Is the Air all that?
February 23, 2009 3:09 PM   Subscribe

Buying a new Macbook: Should I get the Air? Or a regular Macbook, customized with a solid state HD?

My main computer is an imac. I am replacing an old and heavy titanium G4. I use the laptop while traveling (once a month or so), mainly to give presentations or do research. At home I use it mostly for idle googling, some word processing, etc. I need to be able to show clips on it in my presentations but I don't require the computing power of a macbook pro. And I don't really need the DVD drive, although obviously it would be convenient. I would be paying at least $600 more for the Air, but the only advantage seems to be that it weighs 1.5 lb less. And looks cool. I'm leaning toward the regular Macbook (4.5 lb) but would appreciate hearing people's opinions as it's such a big decision. If you own either one (newest models) your thoughts would be especially helpful.
posted by Morpeth to Computers & Internet (17 answers total)
I used to have an Air, I like it, it got quite a bit of positive attention. I felt as if the battery life lasted a long time with the SSD. I think it is a definite luxury item, you're buying the badge more than anything. It isn't as if the 1.5lbs less made a huge difference in my life, but it was a nice experience overall.

You can always stick a SSD drive into Macbook. Again, I think they're a bit expensive considering the benefits, but prices keep falling. It extends battery life and is a bit faster than a regular drive, but nothing dramatic that would justify the costs if you were to look at just the numbers.

For a secondary travel, general google device I went with a netbook. These things are dirt cheap compared to the Air. You lose OSX obviously, but for general googling and such the operating system matters very little.
posted by geoff. at 3:16 PM on February 23, 2009

this new 13" macbook is really light already, I never notice I'm carrying it. I converted to mac for this one. The macbook air might be slim but it still has all these peripherals you have to use (external DVD drive, only one USB port). Think of all the shiny toys you could buy with that $600, too.
posted by lizbunny at 3:17 PM on February 23, 2009

FWIW I adore my MacBook, decked out with maximum RAM from and tons of easily swappable storage space, (easily replaceable drive and USB ports) and an optical drive that does everything I could want, internally, even if any one need appears only on the rare occasion. It's also way, way thinner than my former iBook (of 5 years ago) and Thinkpad (of 2-3 years ago). I would't have bought an AirBook even if it was the same price as the MacBook.
posted by Science! at 3:36 PM on February 23, 2009

The 13" macbook is really quite light, if weight is a concern. Also, if you use the laptop for presentations, you might need to consider how you'd connect to whatever projector/large screen you may use, since the Air doesn't have any usb ports/etc.
posted by you zombitch at 3:56 PM on February 23, 2009

I have the newest model of MacBook and absolutely adore it. The only reasons to get an Air are the ones you mentioned in your question. If the weight and cool factor is $600 worth of important to you, then buy it, otherwise you are just spending more for less functionality. I know you say you don't really need the DVD drive, but you aren't paying any more for it, and if a time comes when you actually do need it, it would be nice to have it.
posted by arcticwoman at 3:56 PM on February 23, 2009

Oops, I should check things before I post. The Air does have one usb port, apparently.
posted by you zombitch at 3:56 PM on February 23, 2009

the Air has a much slower processor (1.6-1.8 versus 2.0-2.4), non-upgradeable RAM, and non-upgradeable hard drive. unless you're a fashion magnate or you live on airplanes (which it doesn't seem that you do), you're getting more computer for the money with even the base $999 white plastic MacBook. (note that the current plastic MacBook has the same system chipset as the Air and MacBook now. older models don't.)

you don't get the backlit keyboard on anything but the $1,599 MacBook though; however, that's still cheaper than the Air and a heckuva lot more computer than the $1,799 Air. you can get the $1,599 MacBook with 4GB RAM for about $50 less than an Air.
posted by mrg at 4:38 PM on February 23, 2009

Not having a built in optical drive would be a big hassle IMO, also I have the 13" macbook and it's about as light as I would ever need in a laptop, it's almost too light b/c I wish they would have built a sturdier case for it. The Air seems like too much of a gimmick, way too expensive.
posted by BrnP84 at 4:46 PM on February 23, 2009

Apple is selling refurb'd Airs for $999, so you could have your cake and eat it too. This is the first-gen, less-capable Air, although no doubt adequate for your purposes. The Air seems to offer the most benefit someone who will be schlepping it a lot, and it sounds like that is not you. That said, a friend of mine has one of these, and although he doesn't really travel much, he says it is "the perfect computer for me" in terms of battery life and ease of toting around the house (which he does a lot). For a strictly secondary computer, I can see how it would make sense.

My wife just got a new unibody Macbook. It's very nice. I doubt you'd be unhappy with it. It's her only computer, and apart from the minor inconvenience of needing to jack in/jack out 5 different plugs whenever she goes mobile, it seems entirely up to that task.

What doesn't make sense to me is getting a Macbook with an SSD. You don't get much of an increase in battery life or decrease in weight, and they're very expensive.
posted by adamrice at 5:24 PM on February 23, 2009

I think both are great computers, but I thought I should note some people consider the Macbook screen inferior to the Air screen, as shown in this picture: comparison picture. (Although you might only notice in a dark room and you might prefer the glossy glass of the Macbook.)

