Is the 13" MacBook Air the right laptop for me?
January 24, 2014 8:47 PM   Subscribe

Needing to get a new portable, because the battery in my workhorse laptop is borked, I ordered a refurbished 13" MacBook Pro - which I am typing on at the moment. So far, it seems fine for what I need, but I was wondering whether the hive mind could think of a better solution. Generic snowflake detail inside.

My basic needs are that I travel a fair amount, and need to be able to write on the move, along with the usual productivity stuff (spreadsheets, presentations and so on). When I was thinking about my options, I figured the priorities were probably:

1) Battery life - all-day seemed like a good minimum standard.
2) Keyboard - a really good keyboard is essential. I have large and slightly clumsy hands, so the closer to full-size a keyboard can be, the better. Travel, spacing and the like are all also important.
3) Portability - to a degree. I'm a big person, and I tend to carry a big bag pretty much everywhere. I limited myself to a maximum screen size of 13" for this device, but I was prepared to go lower if I could find a good enough keyboard.
4) Screen resolution - ideally, I want to be able to have two documents, or a document and a browser window, side by side.

So far, these all seen to work out with the Air (Core i3, and I went for the 256GB upgrade rather than the 8GB RAM upgrade, because I don't plan on using it for serious computing or gaming, but 120GB of storage felt a little weedy and not contingency-proof. Screen resolution is the only real issue, but it seems workable, and no doubt contributes to the battery life.

But I have a week until I have to decide whether to keep it, and was wondering if anything meets my needs better. Cheaper is also nice, but if this is going to be with me for 3+ years I'd rather front-load cost and get a better device.

For example, I considered the 11-inch MacBook Air, and the keys didn't seem cripplingly smaller, but the loss of screen real estate was a factor, and it felt like for not a very large increase in footprint i could get a couple of hours' more battery life.

I was also tempted by various ThinkPads (because of the high-quality keyboards), and in particular the ThinkPad Yoga - 12" is about my favourite screen size for a portable device, going back to the G4 Powerbook. However, the battery life in particular, at 7 hours, seems poor (I mean, not _terrible_, but not great). The IdeaPad Yogas were also temping - the Yoga 2 Pro in particular - 9 hours of battery life, 3200x1800 screen and that folding-to-a-tablet thing, which I can imagine being useful on planes, in particular. That said, my primary need is for something I can type on, and the IdeaPad keyboards don't always have the convexity or the travel of the ThinkPad. Also, the ThinkPad Carbon X1 and the Sony Vaio Pro 13 were in the running, along with the 13" Macbook Pro...

So, I guess my question is - in your opinion, what is the best portable productivity solution (prioritising battery life and keyboard quality) for about $1000-$1500? In your opinion, do things like tablet formats, passive digitisers and hi-res screens make a meaningful difference (I will be watching the odd movie on this laptop, I imagine, but I don't need pin-sharp 4K)? And, for those who have used the MacBook Air 13", do the battery life claims actually stand up? And does the battery hold its charge over time?
posted by running order squabble fest to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I had a MBP15 that died right before a business trip, so I bought a MBP13 (I own my business, so I can't just go out and spend The Man's money on replacements -- I am The Man!) I bought a mid-range i5 MBP13 with small memory and disk, which I upgraded myself to 16GB and SSD.

The 13" (normal, glossy, non-Retina) screen was a disappointment from my matte, high-res-but-non-Retina 15", but otherwise the performance was close enough, the keyboard is identical, and the battery life is just stellar. I'm typing on the 13" now, even though I got the 15" fixed and it's resumed its role as my main machine.

I'm quite happy with the 13" MBP, which I use(d) for lawyer stuff, as well as Linux and Windows (via Parallels VM). If the 15" hadn't been fixable (after 2 years(!)) I would have been happy enough to keep the 13" (but I wouldn't have ever bought another Apple.)

The Airs look great, but they're not upgradeable and even the maxed-out versions are a little skimpy. There's just no reason not to have 16GB of RAM, and it's silly to pay Apple prices for mid-sized SSDs.

If Apple made a 13" Retina Air with an i5, 16GB and a reasonably-priced 500GB SSD, I might replace my little MBP. But they won't, so neither will I.
posted by spacewrench at 9:27 PM on January 24, 2014

Best answer: I have a 13" MacBook Air that I bought in June 2012. It's the best laptop I've owned, though I do find the 120gig SSD to be too small for me. I've solved this by moving entire iTunes library onto my old laptop, which I use as kind of a media centre; if you have a huge library of music, movies and apps you'll probably need to find a similar solution or use an external HD for storage.

My previous machine was a 2008 MacBook Pro. I was going to replace it with another Pro, but I really dislike the glossy screens they come with now. The Airs come with the same matt screens that the old Pros used to.

I thought my Pro was a fine weight, but a friend said to me, "You'll be amazed how much lighter the Air is." She was right. I sling my Air around all over the place, carry it with me, plop it on my lap when I'm lounging on the couch, etc, and it really is lovely and lightweight. More than anything, it's the weight issue that would make me lean towards recommending you buy an Air. If you're going to be travelling, it really will make a difference.

