MacBook Pro + Monitor vs. MacBook Air + Monitor
August 23, 2011 7:17 PM   Subscribe

Hello all! I'm headed off to college (second semester) in a short bit and I'm purchasing a new computer. I'd like to buy a 13" MacBook Pro or Air and an external monitor. Good idea or bad idea?

So, my old 15" MacBook Pro was stolen. Insurance is paying for a new computer up to about $1400. I would like to buy a 13" MacBook Pro or MacBook Air and, when I'm in the dorm, plug it up to an external monitor.

Relevant details:
My desk is small(ish): abotu 36"x24".
I'm a computer science major (shouldn't need loads of processing power.)
I don't game.
I do write (code, papers.)
I'm a college student.

a) Is this a workable idea?
b) What size monitor should I get?
c) Any monitor suggestions? It looks like I'll have about $200 to spend on the monitor.
d) Should I get the Air or the Pro or stick with a 15" Pro? (My biggest concern is RAM for maybe virtualizing)

I think this is all I'll need to know. Thank you all!
posted by 47triple2 to Technology (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It's a good idea to get a laptop and an external monitor. That way you won't be stuck in your room and can work in the library, common areas, etc. (helpful if your roommate is a pain in the ass) and bring your laptop to class. When you don't need to be elsewhere, monitors just make everything easier to see. Best of both worlds.
posted by bleep at 7:32 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I do this. You should also get a wireless keyboard and mouse combo, that way your set up will be more ergonomic. You can leave the laptop behind the monitor or in an open drawer.
posted by ddaavviidd at 7:34 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you have concerns about RAM for virtualization, the hard limit of 4GB in an Air means you will probably be swapping a lot. But, the solid state drive means that the swapping will be relatively fast.

Do you plan on locking it to a piece of furniture? The Air doesn't have a lock slot.
posted by Phssthpok at 7:39 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

My MBP finally failed on me last month, and I've been using a 13" Air since. I love it to death and I think you will too. I take it everywhere with me.

I think the fact that you don't intend to use your machine for either gaming or high-performance computing is a very strong incentive to get an Air. However a couple things to consider—
• There's no optical drive. I haven't needed one and have other computers in case I do. Also the Remote Disc feature should help with that.
• I have the 128 GB version, however depending on how big your music or movie library is you might eventually want to prepare for more disk space. If you can, I'd say go for the higher capacity MBA.
• You will need wired networking at some point (hotel rooms, etc). The USB-ethernet adapter costs extra. Unfortunately there is no real Thunderbolt-ethernet available yet; still, I wouldn't count on buying those newfangled ones anyways because they are not going to be cheap.
• I'm doing without a wireless keyboard/mouse and it seems okay.
• External display is very nice thing to have; I do have one. If you get one, get the biggest one you can reasonably pay, with more pixels than your built-in (1440x900). You'll likely need an adapter (to DVI for better quality, or to VGA for traveling/compatibility).

Join us! Welcome to the future!
posted by polymodus at 7:39 PM on August 23, 2011

This is the setup I have, too. I agree with ddaavviidd about the mouse/keyboard. I actually have my laptop open on a stand next to my main monitor so I can use both displays simultaneously. 36" of desk might make that a little tight, though.

You might be able to get a monitor stand that has room for your laptop to slip underneath when you're "docked."
posted by hansbrough at 7:39 PM on August 23, 2011

It sounds good to me, but you'll probably want a full-sized keyboard and mouse, maybe even external speakers. If you're carrying it, I would recommend the 13". Cheaper and lighter. Don't forget AppleCare, and don't forget to make backups.

Since plugging in all those things every time gets annoying, you may want a docking station of some kind - I think Henge Docks is the only game in town. I've got one but never used it.
posted by meowzilla at 7:41 PM on August 23, 2011

Everyone seems to love the new Airs, and judging by what you're going to be using it for, it should be plenty of computer for you.

I'd get the Air, a monitor (sorry, no suggestions on that) and a wireless keyboard and mouse.

