21 February 2008

My main machine

David Morgenstern noticed my recent posts, and speculated that the MacBook Air was my primary computer. He’s right.

The machine isn’t perfect (I keep seeing reflections in the glossy screen, and I miss the peace of mind the Kensington security slot gave me with my MacBook Pro), but it does all the things a computer needs to do for most people.

And yes, it could be faster. But it doesn’t lag in normal operations, and I don’t need to compile an entire application that often. The speed penalty is really minimal compared to an existing machine (if I were weighing an MBA against other current machines, the difference would be a little more pronounced).

And even though it’s not the speediest Mac you can buy, it still beats the dual G5 tower in compiling the larger code base:
Power Mac G5: 3:31.4
MacBook Air: 2:53.1
I do want to correct one thing David wrote: “He’s … a game player.” Yes, but I wouldn’t recommend a MacBook Air (or a MacBook for that matter) for any computer game that makes heavy use of 3D graphics. The Intel integrated video (GMA X3100) is simply not up to the 2 year old Radeon X800XT that’s in my MacBook Pro. However, the MBP should do just fine for casual games (like the ones we create at GameHouse). And I’d guess the lower-powered chip is, well, lower-powered: it uses less battery and thus generates less heat.

As I mentioned earlier, I did take a few steps to make sure the MBA would work as a sole machine. I got the external DVD/CD drive so I can burn CDs if necessary. I put my music on an external drive (it actually would fit on the internal drive, but things would get way too tight). I already had an external portrait display to use as a second screen.

I still marvel when I pack up the MacBook Air — it’s so much lighter than my MacBook Pro. And the slightly smaller size makes it easier to use on the bus (and presumably on an airplane, but I don’t fly every day). And I appreciate the times it’s quieter (not always, as the fans kick in when hitting the disk a lot, like a large Time Machine backup).

I think I’ll be tempted to replace the machine in a year, when solid state disks are more affordable, but I suspect I’ll be replacing it with a similar machine. I’m a convert.

18 February 2008

MacBook Air: More Timing

I tried building a larger Xcode project: a small game with 6 sub-projects. Most of this is C++, with some in C and some Objective-C++. The timings:

MacBook Pro: 2:05.4
MacBook Air: 2:53.1

This is probably a good comparison (and likely one where a faster disk would make a difference). The MBP takes about 72% as long, or the MBA takes 38% longer. I suspect I can live with this — it’s not like I rebuild all files daily.

And it’s still nothing like the Xbench 1.3 difference (the MBP weighs in at 1.78 times as fast)…

17 February 2008

MacBook Air: First Impressions

Well, the obvious first impression is “My God, this is thin and light!” But I’ve been using my new laptop for a little while now, and have something a little more substantive. It’ll probably take a couple weeks of use to really see how it differs from my MacBook Pro, a 2.16 GHz model that’s about two years old.

Photos don’t really do the machine justice. Yes it’s thin, but it really has a different feel. Picking it up and carrying it around is more like holding a notebook than holding a hardcover book (the MacBook Pro).

My goal is to completely replace the old laptop. Surprisingly, migration didn’t go smoothly. The first attempt to use the Migration Assistant worked fine — except that resource forks didn’t transfer, which rendered fonts, aliases, and a number of applications useless (rdar://5745037). I tried Carbon Copy Cloner, but had problems there too (perhaps because I was cloning a version of Mac OS X that didn’t have everything needed for a MacBook Air, despite being 10.5.2). And I had problems getting Time Machine to work. Finally I reinstalled the MBA’s special 10.5.1, applied the updates, and then migrated my personal account. Some folders didn’t have their custom icons, but I can fix those via the command line (after installing the developer tools):

% SetFile -a C DoW/

% SetFile -a V DoW/Icon^M

I don’t have any problems adapting to the new keyboard and larger trackpad, other than missing the enter key (which Apple replaced with a second option). It looks like the keys are recessed and thus won’t leave marks on the screen, but I’m using a RadTech ScreenSavrz to be on the safe side (the one from my 15 inch machine works fine). Apple includes a polishing cloth, but it’s not as large as the screen.

