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Macbook Air
December 8, 2010 5:43 AM   Subscribe

I'm afraid of making the leap to a Macbook Air. I currently use a 2.53GHZ Core i5 15-inch Macbook Pro but am finding it awkward and value portability. I'm afraid of switching because of disk space issues/inadequate Core 2 processor and possibly not getting my money's worth. I'm looking for some sagely advice from anyone.

Problem
My Macbook Pro is a matter of weeks old, it's the 15 inch 2.53GHZ i5 Model, 4GB RAM, 500GB HD. I'm finding it a tough to adapt because i've been using the plastic 13-inch Macbook for over 4 years. I find the increased size and weight awkward when using it, especially when carrying it around.

Yet I'm cautious of getting the Macbook Air (which will be the top of the range 13-inch model with 4GB RAM and 256GB Storage) because:

(i) I have a lot of digital stuff, around 250GB. Most of that is music and movies. I'd like to have at least 50GB available free storage just to be safe. The MBA has only 256GB max. Is it excessive to need this much storage? Is this normal, or should I just learn to be more prudent with space? (if so tips please)

(ii) I'm one of those people who dabble in music. I'd like to be able to run Garageband with a midi keyboard (important) as well as maybe Ableton Live (not so important). I'm afraid I might be limited in the future processor wise. Basically, I'd like to know just how limited I will be should I want to branch out and do more things with my Macbook Air.

(iii) Standard investment worries; will the next refresh of the MBA bring with larger flash storage (500GB would be perfect)/faster processor (i3)/USB3 or Light Peak (slow data transfer over USB is the most annoying problem)? Should I wait until then, sell my MBP then get the MBA when it's a little bit more suited for my needs. This problem is mainly down to the fact that the storage + RAM is not end user upgradable. Which is scary.

Possibly I might use Photoshop to touch up photos if iPhoto won't cut the mustard, but that's a once a month occurrence, and it's nothing heavy, just light levels, contrast etc. Again using stuff like Ableton is whimsical when feeling a creative urge, I might use it once in a blue moon. Regularly I use garageband to record rough demos, etc. I'm one of those people who dabbles but hasn't yet been dedicated enough to do anything substantial, music production wise. Mostly just demoing ideas.

Normal Usage
90% of the time I will have stuff like MS Word for writing essays, Safari, Mail, iCal, iTunes and VLC running. Nothing particularly processor intensive. I really multitask especially with Safari tabs.

I picked up a MBA and loved it, it was so light and portable which is exactly what i need. My MBP is pretty heavy and a bit of a pain to lug around. I don't forsee the lack of a keyboard back light being a problem as I'm so used to not having one. Lack of superdrive definitely won't be a problem, the lack of USB ports i'm unsure, i only really use it for backing up data to external HD, iPhone and my MIDI keyboard.

Help?

Can you lend any wise words that as MBA owners wished you'd known earlier? Is it a prudent choice to potentially restrict myself with the MBA? Should I make the leap now, or should I wait it out till the MBA is safer, then sell my MBP? I have the opportunity to swap the MBP directly with Apple for the MBA at the moment, which is why I'm considering it. How does the resell in the future idea sound, will it depreciate substantially in value?

Sorry for the bombardment of questions/length, but £1500 is a lot of money for me and I want to make the right choice. Before anyone says, I've read all past questions relating to the MBA, as well as this by BrooksReview which actually precipitated the decision to change.
posted by freud to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
How could I forget, thanks so much for any help if anyone can give it and sorry you had to read that monster.
posted by freud at 5:44 AM on December 8, 2010


I've had a MacBook Air for a little over 14 months now. I am happy with it. It is reliable and does what I need it to do.

My main activities on my laptop include writing mathematics research papers, writing quizzes and tests for my students, browsing the web, giving presentations, etc. So, it sounds like my usage is a lot like yours. Nothing ultra-intensive like video editing or anything like that. Sometimes I run Mathematica.