I like to have my laptop on a stand, but if you're not using it as a secondary monitor, you may not need one. Ergonomically, I think it's better to have the laptop raised a little higher if you'll be using the screen.
posted by backwards guitar at 7:45 PM on August 23, 2011

I do this with the original 11" Air on a 2560x1440 resolution monitor and it's great. Your desired 13" is considerably(a ton) more powerful in everyway except memory, so that won't be an issue.

I'd suggest the BookArc, I use it it's not exactly a dock, but it's also far more flexible in terms of how you want to use it and looks right at home with Apple styling
posted by Patbon at 7:45 PM on August 23, 2011

Response by poster: I already have the keyboard and mouse from my desk at home. Although, I might pop the extra $70 and get a Magic Trackpad.

If my budget can fit it, I'll get a desk clamp VESA mount for the external monitor. I unfortunately will not have room for dual monitors.

As far as a monitor is concerned, are there any good buying guides? Does 20000:1 vs. 5000:1 make a huge difference? It seems all the monitors have a 5ms response time. What about VGA vs. DVI vs. HDMI?

Thanks for all y'all's input!
posted by 47triple2 at 7:53 PM on August 23, 2011

I'm a faculty member. I have a 15" MBP from a couple years ago, and a 24" apple monitor. The whole "plug it into the monitor" setup is fantastic. Really, really fantastic. It feels like a desktop machine, and then you can use it somewhere else. You can run in clamshell mode, or use it as a second monitor. I can't imagine doing it any other way.

HavIng said that, if I could get a lighter computer, I would. If you plan on working extensively on the laptop not plugged into a monitor (e. g. , I take mine home) then make sure 13" is enough space to do what you need to do.
posted by leahwrenn at 7:54 PM on August 23, 2011

I handed my 2007 MBP down for a 13" MacBook Air. What a beautiful machine! So light, so fast, so quiet! I plug it into a 30" display at work and I'm good for a day of programming.

If you plan on using Lion to its full capabilities, definitely get the Magic Trackpad. Swiping through apps and windows is so nice.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:17 PM on August 23, 2011

As noted by Phssthpok, the Air doesn't have a lock slot. Macbooks are stolen pretty much continuously on and around college campuses. (At least at the large, famous one I worked at) That lock slot can make the difference between your computer being stolen when you go to the bathroom, or get up to talk to a friend (for just a few seconds! really!) in the library and not.

If you aren't planning on locking your computer, backup to dropbox and be sure to have renter's insurance.
posted by rockindata at 8:21 PM on August 23, 2011

I use a 13" Macbook Pro and it meets my needs wonderfully (I code a bit as well). If you are going to use it with a monitor a lot than I have found a Henge Dock to work really well especially if you use ethernet , external speakers and/or USB devices while docked.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 8:24 PM on August 23, 2011

I had a 13" Air (2008) , 22" external monitor, and bluetooth mouse/keyboard for my last year of college. I loved having something so light to carry around campus and was also a non-gaming CS major. Don't worry about the locking slot - just don't leave your door unlocked and don't leave your computer out of your sight. The bluetooth peripherals are nice because you can carry the mouse with you more easily and you don't have to plug them in every time you sit down at your desk.
posted by asphericalcow at 9:24 PM on August 23, 2011

Yes, this is a good idea. The battery technology and overall hardware setup of the Apple laptops are to my knowledge unmatched by other manufacturers.

The 4GB limit in the Air should be enough for virtualization, given your workload. I needed to max my MBP to 6GB because I needed virtualization, heavy-duty DTP programs, loaded browsers, and video editing apps mostly at the same time. (And even with 4GB, I can imagine that an SSD would have done the trick for me just the same. Which the Air has.)

In your situation, I would avoid the Apple monitors. They are a little expensive given what you'll be using them for. Their color fidelity is absolutely superb, but for a student it's not worth the premium (at least not at list price).

I recently bought a 23-inch Samsung 2333T. Very cheap, very good. The best cheap-to-midrange monitor I've used. Only top-of-the line Dell and Apple monitors have been better.

Avoid VGA; It is outdated. Bad picture quality. DisplayPort is best if the monitor comes with it. DVI and HDMI are about equal I think ... I haven't used an HDMI monitor though. The DVI plug is chunkier so therefore I think HDMI is better. For the price it is ridiculously good. Perfect, even.

