Size Doesn’t Matter: My Review of the 11.6-inch MacBook Air 

For the last several years, my basic computing setup has been the same: an iMac at home and a work-provided MacBook Pro.[1. Currently, my wife and I share a 27-inch Core i3 iMac, and I have a 15-inch 2.8Ghz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro.]

I’ve always had the luxury to use my work notebook as a personal machine, which makes life a lot more convenient.

However, over the last year or so, I’ve developed a growing hesitancy about taking my work notebook home. Bringing it home means I was bringing work home — something I don’t like doing, especially with two young kids.

Back in December, I wrote that I was eyeing the MacBook Air as a personal machine, in place of my iPad. I really wanted to have my own laptop again. I was looking at the Air because it’s minimal form factor was attractive as an ultra-portable writing machine. As great as it is, the iPad is a terrible device for getting a lot of writing done.

While I still have the iPad, a few weeks ago, I pulled the trigger on the $999 MacBook Air model. Here are some of my thoughts on the smallest modern Macintosh.

Hardware

The first thing most people say when I show them the machine is “I would be so afraid I would break it.”

In reality, it’s not a concern of mine. Apple’s unibody design, precision construction and use of aluminum makes this little machine feel just as sturdy as my 15-inch Mac Book Pro.

It really is wild just how thin this thing is. It’s amazing Apple squeezed a whole Mac in a package just 0.68 inches thick.

It is crazy light. I have to double-check that it’s in my bag some days.

It makes even the 13-inch MacBook Pro look bloated and ancient.

The lid opens very easily. It’s weighted just right — opening the display won’t make the machine rock back on its hinge. The feet are thicker than on most notebooks, helping not only cool the machine, but making typing a little more comfortable.

The built-in speakers are shockingly good for a machine this size. I’m clocking about 5 hours of battery life, and the charger is tiny.

In many ways, the 11.6-inch Air is technically more impressive than the iPad. Having taken apart hundreds of Macs, I know how Apple designs the insides of its machines, and as good as they are at it, this notebook still seems impossible.

The Screen

The 11.6-inch Air’s LCD is not tucked behind a sheet of glass, so it’s not as reflective as modern MacBook Pros. It seems about on par with the original MacBooks’ LCDs, in fact, in terms of reflections. Brightness and viewing angles are great.

Clocking in at 1366 x 768, the screen is more dense than what I’m used to. I’ve had to bump up my default text size in a few apps, but overall, OS X looks fantastic on this screen. I’ve had no real problems with the smaller display.

At 1440 x 900, my MacBook Pro makes OS X look comically large.

The thick aluminum bezel is a little cheesy, though. It looks way more childish than the aluminum bezel on my matte MacBook Pro. And because the lid tapers around the edges, the iSight camera had to be shifted just below the horizontal center across the top portion of the bezel to fit.

It drives me insane.

Trackpad and Keyboard

The trackpad on the MacBook Air is great. While smaller than on other MacBook models, its feel and travel — despite the thinness of the case — is just like the trackpad on other modern Apple notebooks.

Apple didn’t skimp on the keyboard’s feel either. The keys have the same feel and travel as Apple’s other chicklet keyboards. The function keys have been shrunk down — and a power button added where F13 should be — but the whole thing is great. Very un-netbook.

The lack of a backlit keyboard is a little annoying. While many people have conjectured that the feature was dropped for thickness, I suspect it was a heat issue. Even on the 15-inch MacBook Pro, the backlit keyboard can get warm after a while, and my thought is that the Air’s thin frame just couldn’t deal with the added stress.

Of course, it may just be Apple differentiating its products.

Those 64 GB

One big issue to consider when looking at the low-end MacBook Air is the measly 64 GB SSD.

The limited storage space is a great way to keep this machine minimal. It really is refreshing to run a stripped down system. I wanted this machine for writing and browsing, so the list of apps I’ve installed is actually pretty short, and mostly related to words:

  • Cinch
  • Dropbox
  • Droplr
  • Google Chrome
  • iWork ’09
  • Linkinus
  • MarsEdit
  • Microsoft Excel
  • Microsoft Word
  • nvAlt
  • OmniFocus
  • Reeder
  • Transmit

As of this writing, I have 42.4 GB free. I have no music or movies on this machine. The few dozen photos I keep in my Dropbox are the only images around. My iPhone is always in my pocket, and it’s loaded with media, so why duplicate it on a machine I want to keep lean?

Performance

With a 1.4 GHz Core 2 Duo and just 2 GB of RAM, the MacBook Air doesn’t look a speed demon on paper. In reality, though, this machine is crazy fast. Having put an SSD in my work machine, I have no doubt that SSD is the key to this machine’s speed. SSD is the future, and the MacBook Air is the proof.

With just a headphone jack, two USB ports and a Mini DisplayPort, I/O isn’t exactly abundant on the little machine. But despite the lack of ports, this thing is a real Mac.

I know that the rumored refresh is supposed to bring Sandy Bridge processors, but frankly, I don’t mind it too much. I probably won’t be too upset if Thunderbolt makes it into the next MacBook Air either.

Why?

Because it’s my favorite out of all the Macs I’ve owned.