If you get a MacBook Air, you will be happy. Its small size and weight are a huge improvement over my 17" PowerBook that I had before I got this little guy.
posted by King Bee at 6:06 AM on December 8, 2010


I recently side-graded from a 4-year old 15-inch MBP to an 11-inch MacBook Air (top of the line model). Overall I'm very happy with the switch, but there are certainly limitations.

The limitations:

With 128GB of storage, I've had to move my digital media (photos and music) to an external drive. This works for the most part, but it isn't particularly convenient. I usually don't need my photos and music when I'm out and about. My portable music is already on my iPhone. But when I do need it, it means carrying another drive around.

I found some stuttering when I tried to play movies on my MBA that were housed on my 802-11g/n drive.

The good stuff:

The machine is a tiny bit slower than my old MBP, but not enough for me to worry about. I regularly use Photoshop Elements without any trouble. I don't use Garage Band and I haven't done much with video, so I can't speak to that.

The machine is solid, tiny, and just has a great overall feel. It's a pleasure to use.

Everything that I need day-to-day fits pretty well.

Tips:

If you look in your /Library folder and have the Finder calculate folder sizes you'll see several multi-gigabyte folders of application support material. This includes iPhoto templates and Garage Band loops. You can offload that and other stuff if you don't need it.

Big one: the 13-inch machine comes with an SD card slot. For about a hundred dollars you can add 64 GB of storage. That could be enough to take care of your music-toting needs.
posted by alms at 6:11 AM on December 8, 2010


Replace the drive with a 128 GiB SSD instead and spend some of the hundreds you'll save on a wireless NAS to store your movies/music.
posted by turkeyphant at 6:20 AM on December 8, 2010


I wouldn't choose the MBA as my primary computer if only for the lack of USB port.
posted by jander03 at 6:24 AM on December 8, 2010


What's this lack of USB port business? The new MBA has two USB ports. I have a Macbook Pro, and have only ever had to use one of them at a time. Look at your usage now, and use that to decide what you really need. You can always get a USB splitter if you need more ports.
posted by litnerd at 6:31 AM on December 8, 2010


I use the new 11 inch air (with the processor, RAM, and SSD upgrades) as my primary (and sole) computer. I previously used a 2006 black plastic macbook in the same role. I shifted all my video and music to an external drive that I have plugged into my airport extreme. Since I have no need to access media other than what is already on my iphone when I am not at home, this is a perfect solution for me. It still syncs music/podcasts etc through itunes just as before.

Speed-wise, I have no complaints. It feels faster than my old macbook (2.16ghz) despite clocking at a lower rate. No doubt the SSD is largely to thank for this. I use it for the same kinds of tasks you are describing. I've not had any issues with beachballing yet, which used to plague my old macbook when doing heavy downloading while multitasking. I use it to wirelessly stream media from the external hard drive plugged into my airport to my ps3 without issue

For the size concern, I have it plugged into an external display, keyboard, and usb hub. This makes it the perfect combination for me -- when at home, i plug in the display, usb hub, and power cable and I have an effective desktop computer (the eyboard, mouse, and iphone cable are all permanently plugged into the usb hub). When on the go, I have an unbelievably light package that I can use for powerpoint presentations (I am an academic) and so on. It really is a winning combination for me. I would not want to write for hours at a time on the 11 inch, but using the external display eliminates that as an issue for me.
posted by modernnomad at 6:48 AM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Are you looking to make the switch right now?

Because if you can wait, thanks to a settlement between Intel and NVidia, the next generation of macbooks will see significant processor upgrades.

In the meantime, how's your laptop bag? I've found the cheapest solution to a heavy laptop is upgrading my bag. For example, I now have this one, and it's fantastic - carrying around the 6 pounds worth of laptop + powerbrick my Thinkpad represents is cake.
posted by swngnmonk at 6:50 AM on December 8, 2010


The updated MBA was just released roughly a month ago. Since they are upgraded yearly, you'd have to wait a year to upgrade.

Have you looked at the 13" MBP? Perhaps that would be a good compromise.

