A week away with the MacBook Air 11″

Over a month has passed since I wrote my first impressions of the MacBook Air 11″ and I’ve been asked by several readers for an update on how I’ve been getting along with the Air. Well I can tell you all now: I still love it, with some caveats.

I recently returned from a week’s holiday in Italy. Of course, when you run a small business (Applingua Ltd), it’s never really a holiday. I had an open mind before I went about how the Air would perform. On the one hand it’s ultraportable, easy to pack and has no problem running any of the software I use on a daily basis (Safari, SubEthaEdit, iTunes, etc). On the other, I was concerned about the 11″ screen compared to my usual 24″ LCD. Could I cope doing proper daily tasks on this screen?

At the airport

We all know the MacBook Air is the lightest Mac you can buy. I suppose I didn’t really grasp just how light until I was on my way through the airport and onboard the plane. The Air is truly amazing in this respect, on several occasions I just forgot I had in in my bag (unfortunately one of those occasions was at security when they rather impatiently informed me that I was supposed to take my laptop out). Getting it out in Starbucks just felt natural too. Slip it out of your messenger bag and it powers on in around 10 seconds.

Flying with a budget airline is rarely a great comfort experience, but the small footprint of the Air meant I could angle the screen to a position that felt comfortable. My old 13″ MacBook would hit the seat in front of me, several degrees into the neck ache zone. I watched a film, did a little paperwork and the battery held up well. The Air left the house at 100%, 30mins use at the airport, 1.5hrs use in-flight ending up at about 57%.

Oops, where’s that window gone?

During the first weekend away, I’ll admit to not working much. Checking emails, watching a few films, browsing news websites and catching up with Hacker News is as good as doing these tasks on much more expensive machines. The built-in SSD makes the machine flash through basic tasks at least creating an illusion of an extremely fast machine. I couldn’t recommend this machine more for these sorts of tasks.

By day three I had received an email from a client and had to get to work. I opened my usual array of around 6 applications and got to work. It wasn’t long before my original worry dawned on me: 11 inches is a small screen. Bear with me. My job often requires me to check app localizations comparing text to a few PDFs I have created. I like to divide my screen up so that both Preview is open and the application I’m working in. This allows me to look back and forth to complete work a lot more efficiently than using Command-Tab. Unfortunately this is no way possible on the MacBook Air.

Some of you will be reading this and wondering what did he expect? Often you don’t really assess your needs until you have used a device properly over a longer period of time. Except this isn’t really a need, it’s more a preference. A way I prefer to work, rather than a way I have to work. I quickly decided that I should just change the way I work when using the Air.

I can’t deny that there was a niggling feeling in the back of my head saying I should have opted for a 13″ MacBook Air. It has, after all, the same resolution as the basic 15″ MacBook Pro. Since being back, I popped into my local Apple Store to check out the 13″ Air. The 15″ MacBook Pro. And the 17″ MacBook Pro. Shock horror, not one of the MacBooks, Airs or MacBook Pros except for the 17″ could do comfortably what I wanted to achieve. The high-res 15″ and 17″ MacBook Pros are obviously also suited to people with better eyes than me. Not nice.

It dawned on me that the way I work has evolved because I am a greedy desktop user with a high-res 24″ screen. I can’t say I would want to work 24/7 on the MacBook Air 11″, but at the same time I’m not sure I’d want to work fulltime on anything less than a 1920 x 1080 screen. No laptop can really satisfy me. Yes I am excluding the 17″ in the term laptop.

Flash, bang, stutter

Throughout the week speed wasn’t really a problem. There were absolutely no hold ups in my usual file management, compressing, email checking, iTunes-listening, movie watching. I would be lying however if I said there weren’t one or two times when the Air stuttered a little.

The MacBook Air does not ship with Adobe’s Flash installed. This is because it drains battery, or so we are told. While I’m sure that’s also a reason, I couldn’t help but notice a warm MacBook Air after several hours use and several open applications did stutter a little on a YouTube video or two. Nothing major, but held up a Finder window opening by two or three seconds.

Compiling an app also took a little longer than even my 4 year old desktop Mac (both have SSDs). I appreciate however that this isn’t a common task for a lot of you.

