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.

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