My wife just got the 13" MBA and it feels amazingly fast. It will most likely work fine for you. As for storage concerns, get a SD card and push more stuff to the cloud / server / external USB drive. There's currently no way around giving stuff up for the sake of portability.

Do you need all the music and movies that you currently have on your computer there all the time?

You could buy a pogoplug, hook up an external drive to it, and have access to all that stuff from wherever you are if you have a net connection. If you have MobileMe and an Airport Extreme or Time Capsule, you should be able to do the same thing.
posted by reddot at 7:10 AM on December 8, 2010


Last September I was forced to switch from my much-loved and extremely reliable 5 year old 14" iBook G4 (remember them?!) to a Mid-2009 model 13" Macbook Pro.

It's been great and I find it even more portable than my previous 14". It's lighter and faster and smaller but the keyboard is nicely sized and all that jazz.

It came with 160 or 250GB which has been ok for a year, but my on-system media is not as much as yours and I also have a NAS box where stuff can be stored off-system.
Two months ago I bumped the RAM to 8GB and got a 500GB "hybrid" hard drive that has 4GB of flash, acting essentially as an additional big cache. (Seagate Momentus XT) It's even speedier now thanks to those two things and I have plenty of space now.


As for why I was forced to replace my poor old iBook... Stolen from my apartment in a break-in. Thank you burglars, you sons of bitches. You can take my 9 minute battery life but I hate you for taking the memories. 5 years with the iBook during extensive international travel and several years of 'finding myself' leaves a lasting impression.
posted by cmetom at 7:31 AM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


(i) I have a lot of digital stuff, around 250GB. Most of that is music and movies. I'd like to have at least 50GB available free storage just to be safe. The MBA has only 256GB max. Is it excessive to need this much storage? Is this normal, or should I just learn to be more prudent with space? (if so tips please)


As far as this goes, only you can decide if having this much digital stuff is okay. As long as you have it all backed up I don't see the problem. Many people have hundreds and hundreds of gigs of music, movies, photos, apps, etc.

(ii) I'm one of those people who dabble in music. I'd like to be able to run Garageband with a midi keyboard (important) as well as maybe Ableton Live (not so important). I'm afraid I might be limited in the future processor wise. Basically, I'd like to know just how limited I will be should I want to branch out and do more things with my Macbook Air.

(iii) Standard investment worries; will the next refresh of the MBA bring with larger flash storage (500GB would be perfect)/faster processor (i3)/USB3 or Light Peak (slow data transfer over USB is the most annoying problem)? Should I wait until then, sell my MBP then get the MBA when it's a little bit more suited for my needs. This problem is mainly down to the fact that the storage + RAM is not end user upgradable. Which is scary.



Probably, you can do most things on the MBA that you could do on the MBP. However, the MBA is by definition a little slower, has a little less RAM, and has less space.

Considering that it costs about the same as an MBP, it's not clear to me that it's a good deal for you. The last big point is the weight issue, but is 5.6 lbs really that much? Perhaps you could lift some weights or invest in a better carrying case? I bring it up only because you will of course lose money on any "sell MBP + buy MBA" deal; especially since you only just bought the MBP. I'd advise you to keep the MBP for now. Hope this helps.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 7:39 AM on December 8, 2010


I love my MBA -- got it during the Black Friday sale. I keep all my music and movies on an external drive; if I think I'll want some entertainment when I'm traveling, I'll just transfer one season or so of a show to the laptop (my music always lives on my laptop, but I only have about 15 GB so it's not bad). I just think it's unrealistic to expect laptop storage -- esp as things start trending toward SSDs -- to keep up with the average size of peoples' media libraries. External drives and a HTPC are becoming the norm for most people I know.

I upgraded my 1.86 GHz MBA's RAM to 4 GB, and I'm extraordinarily happy with its speed. I've been running Left 4 Dead 2 on it, and have been happy with it; I can't comment on your other software, but I figure video games stress it pretty well. Battery life so far has been great -- I'm regularly getting at least 5 hours with wifi on and constant usage (browsing, MS Office, email, music, etc) but haven't done any serious tests yet.

