Windows to the soul, or time for something new and Airy?
January 10, 2012 8:10 PM   Subscribe

Should I get a MacBook Air or stick with Windows? I may be getting a new laptop for school and I want to get the best, most portable one... but I have never had a Mac. What should I get?

My 4-year-old laptop is adequate, but on the slow side and not remotely portable (it's a 17" widescreen HP). I may be getting a new laptop ASAP for the new semester. I will be walking/biking/public transporting 1-2 miles each way, 4 days a week at a minimum and want to have a laptop I can take with me to class for notes and recording lectures. I want something fast and capable. I am an English major (creative writing), so I want something I can take with me and work on my stories in a comfy chair at a cafe. I also want something powerful. I want to be able to play Minecraft and TF2 (my current laptop can barely handle MC, and can't keep up with TF2 or Portal, for ex.). I want to be able to stream TV shows without skips (again, my current laptop isn't so hot at this anymore, though it was HP's Entertainment PC).

From what I've heard about the MacBook Air, it's the best for the size and weight. But I am so completely unfamiliar with and scared of the unfamiliar OS. The last time I used a Mac was in 2001 -- and it was so user-unfriendly! I am so familiar and used to Windows... I don't want to end up with something I hate, have trouble navigating, don't know what to do to speed up, etc.

Also I am concerned about the screen size -- I really like my 17". Has anyone gone from big to little and made the transition OK?

If I get the Air, which version should I get (I saw 4 on Apple's site and oh-so-confusing).
posted by DoubleLune to Computers & Internet (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Macbook Airs are fast, don't weigh a lot, etc.

But I don't think they'd be able to play Portal very well.

I find the screen on the Macbook Air to be cramped, even though the higher-resolution one has the same resolution as 15" mac book pros.

Personally, I use a 17" mac book pro with a i7 quad-core cpu, 512gb SSD, 512mb of video ram and 8gb of RAM. Expensive but blazingly fast. No game that I have thrown at it has been played at anything less than the highest settings.

It also gets rather hot.
posted by dfriedman at 8:16 PM on January 10, 2012

I don't have any experience with the MacBook Airs, but I did switch to a Mac for college, and found the transition from Windows to be really easy. I don't think they're user unfriendly at all, you just have to get used to some things being so simple/obvious that you're overthinking them. (Like when I first got my MacBook I spent longer than I had to trying to install programs, thinking I needed to do the whole Windows install wizard type thing: nope, all you have to do is drag them to the applications folder.) In my opinion, most things are simpler on a Mac that with Windows, and the OS doesn't intrude much on your daily use.

If you really have concerns with liking or getting used to the operating system, does your school have a computer lab with Macs available? You can try one out there to get a feel for the Mac OS.
posted by yasaman at 8:24 PM on January 10, 2012

I'd look at the 13" Macbook Pro. It's got a bit more oomph, and is still going to be a LOT more portable than your HP.

As a bonus, you can stuff it full of RAM for a pittance (if you do it yourself), and run Windows within MacOS if you really miss it that much. The Air maxes out at 4GB, which simply isn't a lot these days.

The Air's kind of limited in terms of its specs; it's certainly portable (to the point of being virtually weightless), but it's not particularly powerful. There's a chance that your old HP might actually have a faster CPU.
posted by schmod at 8:49 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

You want a Mac.

My dad is a software developer, and he uses a 15" MacBook pro for nearly all of his work. He's able to run multiple Virtual Machines and work in both simultaneously on it right now, and all of his programming (or at least the vast amount of it) is done in MacVim. That's all really technical and I don't know how much use you'll get out of it directly, but the basic point is that Macs, while yes, they look dainty, are absolute phenomenal workhorses.

I've got a 15" PowerBook right now that's going on its 7th year of use and it's still chugging right along, after going through my dad (for work) my mom (for recreation) and now me, for school. I'm about to buy a new machine for occupation purposes, graphic design, things like that, and I haven't decided between an air or a MacBook pro yet, but there are pros and cons to both.

The Air is (obviously) lighter, and smaller, but it doesn't have upgradable RAM which could be a problem for gaming—they aren't Alienware machines, by any stretch. That said, they can handle the work, just not as well as some other machines might. My dad plays portal on his MacBook Pro and it works just fine.

The Pros are heavier, but they come with lovely options for things like RAM and Solid State Drives, and they'd probably do better for your gaming because they have the option of more room to think. Overall, I think that you'd be better off with an Air, just because of mobility and usability as a student.