To answer a couple of your questions:
- I watch movies on my Air all the time. I'm sure they'd look better on an HD screen but they seem fine to me.

- The keyboard is fantastic and I find it very comfortable to type on.

- My battery was rated for seven hours when I bought it, I think, and after eighteen months it's down to about four. (This is my primary machine, I use it 12+ hours a day.) I usually keep laptops for three-four years and replace the battery after two. Neither the MacBook Pro nor the MacBook Air has a user-replaceable battery, so you have to take the machine to an Apple Store or authorised repairer to have the battery changed.

Hope that helps. Happy to answer any other questions about the Air, if I can.
posted by Georgina at 11:15 PM on January 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have you considered Microsoft's Surface Pro 2 (perhaps with a power cover)?

I was originally turned off by the small screen, but it's pixel-dense and windows 8 has in interesting take on window management that makes it work. You can get a Bluetooth Thinkpad Keyboard for it (the same keyboard on the new T-series), but the stock type cover is alright. I use the pen everyday, touch definitely improves productivity, the screen is great, and it's one of the lightest options as long as you realize it functions as a laptop, not a tablet. The dual tablet/laptop modes and desktop/metro modes take quite a bit of getting used to so a big YMMV.
posted by spec at 12:46 AM on January 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

My 13" air is my favorite material possession. My work-issued Dell is a slow, clumsy,
ungraceful, unwieldy, unstylish mess by comparison.
posted by slateyness at 1:39 AM on January 25, 2014

I don't think you will find all-day battery life on any laptop/notebook. Some of the tablets can come close. Adding an external keyboard to a tablet is pretty simple.
posted by yclipse at 5:01 AM on January 25, 2014

There are very few laptops that would have enough battery for all day usage - unless you have very short days, or you aren't using it most of the time. The most effective way to get good battery life out of the existing models seems to be 'get something without Windows' - which for you might mean a Mac, since you seem to primarily want office-type software.

Basically, windows is terrible for battery life. OSX seems to be tuned to their hardware - a lot easier due to the lack of variety in supported hardware - and some Linux variants can get similar battery life. This is one of the more problematic points with the Surface - and I've heard complaints about the external keyboards not being particularly easy to type on.
posted by Ashlyth at 5:27 AM on January 25, 2014

Best answer: I recall reading somewhere that MBAs were originally designed to be secondary computers for travel use. After six months with one, that makes a lot of sense to me. I have a desktop machine that I rely on in some of the same ways Georgina does, and I find my MBA to be a lot more generally portable than any of my previous laptops. I have actual paper notebooks of the same size that are more difficult to carry around. No regrets. But if I didn't have the desktop machine, there might have been.

MBAs went to Haswell architecture this past summer, and I got mine shortly thereafter. I have no problem getting a full business day's worth of time on my battery, performing mixed tasks, with a sliver or two of power left over. (For what it's worth, I also looked at the Yoga, and had the same thought you did.)
posted by gnomeloaf at 7:30 AM on January 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ah, yes - sorry, supplementary detail; I would indeed be using this purely for mobile/couch working rather than as a primary computer: I have a 15" quad-core MacBook Pro which is a little big to carry around, and the battery of which is borked I think as a result of poor heat distribution when one of the fans stopped working (I took too long to get a new fan and install it, and had to use it for work in the interim), so that's now pretty much always plugged into a monitor and keyboard. And I also have a Windows PC for gaming, which isn't tied into my productivity workflow - it's just used for games.

(Also various other boxen running Linux, but let's not even get into that.)

I _was_ using an Alienware m11x r1 as an ultraportable, which has been broadly satisfactory, but the keyboard is a little small (and totally flat - the keys are neither typewriter nor chiclet, but all flat and level with the body of the the machine) and Alienware stopped updating the graphics drivers for its unusual key-activated switch between integrated and discrete graphics, so essentially it can't be updated without switching the graphics to always-on and dropping battery life to about 90 minutes. A full charge using only integrated graphics lasts about 5 hours 30, which is OK on an average day but doesn't leave a lot of room to manoeuvre...

I also have an iPad Mini (with bluetooth keyboard), which I've used as a note-taking device - but I think I need something with a bit more oomph in particular for text editing. I did think of the Surface Pro, and of an iPad Air with a keyboard cover, but I think the rigidity of a conventional laptop might be useful...
posted by running order squabble fest at 8:27 AM on January 25, 2014

The ASUS Zenbooks are quite nice. The 301LA doesn't have a touch screen, the 31LA does. 13.3" and 3 pounds. Maybe try to get your hands on one and see if it speaks to you.

I believe it claims "up to" 8 hours on the battery.
posted by jsturgill at 9:36 AM on January 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: the mbas are fine computers. Fast, durable, light with excellent battery life. I don't think there's anything comparable on all metrics at the same price point.
posted by singingfish at 2:41 PM on January 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

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