Having fun with air… and being really happy with it

MacBook AirIve been thinking about a sub-notebook for quite a while. The one I was looking at last summer was the Toshiba Portégé R500, a great little device (at least according to the specs) with a long battery life and an option to get an SSD hard drive for snappy reaction times and no moving parts. The reason for my interest for a sub-notebook is that when I travel, I always carry around my work laptop, which is a Lenovo T61, a 15.4” wide-screen device with a battery life of about 3 hours (I do have the extended battery), and that I also carry my private computer for my photos, my music and my own stuff.

When Apple announced the MacBook Air, I looked at it with an intrigued eye, but didn’t place the order immediately (I know, really amazing) as I was still quite happy with my original 15” MacBook Pro (the Core Duo version). But then, walking into an Apple Store in Montréal, I saw the Air and by the time I left the mall, I had one of the SSD based model in a small bag specifically designed for it, looking forward to experience it fully during a three weeks trip to Australia and Taiwan. In Summary: I love it!

First things first, this blog entry is not about benchmarking, so let me answer the battery question first: on a plane, e.g. without wireless connectivity, I get over 5 hours of battery time reading PDFs, writing documents, cleaning-up my inbox and catching up my offline Google Reader account, while listening to some music and podcasts in the background. Now with WiFi enabled, I appear to get about 4.5 hours (again, I did not time it exactly). OK well enough time for my needs. Yes, getting 15+ hours battery time would help to keep the Air alive during a Vancouver, Canada to Sydney, Australia flight. But in that case, first, I still try to sleep a little, and second, I had a power-plug near my seat to charge back the battery while sleeping. And the reason I wasn’t using the MacBook Air while having the power plug connected on the plane is that there seems to be, as previously reported, a conflict between the type of power provided while in the air and the multi-touch trackpad! And yes, I just confirmed it during the Air Canada flight home I am currently sitting on between Tokyo, Japan and Toronto, Canada. I will report this issue to Apple tomorrow as it really defeats the logic that a device aimed at the frequent travelers has issues when you actually travel!

On the subject of the multi-touch track-pad, I have been very positively surprised by it. Yes, I’ve been experiencing multi-touch on the iPhone for a few months now and am a strong believer of this type of interaction with the device, but I wasn’t clear on how that would work on a “computer” operating system. There again, the integration with the applications that Apple delivers is seamless (other applications will need to be update to react correctly to these events). For example, when I read to the latest PDF edition of the “Le Temps” newspaper with Preview, I can very easily zoom into and flip through pages, even rotating them is very easy, even if a lot less useful when it comes to reading a magazine on the screen. iPhoto also works very well with the track-pad. I can’t wait for tools such as Pixelmator to support the multi-touch events and build on them for an even better user experience.

Now when it comes to the keyboard and the screen, these are absolutely great to use. The keyboard feel is really nice (I am slowly getting to a North American keyboard as I’ve always been using a Swiss French keyboard before, and am getting better with accented characters). The LED glossy screen is really nice to work with. It is actually so bright when turned all the way on that I normally keep the brightness between 40 to 50%. That certainly helps with battery time.

I know that a lot of people have been complaining that there is no integrated DVD drive and no built-in Ethernet port, not to mention the lack of built-in EVDO or EDGE support. In all cases, having been on the road for three week, I didn’t miss any of them a single time. Regarding the DVD drive, I actually can’t recall the last time I used the DVD drive while traveling. I normally need it to install software, and the remote installation feature works amazingly well. But I only install software when I am at home normally. In addition, as I am carrying my work laptop anyway, I installed the remote DVD software support there just in case.

When it comes to built-in Ethernet port, I am very happy with WiFi support. Most of the hotels I stay have actually wireless access available these days. And for those who have only Ethernet access, I discovered a long time that the best solution is to have an Airport Express base station in my suite-case, so that I can actually use my laptop anywhere in the hotel room, and not only at the desk with the generally uncomfortable chair. Oh yes, and when it comes to EVDO or EDGE support, I live in Canada, do I need to say more? With a mobile phone provider who charges about 1$ per Megabyte before roaming charges, I don’t see this as an option any time soon anyway.

I know that it is, according to the specs at least, the slowest Mac currently available. But as a user of a laptop traveling to surf the web, answer emails, write documents and view the photos I captured during the trip, it is more than fast enough for my needs. And I’ve been using vmWare Fusion 1.1 (more on this in the future) with a Windows XP virtual machine to run CorelDRAW and PHOTO-PAINT X4 on it very smoothly, thanks to the 2Gb of RAM that come standard. For the more advanced things such as advanced video editing or 3D modeling, I will be using the much faster and powerful machine I have at home.

The other factor to consider is the disk space. With the SSD option, the size announced by Apple for the drive is 64Gb. Oh yes, once formatted, it goes down to 55.4 Gb?!? Talk about maths that go wrong. Out of that, you’ll need about 10Gb for the Operating System, 10 Gb for applications (Xslimmer is a must-have application for Air owners) and another 15 Gb for the Windows virtual machine, which leaves 20Gb to play with. This means you don’t have enough space to store your entire music and photo library, but it leaves plenty for data when you are on the road. Here is how I’ve got it split currently: About 8Gb for iTunes (I sync my iPhone with the Air), about 2Gb max for all the photos I’ve captured during my trips and about 10Gb for a full sync of my iDisk. Yes, .Mac makes total sense for people with multiple Macs – the possibility to synchronize the settings and data on multiple computers is really great, and having the “Back to my Mac” feature of 10.5 enable you to access that one file you completely forgot to copy before leaving home. Even better, it works really well.

All in all, the MacBook Air is a fantastic device when traveling that gets people turning their head and asking about how I like it. The constraints are something you need to consider up-front and make sure they won’t be a problem for you. I cannot see it as the main computer for most of us, but as the machine to take with them for the road-warriors that syncs with the iMac they have at home, it is an amazing device – if only the price was a little more affordable 😉