With the operating system issues, seconding Yasaman. Apple can kill new users with kindness; things are so much simpler compared to the maze of a Windows environment that going from something like PowerPoint to its Mac equivalent, Keynote, can seem like having to gauge an eye out with a spoon to some people. After you realise that you really have to do much less work and get used to the unobtrusive subtlety of the OS, though, you'll get along just fine. Eventually you'll start to wonder how on Earth you ever got anything done on a Windows machine. I did.
posted by linzenoonoo at 8:55 PM on January 10, 2012

My macbook air will run portal, half life and team fortress on low quality. It runs minecraft okay, but trying to control it with the the touchpad is kind of a nightmare.

OSX has changed quite a bit since 2001. Why don't you go to the apple store and play around with it and see how it feels?
posted by empath at 8:57 PM on January 10, 2012

nthing empath. Go to an apple store, and try it out, and see how you feel. If you're still ambiguous, tell the sales guy your story and let 'em make his best pitch to overcome it.

Portal via steam ran fine for me, but I didn't really care for it. I am a big Torchlight fan and it's a winner.

One thing I did for years with my laptop was use it basically docked to a 24" monitor. Gives me all the screen real-estate I need for developing while keeping everything on the machine I can take to class to take notes on.
posted by Mad_Carew at 9:20 PM on January 10, 2012

Some thoughts from a laptop toting student: I take Public transit (bus/train), drive and walk. I use my computer for taking notes (But mostly I'm a paper+pen girl), checking stuff during lectures, having my own copy of the slides up.

I bought a 13 inch Macbook (which is the same as the 13inch pro's now). The Air wasn't out then, plus an Air doesn't have a CD drive. I found I would have to borrow software/CDs occasionally for uni (Arts/CompSci). I can run windows (I use Virtual Box) - (I got the Windows for free from the IT department, your uni may vary.) You can also install windows on a mac and boot to it, just like a PC.

It is a very comfortable size to sit in a chair and type type type. I love this keyboard, it doesn't give me RSI as much as other keyboards can.

It is a bit heavy, which is something I lament a bit, because I also lug paper notepads, but you get used to it. If you have mega bucks (heh!) and are serious about cutting the weight, get a light netbook for taking to uni, and a 15inch MB (or whatever) for home and game use.
(I don't have mega bucks, so the weight/power ratio for this is pretty reasonable to me.)
For some perspective on the weight: for carry-on luggage only travel, I didn't bring it. (purchased an iPod touch, which is, in effect a tiny computer. I may adjust my laptop lugging habits now I own this)

I went for Mac because of the solidity of the hardware. There are 5 macs in this house at the moment, and two dead PC laptops. (One of the Macs is having a screen issue specific to it's older make/model) I used to be a PC person. The Mac OS in 2001 sucked (OS9, right?) but the new Unix base and updated GUI make it a great machine. I have no experience with Lion (the newest version of OS X) but it looks all right.

streaming without skips? This is dependant on your broadband speed (and how many others are using that connection) as much as your computer's speed.

Hope this helps.
posted by titanium_geek at 9:43 PM on January 10, 2012

You can also install Windows on an Air if you want to, but unless you have to run something only windows will support, you probably won't want to.

All of the Valve games from Steam run just fine on it, but not at like "Ultra" settings (spend twice as much on a "gaming computer" if you really need to do that). It will not have any trouble playing any video.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 9:47 PM on January 10, 2012

I have had no problem running Portal 2 on my MacBook Air.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:52 PM on January 10, 2012

I have the 13", 1.7 GHz model, with 4 GB of RAM. Runs smoothly. Occasionally the fan will come on if I play too many Flash games or videos, but that will always be a problem with Adobe Flash on any non-Windows box.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:01 PM on January 10, 2012

In addition to experimenting with current-gen Macs, you might consider some of the new Intel ultrabooks- the company sunk a huge amount of money ($300 million) into a fund to encourage hardware manufacturers to come up with ultrabook designs, and it seems to have worked. The current issue of Maximum PC has a rundown on a few of the models. The Asus Zenbook UX31E garnered a 9/10 review and may be worth checking out.
posted by EKStickland at 10:03 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I bought a 13" Mackbook Air this spring after using Windows since 1992. Learning the OS hasn't been a problem at all. Assuming I'd have a problem adapting I installed Vista on it almost immediately, but the truth is that I virtually never use it. Probably the happiest I've been with a computer since my Apple //c.*

*I don't many games on it but I do edit video and photos on it. It's nice and speedy. I run it dual screen with an external 25" display and don't get any jittery video or anything.
posted by Ookseer at 10:04 PM on January 10, 2012

I prefer Macs but for people who aren't at all technically inclined will probably find Windows a little easier to use. For one thing, you already know how to use it. Also, for all their logic and consistency in the user interface, I think that the novices find them really hard to master.