Emails yes, compiling maybe

So to ask me, would I buy the most basic MacBook Air 11″ again? I would probably answer with Yes, but with caveats. If you’re a word-processing, movie watching, iTunes listening user this is a perfect device: light, fast to boot and open apps, beautifully designed and ultimately the most lifestyle fitting Mac you will ever own.

If you’re a home office worker and this will be your only Mac, then I would say think about it. If your job just involves the usual word processing and number crunching apps (Office, iWork, etc) then it’s probably fine. Think about an external monitor and maybe choosing the 4GB version.

If you’re a pro user I think you already know the answer to this. The Air couldn’t be your only machine. Compiling, rendering, whatever tickles your fancy will take a lot longer on this machine than on one of the new Sandy Bridge MacBook Pros. As a second Mac, I can very highly recommend it.

My question to you: how do you really use your Mac? Think about it. There’s a difference between theory (“I would like to do some video rendering one day”) and reality (“I just surf Engadget and MacRumors all day”). Then decide if the MacBook Air 11″ is right for you.

[UPDATE: 27/11/2011] You may be interested in reading my First Impressions of the MacBook Air 13″ (2011)

I would love to hear your thoughts…
  1. I pretty much in total agreement.

    I’ve always wanted a single ultra mobile machine that could also be my single desktop computer too.

    Prior to the MacBook Air 11.6″, I used a previous generation 13.3″ Air (non SSD) and a 24″ iMac. This worked well, using iDisk and MobileMe to synchronise data, email, bookmarks etc. I still longer for a single machine however.

    My Air is the current top of the line 11.6″ machine, 1.6Ghz, 4Gb Ram and 128Gb SSD. I didn’t think it could really be my only machine, but it is more than up to the task. As Rob says, that small screen isn’t there for everyday use, day in day out. However, I was lucky enough to pick up a 24″ Cinema display going cheap. This combination is perfect in the office, charging the Air and giving me 24″ of screen real estate to play with.

    I’ve said this to a number of people about the little Air. Don’t under estimate it’s performance. I use performance as opposed to power, as with the optimised SSD drive, this is one snappy little machine. Every day office applications open an shut instantly, and I’m regularly getting five plus hours of battery life from it. And that’s real world batter life, wireless on, screen so I can see it. In fact, if I’m out and about for half a day, I rarely take the mains adapter with me, I just don’t need it.

    So the Air is my only office Mac now. I do have a MacMini, but that’s really only to hold my iTunes library, iPhoto and record TV shows with Elgato’s EyeTV software.

    The Air probably isn’t for video editors, and pro photographers .. for everyone else, just maybe.

    Small is very nearly perfect

  2. Darren says:

    Thanks for this follow up, good to hear about some of the limitations too.

    Saying that, this and other blogs (and much thought) have convinced me to go for the 11″ model.

    Thanks again for these posts.

  3. Nicolas says:

    Great review.

    As far as word processing is concerned, would writing for several hours at a time be bearable? I am a philosophy/English lit double major, and as such I spend several hours a day working on research papers. I don’t want to spring for this machine without the knowledge that it won’t make me want to pull my hair hour half way through the semester.


    • Rob says:

      As I deal with localizations, I do myself spend quite a large proportion of my day editing and reviewing text documents.

      Like I write in the review, it’s difficult to do the two up thing, where you have a PDF one side and a word document the other. That’s how I worked a lot at university so it would annoy me I couldn’t do that. The graphics chip in the MacBook Air is certainly more than powerful enough to run an external monitor of any reasonable size, so maybe you’d want to hook a MacBook Air up to an external for writing your thesis and then detach for taking to college / library.

      Remember though that the resolution on the 11″ is the same as the 13″ MacBook and MacBook Pro, so everything “fits” just the same.

  4. Steve says:


    I use Word on my MAC and create multi hunded pages and embed a large quantity of graphics into them.

    Do you encounter lag when editing large graphical documents?



  5. Clay says:

    Hey – just a quick note that the 11″ Air is actually approved in the USA to go through security without being taken out of your bag. Same as the iPad.

    Thanks for the article with your experiences.


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