Re. SSD size: I would actually not spend on upgrading the SSD to 256GB when you buy from Apple. Use an external drive for bulk storage and backup (preferably two). Then if and when your SSD runs out of space, replace it with a bigger and much faster SSD from OWC/MacSales and sell off the old one.

That locking slot on the Pro is, yes, immensely useful. The Air may be small enough that you don't actually need to leave it behind.

While the 13" pro is great, I'm leaning towards the Air myself. (I have a similar workload as you I think, though a little heavier-duty.) Regarding the choice of 11" vs 13" air, IMO it boils down to this:
* 11" Air is amazingly small, light, and portable.
* 13" Air has an amazingly long battery life.

And I'm leaning towards the 11".
posted by krilli at 4:32 AM on August 24, 2011

Haha. This sentence was refers to the Samsung SM 2333T monitor, not HDMI:
For the price it is ridiculously good. Perfect, even.
posted by krilli at 4:33 AM on August 24, 2011

My advice to all departing college students is to pack very little on your first trip down. You can assess what your setup is once you get there and buy/bring extra things after fall break. Suffering through September without an external monitor may be better than having one that you realize just really doesn't work in your workspace.
posted by davextreme at 6:52 AM on August 24, 2011

(Oh, sorry, just re-read that you're not an incoming freshman, so you may know what you actually need.)
posted by davextreme at 6:53 AM on August 24, 2011

Be aware there's probably a great lab managed by your CSCI department. If iPads and dropbox had been invented when I was in college I would have scrapped my 15" pro and used an iPad for reading/research/writing. For coding projects there are school computers everywhere for whenever I might have wanted a bit more oomph.
posted by kjell at 8:42 AM on August 24, 2011

How do you type on an iPad?
posted by krilli at 9:00 AM on August 24, 2011

With a bluetooth keyboard. For fun writing it's great. Super involved research papers might be a chore.
posted by kjell at 9:03 AM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I recently moved from a 15" MBP to a 13" air... most awesome laptop I've ever had, and I'd never go back to the 15". I have the i7/4/256, and fire up a Win7 VM in Fusion from time to time, and it's not a problem at all. Sure, I'd put in 8 gigs of RAM if I could, but 4 has not been a problem.

I predict you'll be very satisfied with the Air. And, +1 to the magic trackpad over a mouse suggestion: once you get accustomed to trackpad gestures, mousing around feels very inefficient. I'm even ready to trade in my beloved Kensington trackball on my iMac for a trackpad: gestures just work better.
posted by Steve3 at 9:30 AM on August 24, 2011

Reasons I bought a 13 inch MacBook Pro instead of a 13 inch MacBook Air;
  • 2.7ghz i7 vs 1.7ghz i5. I regularly have three or four VMs open. I can not have enough CPU.
  • 8 vs 4 gigabytes of ram maximum. I regularly have three or four VMs open, I can not have enough ram.
  • Real ethernet port vs USB ethernet. Backups/large transfers over wireless or USB ethernet is pain in comparison to a real ethernet port.
  • Firewire vs no firewire. Easy bootable backups of the system.
  • Ports all on one side; Putting ports on both sides is stupid.
Things that I miss out on with the Pro instead of the Air;
  • The Air is 3 lbs vs 4.5 lbs. 1.5 lbs really is a real amount if carried in a shoulder bag for a day.
  • The Air has a 1400x900 screen vs 1280x800 screen. Higher resolution screens in the same physical space are always preferred.
Things that aren't actually issues.
  • optical drive. I need an optical drive, but an external one would be fine, and the slim-line ones are portable enough for when I actually need it with me on occasion.
  • SSDs. The SSD on the Air is nice and fast and reasonably priced. The MBP drive can be upgraded in two years when new SSDs are waay better. Having replaced the spinning disk with an SSD in my MBP, I don't think I could live without an SSD on my primary machine ever again.
  • Superior thunderbolt port. The MBP's have a superior thunderbolt chip that supports more devices. In practice, this doesn't matter unless you want two external monitors.
  • The Air doesn't have an infrared port.

posted by fief at 11:11 AM on August 24, 2011

« Older Give me movie recommendations where the main...   |   Can I get some suggestions for a high school film... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.