How many times have you seen someone with a Mac that has every single program in the dock and dozens of programs running because they don't realize that closing the window doesn't close the program? How many people don't have any idea of how to switch windows within a program? None of these users will ever figure out exposé. they won't right click the dock icon because they don't know how to enable right-clicking.

Macs are great, very solid, and wonderful for people who actually enjoy using computers. For everyone else I think the only advantage is that they rarely get viruses and don't tend to accumulate the crap (toolbars, worthless programs in the task bar, etc).
posted by The Lamplighter at 11:42 PM on January 10, 2012

Windows at work and Mac at home, transition to OSX wasn't hard at all. Love my 13" MBA, suggest you go to the Apple store and try one out.
posted by arcticseal at 2:54 AM on January 11, 2012

I got a 13" base model 2011 MBA for uni. I was previously using a 15" laptop and a 22" (I think?) desktop. Most of the time, I don't even notice the smaller screen size (for comparison I've used 10-11" netbooks and absolutely hated them.) I think 13" is kind of a sweet spot for portability vs usability.

Never had any problems streaming video or playing games, but I do find that some games run a lot better on lower settings.

I had never really used a mac before this but I didn't find the adjustment particularly difficult. There were a few occasions on which I needed to Google how to do something that I'd been doing for years on Windows but for the most part it was smooth sailing.

I find the battery life really good, which should be important to you if you plan to use it out and about for hours at a time. There is some amazing software out there for Mac that often doesn't have Windows equivalents (and of course the reverse is true, but you have more OS options with the Mac.)

Overall, I'm not exactly a "will never ever go back!" Mac convert but my experience with this particular computer has been very positive.
posted by lwb at 3:40 AM on January 11, 2012

I have a 13" MBA and I do all my Steam gaming on it, including Portal, and it runs just fine. Go for the Mac! But beware that you will become a Windows Idiot after some time, especially as Microsoft releases new versions. (I can barely manage to connect to a wireless networking using Windows 7 these days, when six years ago I used to be a Windows XP power user working in my college's IT department)
posted by olinerd at 3:55 AM on January 11, 2012

Response by poster: Ok, I'm going to go to the Apple store today and take a look at the OS. It sounds like I'll adapt to it just fine.

Couple more questions:

I'm considering getting the Air and keeping my old laptop, but wiping it and reinstalling Windows from scratch, so I can use it a) for gaming and b) for it's bigger screen size at home. Is this worth is, and if it is, how easy would it be to use it as an external monitor?

From your comments, 13" is the way to go. Is it worth the $300 more to get the 256GB one instead of the 128GB one? Also it has the option of upgrading to 1.8GHz processor from 1.7 for $90 -- worth it or no?

Is it worth getting the SuperDrive? If I keep my HP laptop, couldn't I just use that for CDs and transfer things over?

I want to use my laptop for recording lectures in class. Is there a built-in functionality for this, or would I need to get a program?
posted by DoubleLune at 4:45 AM on January 11, 2012

Response by poster: Also, thanks for the gaming comments. I think productivity and portability are going to win out over pleasure time activities on this purchase :)
posted by DoubleLune at 4:45 AM on January 11, 2012

IT's got a mic built into it. As far as the extra ram, how many MP3s and movies do you want to put on it? I have 128gb, and I haven't filled it, but I've been using my pc to save all my mp3s..

Also, you'll probably want to get a timecapsule for time machine if you buy the Air. (or at least some kind of external drive that supports it. You're going to end up deleting a lot of stuff off your air to clear up space, and you'll want to be able to restore it if you need it.
posted by empath at 6:04 AM on January 11, 2012

The 128gb vs. 256gb really depends on how much space you personally use. Do you have a large music or photo collection? If so, you might want the bigger size. The 1.7Ghz vs. 1.8Ghz probably wouldn't make a very big difference.
posted by deansfurniture5 at 7:15 AM on January 11, 2012

I love my 13 inch Air. I was in a similar position and don't regret switching to a Mac at all. The fan does go a bit mad when I watch streaming video, but there are no lags or anything.