As for the refurbished Airs, I'd probably stay away from those. The Rev. A models had some overheating problems, which seems to be solved in the new version by the 45nm chip that has 3 TDP lower heat output and the Nvidia 9400m graphics chip. I wouldn't want it to overheat, have a core shutdown, and stutter for you during a presentation.
posted by sharkfu at 5:32 PM on February 23, 2009

Go to an Apple store an check them both out if you can. I would probably lean towards in the Macbook if you are in doubt. I got an Air when they were first released and ended up returning it and buying a refurb MBP. I do miss the featherweight of the Air, when using my computer on the couch/bed/passing/showing/heavy bag/etc, but ultimately it was too much of a trade off for me. As mentioned above, the one thing I am severely dissapointed in with the new Mac notebooks is the screen. The Air screen is very nice, and the old matte MBP screens are incredible, the new glossy screens remind me of a cheap Dell and look terrible.

If you haven't been there already, you might want to check out the MacRumors notebook forum.
posted by sophist at 5:52 PM on February 23, 2009

I have the new low-end Macbook. It's a great little machine, thin and very light yet solid as a rock. It doesn't have the illuminated keyboard, which I consider a plus. I had that with the MacBook Pro and it ended up coming on at all the wrong times, in mid-level light it lit the keys just enough to make them evenly illuminated with the background and thus unreadable. It runs Windows like a champion and I play TF2 and Left 4 Dead on it all the time.

I have yet to see a compelling reason to go with a SSD. Everything I've seen so far indicates that the mass market SSDs don't offer a significant improvement in battery life or performance over an olde schoole hard drive. Give it a generation or two.
posted by mullingitover at 6:05 PM on February 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

unless you're a fashion magnate or you live on airplanes

I live on airplanes some months and I have the air and I use it mainly for presentations. I have an iMac as my home computer and I notice the slower CPU. Things like facebook can cause the fan to go on and slow down all my typing. A few more observations

- I used to schlep around an older Macbook and the weight/size difference is a really big deal to me
- I like the lit up keyboard and I rarely notice the lack of a DVD drive
- the way the USB port works it can be hard to fit bulky USB drives in it
- simlarly, bulky USB drives can mean you can't get an audio jack in there
- you need a dongle for ethernet, I forget mine a lot
- the hard drive is really too small for it to be a main computer, for me
- the speakers on it are better than my old macbook's
- it's a little slow to boot up for whatever reason

And lastly, and this is really stupid. but if you're like me and speak off of podiums a lot, the air's subtle clamshell shape actually makes it sometimes not stay on a slanted surface with only a small lip. This has happened 2-3 times for me and it's fixable with a pencil or something else, but really it's worth knowing before you're in a jam.
posted by jessamyn at 9:58 PM on February 23, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for their insights. Weighing the evidence, it's clear that the Macbook is the right machine for me. The podium issue alone seems annoying enough to steer clear of the Air, but it's also very hard to rationalize paying so much more for a slower processor, smaller HD, non-upgradeable RAM, and non-replaceable battery. As for the Macbook, I'm also swayed by the argument against the SSD, given the expense and minimal payoff. Enternal gratitude for helping me make this decision!
posted by Morpeth at 5:16 AM on February 24, 2009

I spend my life on the road. I bought the 1st generation Macbook Air with the 80GB HDD a year ago and have a 24" iMac at home. My company has just issued me a ThinkPad T61 and despite having been a ThinkPad user for more than a decade, I couldn't face carrying such a large machine for any length of time.

I am extremely happy with my decision. The MBA has been a fantastic business laptop. I think I've travelled with the external DVD once or twice and have never used it on the road. I needed to use the ethernet dongle in my company's office for some time, but have recently been able to get the LEAP secured wireless to work. I still carry the ethernet dongle along with the Mini-DVI to VGA and Mini-DVI to DVI adaptors. They sit at the bottom of my bag the vast majority of the time, so no concern about forgetting them. Unlike Jessamyn, my machine boots and wakes from sleep quickly. I agree with her other comments.

The downside for me is being on the road too much. Photography is a hobby. I originally thought I'd be home every couple of weeks and would have time to do post-processing on my iMac. I've been on the road a couple of times for over two months. The Gen 1 Macbook Air is not a heavy lifting machine for processing large volumes of RAW files, much less any manipulation. I've also had to move to an external HDD for my photo library.

My main business use is lots of Lotus Notes, heavy MS Office, Java apps, various IM Apps, PDF rendering, Internet stuff, etc. I also have Aperture and PSE6 installed for the travelling photo work. I carry two USB HDDs, one for timemachine and the other for photos.

One thing on the screen and graphics side. The MBA has an S-IPS LCD panel (part of what you're paying for). Very good quality, wide viewing angles and excellent colour reproduction. The MacBook, not as good. The Gen 2 MBA has the same graphics chip as the MacBook, albeit clocked down. For photography, I want the IPS panel. For general use, I'm not sure it'd make that much difference.
posted by michswiss at 6:05 AM on February 24, 2009

Target Disk Mode is an incredibly valuable troubleshooting and repair tool.
The Macbook Air does not have this capability as it lacks Firewire. In some cases, I'd be lost without it as a technician. You must keep a bootable USB device with you at all times with the Air as it also lacks a DVD drive to start from.
posted by Studiogeek at 8:28 AM on February 24, 2009

I like the new "Unibody" Pro model in this case. You can get the "Pro" model for a similar price to the "Macbook" if you go for a refurbished model. I have a Core Duo White "Macbook", A Core 2 Duo "Macbook Pro" and a new "Unibody" Macbook Pro. The "Unibody" is LIGHT YEARS beyond the previous model with regard to construction. There is truly No Contest between the White "Macbook" and the "Unibody" with regard to construction. The White "Macbook" just feels flimsy and vulnerable compared to it. I compared only construction, as any of these models would suffice for what you have planned processor wise.
posted by Studiogeek at 8:43 AM on February 24, 2009

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