Speaking of screens: it’s definitely bright, and I can’t see any bad pixels. I would have ordered a matte screen if I had the chance, but the glossy isn’t a problem in my home office — it might be at work.
And it can drive a rotated second screen! I’ve got a 1240 x 1280 pixel Dell attached to the little video adapter. (The MacBook Pro let you just plug in a digital display, which was a lot more convenient.) The MBP has more pixels — 1440 x 800 vs 1280 x 800, but it’s not that far off. I’m sure I’ll miss the 100 vertical pixels (widescreen really doesn’t have much value).

It sits solidly on my desk. It did wobble once, but hasn’t since. I must have gotten something underneath that time.

And speaking of solid: I managed to have it slide off my desk and land, thin point down, on a carpeted floor. No problems.

The MagSafe power connector is a little harder to connect than the MacBook Pro, in part because you can’t see it under the curvature. The door covering the ports opens and closes solidly. Connecting video, USB, and audio have a similar problem, since you can’t see them.

I bought the DVD player, and I’m bummed that I can’t plug it into a hub — I was hoping to just dock the machine. On the other hand, I don’t need it often (and did in fact use the remote disc feature once).

I had thought I’d be using the USB-Ethernet adapter at home, but since the MacBook Air uses the faster 802.11n, I might not need to (I can’t run at full n speed, since I have non-n devices on my WiFi network, but the transmit rate is reported at 78-130 MHz, as opposed to the MacBook Pro which is always at 54 MHz — 802.11g speed).

I paired the Pro’s remote with the Air. Technically you don’t need it, since the keyboard has dedicated keys, but my muscle memory says that F11 = Exposé, so I configure the keyboard so I can press F11 without the fn key.

The MacBook Air runs quieter, until it warms up. Then its fan is louder. Probably because it’s pretty aggressive about keeping cool — it generally runs a lot cooler than the MacBook Pro. The disk is a lot quieter, however.

OK, now the part I was dreading: speed. Xbench 1.3 reports my MacBook Pro (which has the 7200 rpm disk) at 96.3, but the MacBook Air (which has only a 4200 rpm disk) at 54.2. Was the new machine going to be half the speed?

It certainly doesn’t seem like it. Large disk copies may indeed be slower (I haven’t done tests). That might be because it’s using USB-2 instead of FireWire. In any case, large copies aren’t that common (once the machine is set up). A more reasonable test is something I do every day: compiling Mac applications. I tried compiling Opal (a moderate-sized Objective-C application, with two plug-ins) on both machines.

MacBook Pro 46.0 s
MacBook Air 48.4 s

That’s barely a speed penalty! I’ll have to try with some larger code bases, but this is in line with what I was hoping for (there’s a larger cache and faster bus on the MacBook Air, which may counteract the slower clock and use of some RAM for graphics).

Oh, and no comments about battery life, since I haven’t really had a chance to test. I think it will be longer than the MacBook Pro.

Carrying the MacBook Air
Since the machine is light and thin, I wanted a minimalist case to carry it in (OK, plus I’m a carrying case junky). But not as minimal as a notebook sleeve — I like an actual case that can carry other things. I finally settled on STM’s Small Brink, which also has the advantage of being inexpensive as bags go (I got mine for $45). I ordered sight-unseen, but remembered seeing STM at Macworld Expo in years past. The bag is much lighter than my previous bag, and the MBA fits. The padding seems thicker than other bags I’ve owned. It has less cargo space than my previous bags, and the handle seems a bit thin, so I won’t know for a couple weeks if this was a good switch.


Due to a project at work, I created a Facebook account.

It’s certainly a much prettier experience than MySpace (which I was familiar with mostly via teenager web sites). And not at all the same as the more professionally-oriented LinkedIn (which I’d been using before).

Facebook seems to be geared around applications, and my biggest peeve is not being able to preview applications. I’ve got to way to “try before I buy in” — I have to give the application access without being able to try out the user experience. Accordingly, I’ve added very few applications, and actively ignore requests from friends.

On the one hand, I admire their viral nature — great way to spread. But I just don’t feel informed enough to want to spread them myself. And in particular, I won’t spread the word in advance (like the awful “What iPod are you?” which requires you to provide the names of 9 friends to even take the test).

I don’t know how to provide a link to me, but if you use Facebook, feel free to hook up.