I'd get an external HD instead of a bigger one on the machine. Storage is cheap and $300 is crazy for thr extra amount you're getting. I don't find that I use as much space on the computer, even with a decent music and photo collection. If you store videos that might be an issue but again: external HDs cost nothing.

I don't think the bigger screen is worth the price jump but I don't game. Sometimes I use it with an external monitor, which I like and is easy. It does require an adapter, though.

The Air doesn't have a DVD or CD drive which seems to be the biggest practical difference between them for everyday users.

The Air genuinely makes me more productive and the portability is seriously a dream. For your schoolwork purposes you can't go wrong.
posted by k8lin at 7:20 AM on January 11, 2012

I'm a student right now, too, and I swear that HPs are Mac-makers (but they don't make Macs!). I switched from a 17" entertainment laptop back in April, albeit to a 15" pro. I thought about the Air, but I couldn't quite pull the trigger - probably for fear of screwing myself out of something.

If the SuperDrive doesn't break the bank, I'd say get it. You'd be able to ditch the mental overhead that would come with relying on the HP for anything at all. Not that yours is a curse like mine was, but fewer things to worry about during school is never a bad thing.
posted by Chutzler at 7:32 AM on January 11, 2012

It seems like you've already decided on a Mac, but I wanted to chime in because I was in a similar situation to you a year ago. Life-long PC user, but always was curious about Macs, liked the visual appeal, etc, so I bought a used 2009 MacBookPro last January, and put in some extra RAM. Adapting to the OS for things like browsing the internet was easy, but when it came to programs I was used to using intensively on Windows (Word and Excel) the Mac versions blew, and were unusable to me. I got "Parallels" to run a virtual machine in Windows and use the programs I liked, but even with 8 GB of RAM it was prone to freezing and data loss. I hated it. It became slow all the time running VMs and drove me crazy.

A couple months ago I bought a 14" Lenovo Thinkpad T420 with a solid state drive and I couldn't be happier. The keyboard is an absolute DREAM - I can type for hours and hours without any discomfort, which wasn't true for the MBP. It weighs about as much as my old MBP, about 4 lb, which will be much lighter than your 17" laptop. If you have any friends with a Thinkpad (you can tell from the red "nub" in the keyboard, which turns out be super useful as well) you should try typing on it. There are also light weight versions (Ultrabooks) in Lenovo's Ideapad line that are starting to come out.
posted by permiechickie at 7:53 AM on January 11, 2012

I have the 128 GB one because I have a Mac Mini working as a media server with a 1 TB external drive to store all my music and movies and do all my backup. With everyday use and a subset of my music on the MBA, I haven't gone beyond about 40 GB usage.

I have the "low-end" CPU and have not had any complaints about it. CPU speed seems less important these days than number of cores and amount of memory.

I think they call come with 4GB of RAM now but make sure that is what you get; RAM's not really upgradable since it's soldered directly onto the mobo, and since Macs have a really long life, you'll appreciate the RAM in 5-6 years.

My boyfriend bought my 2010 MBA off me when I upgraded to a 2011 model this year and I got him a $25 external CD drive off NewEgg. Don't buy the Apple branded one because it's stupidly marked up.
posted by olinerd at 8:47 AM on January 11, 2012

And just re: the Parallels thing: I have a MBP at work in which I run a Windows 7 VM through Parallels. The MBP has 4GB of RAM. On VM startup, yes, the computer becomes painfully slow for about 15 minutes (I have it set to allow Windows to use a certain amount of memory, but I think there's some back-and-forth it does to optimize it). Once I've got Windows running, I can put it in Coherence mode -- where Windows programs open as windows just like my Mac programs do and they're all individually accessible on my Dock -- and it's a dream. I notice no difference after that first self-calibration or whatever finishes. And if I just keep the VM open but "sleeping", it's easy enough to wake it up for quick Windows tasks without it slowing everything down.
posted by olinerd at 8:50 AM on January 11, 2012

If you're buying a laptop to run windows programs, buy a windows laptop, or get a macbook pro and install bootcamp on it.
posted by empath at 8:53 AM on January 11, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you everyone so much... You are looking at the proud new owner of a MacBook Air! Wheeeeee!

I also opted to get the 1 on 1 thing they offer, which I think will make the transition pretty painless. I was very impressed with the intuitiveness of the OS when I looked at it at the store.
posted by DoubleLune at 12:32 PM on January 11, 2012

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