But as far as your peripherals... yeah, it's got two USB ports and that's great and it can probably handle things like a MIDI keyboard for now, but the MBA is designed for ultra portability and simplicity, not to be a serious professional workhorse. We can't predict what peripherals will do in the next 4-5 years, so if you think you want lots of flexibility in what you can plug in, I'd hesitate to recommend the MBA. Will you always need/want a laptop to do the work you're going to do with the music stuff? Or could you invest in a cheaper PC or iMac to do it at home (I imagine your MIDI keyboard, etc aren't mobile with you) and take advantage of the size/weight benefits of the MBA for when you are actually portable?
posted by olinerd at 8:31 AM on December 8, 2010


Because if you can wait, thanks to a settlement between Intel and NVidia, the next generation of macbooks will see significant processor upgrades.

Unlikely, Nvidia has disbanded their chipset division and most of them work in the Tegra group now. Nvidia is going to get cash money instead of a chipset license (a billion dollars is nothing to Intel - their quarterly net profit is around $3B).

That said, I just went from my 2006 Macbook to my 13" top of the line MBA (2.13, 4GB, 256GB SSD).

1. If you have a bunch of movies, put them on an external drive and connect through USB when you want to manage them.
2. Next year's upgrades aren't likely to be that substantial either. Apple may still not get past using C2D chips if Intel's new CPU that comes out at CES doesn't support OpenCL (using the graphics chip to perform massively parallel work). If they're still stuck on C2D, then its probably no USB3 either.
3. If you get a top of the line MBA, you should be good for at least 3 years in terms of hardware vs what the underlying software expects. The SSD will keep it feeling "fresh'" for a long time. My 2006 MB lasted 4+ years an all I did was upgrade the internal 80GB HDD to an 80GB SSD.

I wouldn't recommend the MBA as your only computer for the music production side of things, but for 90%+ of your work its more than enough.
posted by SirOmega at 8:42 AM on December 8, 2010


I wouldn't want to use an Air as my only machine, but I tend to use my MBP as a desktop replacement. If I had my wildest computing fantasies I'd have the MBP or a Mac desktop for normal use and the Air for travel, because yeah the 15" can get heavy after a while.

The upside of that is this: I have all my stuff with me all the time. I don't know when I will need File X or that archived email from 6 years ago or the raw data from that project I worked on in grad school. I have all of that with me. I have all of that with me even if I have no network connectivity. I have it on a plane, if I'm out in the boonies, if the power goes out and I'm running only on battery. I think the cloud is a good thing but I also know for a fact that broadband wireless network connectivity is not yet ubiquitous enough or fast enough for the cloud to truly be a reliable storage medium. Unless you have a cell modem, and can live with the (relatively) low speed, the lack of connectivity in places with no signal (either not present or not allowed), you will either need to drag external storage with you everywhere or suck it up and keep the MBP if you want your stuff with you. I have nearly 100 gb of pictures, 15 gb of video, 30 gb of documents and 40+ gb music on my hard drive. The reason I have all of this is because the last thing I want to have to do is micromanage my media. I don't want to have to think about what I need when I go somewhere. I just want my stuff where I can find it.

You can drop a 1 tb drive into the newer MBPs. The largest I can put into my 2007-era model is a 640 gb drive, so that's what I have in it. You run out of space on an Air, too darn bad. No option to upgrade storage that's fused to the laptop chassis. The newer MBPs have the simplest HDD replacement I've ever seen in a laptop. One lever, one screw. Done. I wish mine was that easy.

Also, seriously - I use the FireWire connection all the damn time. You lose that with the Air. You also gain yet another set of dongles you'll need to carry if you want to do X, Y and Z. I have enough extra little bits to cart around with my MBP as it is. It's small, it's light, and it's damn expensive. You JUST GOT the MBP. You really might want to try using it for some time before you decide you really hate it.

