireWire-less MacBook for four-and-a-half years, so that obviously wasn’t going to be a deal-breaker. USB 3 is more relevant these days.

Actually, so far, I haven’t found the speed increase all that dramatic compared with the 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook. These sorts of impressions are always relative, but I still spend a lot of time on the ancient Pismos, and the speed advantage of the 1.3GHz Haswell MacBook Air over the 2.0 Core 2 Duo MacBook isn’t nearly as great as the difference between a 550MHz G4 Pismo and the C2D MacBook. That said, more speed is always welcome, and the no-moving-parts ruggedness and operating silence of flash memory appeals greatly.

I didn’t partition the 256GHz SSD in the Air, breaking another longstanding precedent. I even partitioned the little (although physically huge 20MHz SCSI HDD of my original Mac Plus 22 years ago. I’ve always liked having two bootable systems installed, but perhaps that is no longer as relevant as it once was.

MacBook Air

Overall, I’m quite satisfied so far with my decision to go with the MacBook Air. It will take a while for me to make a comprehensive evaluation. I’m sure that I’ll get around to missing the internal optical drive in some portable situation, but for desktop service I have an Apricorn Aegis NetDock 3-in-1 peripheral USB Docking Station that combines a 4-port USB Hub, a slot-loading dual-layer DVD burner, and a 500 GB internal Hard Drive. The Mac Edition Aegis NetDock 500 GB sells for $189, and a 1TB version sells for $229 The NetDock when in its standup base has a footprint smaller than an office stapler and adds extra storage capacity and DVD/CD viewing, movie-watching and optical disk burning in a single unit that connects to your Mac via a single USB cable, and is bootable.

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