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A week of web design with the new Macbook Air.

“It still amazes me that this tiny enclosure contains an entire computer”, my girlfriend mused, as she examined the new base model (1.7 i5, 4 GB RAM, 128 GB HD) 13” Macbook Air I had purchased a few hours earlier. “Is it going to do everything you need it to?”

Truth is, I wasn’t quite sure. I wanted a small and slender portable that I could replace my aging Macbook Pro with, one that could actually keep up with my iMac. This was no simple request, as the iMac was the latest generation with an SSD. Although I read the latest Macbook Air was pretty quick, I studied the Apple return policy well, as I still wasn’t confident that it could live up to my expectations.

The Macbook Air had been on my radar ever since Apple started making SSD storage standard on the slender portables. Boot times were in the mere seconds, and apps would be awaiting input after a single bounce in the dock. While I came close to purchasing the last iteration of the Macbook Air, I ultimately decided to hold off until the next release after reading Cameron Moll’s review.

Macbook Air Review
Fig. 1a The title of Cameron’s blog post pretty much says it all.

When rumors started flying about a new Macbook Air set to release the same day as OS X 10.7, I figured the newest generation would really take advantage of the OS’s new features. The gesture support really perked my interest, I loved the convenience of an SD slot, and I definitely wanted to be able to drop the word “Thunderbolt” amongst my peers. I was indifferent about the new backlit keyboard, but I am currently eating crow, as this post is being written in my backyard as the sun goes down.

The first time I booted up my new Macbook Air, it was surprisingly snappy. I mean I expected snappy, but everything was instantaneous. Sure, it may have been because it was a fresh OS install, but it was noticeably quicker than the Macbook Pro that it was replacing. The Macbook Pro was no slouch, as it was the flagship model from a few years before. To make it even quicker, I had recently upgraded the hard drive to an SSD, something I am sure you have heard me sing praises about.

After installing a few apps on my new Macbook Air, setting up my dropbox account, and virtually replicating my iMac work environment, it was apparent that this little powerhouse wasn’t slowing down. This was a quick machine.

I had absolutely no intention of doing any design work on this tiny 13.3” screen, although it should be noted that it is bright, crisp and the colour reproduction is quite decent for such a thin panel. If I want to get really picky, it does lack some of the colour depth that my 27” LED iMac panel offers, but what do you expect out of a panel that is only a few millimetres thick? At 1440x900px, it is actually the same resolution as my last 15.4” Macbook Pro, so I received the same amount of screen real estate, with slightly more eye-strain. Although I have 20/20 vision, I currently have the font size set to 16pt as I write this, as it is much more comfortable.

I remembered hearing that the 27” iMacs had video-in capability, so I figured it would be great to work with the display that I stare at day in and day out, as I would be more likely to pick up any performance nuances with the Macbook Air by recreating my regular work environment. I purchased a $20 DisplayPort cable, plugged it into the new Thunderbolt port on the Macbook Air, and the Mini DisplayPort on the iMac, and I was instantly up and running.

 

Macbook Air External Display iMac
Fig. 2a Using my 27” as an external display for the new Macbook Air

Down To Business

I am definitely not the power user some of you are, but I still deal with pretty large and layer-intensive Photoshop files on a regular basis. I was amazed to see that when I was working with a 5000x1160px PSD that contained several hundred layers, the Macbook Air never lost it’s zip. It was nearly as snappy as it was when I set it up for the first time, and I am extremely satisfied with the performance.

Filters, heavy brush work and massive use of the healing tools were no match for my new machine, and it was in this area that I really thought I would see the Macbook Air choke, as the processor speed is much lower than my previous notebook. This indicates that the Macbook Air has really been built around the latest Intel architecture, and Apple has taken full advantage of it.

Because I was using the iMac display with the Macbook Air, I actually forgot that I wasn’t using the iMac at times, and to me that speaks volumes of the Macbook Air’s performance. Because I use the iMac daily, if there were any significant performance differences I am pretty sure that I would have picked up on it. I almost want to go as far to say it performed slightly better than my iMac, but I am not going to do that.

Conclusion

Truth is, as nice as it would be, I don’t really need it to be a desktop replacement. If that is what you are looking to hear, and you want some reassurance, I can give you this: If you most of your work takes place in Photoshop/Illustrator/InDesign, you don’t render a ton of 1080p video, and you aren’t animating the next Pixar movie, I think you will be pleased with the new 13” Macbook Air. Paired with one of the new Apple 27” LED displays, it could be a fantastic setup at a relatively reasonable price.

Bottom line, for $1300, I definitely scored a winner here. For what I use it for, I can confidentially say it consistently outperforms my older Macbook Pro in virtually all areas, minus the display’s colour depth and screen size. When you couple that with the sleek form factor and the superior battery life, the only problem I see with the new Macbook Air is this: Apple has a lot of work ahead of them in repositioning the next generation of Macbook Pro, as I have found (and I am sure most other users will find as well) that the bulkier form factor of the Pro and the higher price point might just be too hard to justify.

A WORD OF CAUTION:

Varying speed SSDs
Fig. 3a The Macrumors article on the game of chance in SSDs.

Results may vary. Apparently Apple has been utilizing two different SSDs in the new Macbook Airs, and they are reading and writing at drastically different speeds. This Macrumors Video demonstrates the differences in speed, and shows you how to identify which SSD you have: Watch The Video

Thankfully, I ended up with one of the quicker ones. I really believe that this entire review would have faired much differently if I didn’t.