And don't forget future-proofing your investment: I've been using my MBP for 3 years. It still does what I need. HDD upgrade aside, I've done nothing to it and it still performs perfectly well for basically anything I ask it to do. I have never owned a laptop prior to this one that didn't start to piss me off after a year or two. Who knows how the Air will perform a few years down the road - you have zero ability to do the simple upgrades (memory, HDD) that normally let you extend the usable life of a portable computer.
posted by caution live frogs at 8:53 AM on December 8, 2010


I bought the 13" MBA with the same specs you're looking at (upgraded processor, 4gb ram, 256mb drive) a few weeks ago and am using it for pretty much the same thing you're looking at. The music software I have is all Windows based, but I'd expect that performance between Windows and OSX is simliar. Let me address some of your concerns:

(i) I have a lot of digital stuff, around 250GB. Most of that is music and movies.
As mentioned by other commenters, you could offload a lot of that to a NAS, a high-capacity USB key, or a SD card. The Air seems to support SDXC cards, which'll go up to 64gb of storage fairly inexpensively.

(ii) I'm one of those people who dabble in music.
I'm currently running Ableton Live, Reason, and some Native Instruments VSTis and haven't run into any meaningful processor power issues. I'm running these on Windows 7 using Boot Camp, but I imagine the speed difference between the OSX and Windows versions of the programs would be minimal. If you're doing any multitrack recording or use a lot of samples, the SSD drive on the MBA is blazing fast. (As a side note, booting from OSX to Windows 7 takes about 15 seconds).

(iii) Standard investment worries
Nobody really knows what the next MBA will bring, but Apple probably won't refresh the MBA for quite some time. If storage is your main concern, you should invest in a tiny portable external hard drive.

Thus far, I'm supremely satisfied with the Macbook Air.
posted by poq at 9:52 AM on December 8, 2010


I used a MacBook Air as my primary computer for a couple of years. I absolutely loved the portability, whether for wandering around cities and popping into coffee shops, or just carrying it around the house. Two pounds lighter makes a big difference!

Even the very first version had more than enough power to run Ableton Live for DJ gigs, and it had no problems at all with normal use of photoshop.

I found that they would fall apart (hinge failure) after about a year of heavy use. Apple was great about repairing/replacing them, but it was still a pain in the ass. I'm certain they've fixed this issue with the new models though.

This summer I made the switch to a 13" MacBook Pro, as I had started doing some live video mixing, which was finally pushing it as far as processing power was concerned. I'll definitely consider a return to the Air next time I upgrade.
posted by jeffj at 12:52 PM on December 8, 2010


I got a MBA with the same specs you're looking at pretty recently. I have a Mac Pro tower so wanted something portable - the two pounds lighter and way thinner really does make a huge difference. The battery life is worth it alone, no more looking for plugs at coffee shops - I don't even bother bringing a cord around with me.

It seems faster to me than my tower even though I know it is not. For everyday tasks it flies. I use Photoshop and Capture One extensively, and it has been adequate, although I haven't tried opening up any giant files yet. If you are just going to do some adjustment layers you will be totally fine.

I am moving my media collection to a NAS at home, but use Dropbox to synchronize my work & documents which works amazingly. For watching movies I just drop things from my tower into the Dropbox and it will be ready by the time I need it (usually happens instantly if you turn on the LAN transfer feature).
posted by bradbane at 1:47 PM on December 8, 2010


It would certainly be able to handle a MIDI keyboard. Specifically: what you care about with any MIDI peripheral is latency, basically the amount of time between the point when you give the input (press the key, in the case of a keyboard) and the point when you hear the note/response.

Current MB Air processor and RAM specs are a better than the specs of my several-year-old MacBook Pro, on which I experience about a 150ms to 200ms latency (around a fifth or a sixth of a second between those two points). That's low enough for most work with a MIDI keyboard to feel very natural.

You should just make sure the new MB Air's USB ports deliver power and aren't some hybrid version that delivers no power in order to conserve battery life (which I wouldn't put past Apple). The most usable/portable MIDI keyboards are bus powered, drawing power from the USB port.
posted by kalapierson at 7:57 AM on December 12, 2010


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