2011 MacBook Air – a (fairly) brief review

Thin is in

My beloved ThinkPad X61 stopped working reliably over the summer.  The AC adapter broke in England, to be partially resurrected through the creative use of a q-tip and some tape (wiring out of the brick had frayed).  The fan was already semi-nonfunctional, leading to the occasional heat-induced spontaneous hibernation.  When the screen started displaying random pixel noise after every 3 or 4 reboots, it seemed like a good time to look for a replacement.

The obvious choice was a MacBook Air.  Like the ThinkPad, it was a thin, light machine.  Unlike the ThinkPad, it did not saddle me with Windows (or no battery life, if I used Linux).  The main drawbacks seemed to be the lack of expandability (my ThinkPad had a dock with just about every port a person could want) and the slowish low voltage processor.  When Apple updated the Air in July to the newer Sandy Bridge CPU, I jumped and ordered the least expensive 13″ model.

The nice thing about most Apple products is that they require minimal out-of-the-box configuration.  It took a few hours to transfer over my files, install the most important applications, set the relevant preferences and encrypt the disk, but that was it.  Even after encryption, the machine was reasonably speedy (I gave up using disk encryption on the ThinkPad because it was so slow).  And after that I was set.

Basic impressions:

Stability: mostly excellent, but two somewhat annoying issues.  Application stability is fine.  No problems to speak of.  System stability was fine until I made the mistake of running a firmware update from Apple a few weeks back.  Since then, the machine has gotten into a state where the display and keyboard is disabled but the system is still active.  Seems to happen when I set it to sleep after recent heavy usage.  Only solution is a hard reboot.  Happens occasionally.  I blame the firmware update.  There is also a rare but intermittent problem where keyboard/mouse input will hang for 10-15 seconds.

Performance: pretty good.  Everyday tasks are fine.  VMware and compilation are reasonably fast.  Lightroom is a bit sluggish, but quite usable in a way that it simply was not on old ThinkPad.  The solid-state disk helps a lot, even with the overhead of encryption, although the capacity (128GB) is a bit of a nuisance.

Screen: okay.  Colors, resolution and brightness are good.  Heck, it has as much resolution as the 15″ MacBook Pro I tried before the ThinkPad.  The glossy coating though is annoying, albeit less so than I had feared.

Heat/noise: pretty good.  Neither is an issue in normal usage, but if you run something that pegs the CPU (like Flash or long compilation), the system heats up a lot and the fan, while not unpleasant, is not exactly silent.  Because the body is so thin, and the case is metal, the case does get warm in these situations.  But unlike with the ThinkPad or the PowerBook I had before it, the machine doesn’t get scorchingly hot, and it doesn’t sound like a vacuum cleaner when the fans go on full speed.

Size and weight: perfect.  It’s actually smaller than my main notebook in my backpack.  Almost makes me wish it had a touchscreen and I could dispense with the notebooks altogether.  Despite being larger than the ThinkPad, it’s actually nicer to carry around as it isn’t so thick.

Using as a Desktop: so far, not great.  I use the machine as a desktop (external mouse, keyboard and monitor) at home.  With the ThinkPad, this was very simple.  I had a docking station, and all the cables connected to that dock.  When I needed to take the machine elsewhere, I simply pulled a lever on the dock, and that was that.  With the Air, I have2 USB cables, a mini-Displayport cable and a power connector to disconnect and reconnect every time.  The new Apple 27″ display lets you plug everything but the power in to the display, but I already have an excellent display and there’s no way I’d spend $1000 for a new one (and with worse resolution).  Hopefully, Belkin’s recently announced Thunderbolt dock will allow the same thing, at a much lower cost.

Expandability: not good.  This is connected to the previous point, but with only 2 USB ports and 1 combined ThunderBolt/display port, things are constrained.  Memory is soldered on to the logic board, so no upgrades.  The drive is technically replaceable, but practically, it’s a lot of work and a higher capacity SSD sets you back easily $400.  I tried using a non-powered USB hub to help, but naturally the ports don’t provide enough power for it.  If the Belkin dock is as announced, it may help.  In particular, USB is pretty sluggish for file transfer.

Overall, I quite like the Air.  It’s not cheap, but it fits my uses rather well, except for the lack of a docking station.  Hopefully, the Belkin device will be released soon, and solve that issue.  About the only things I think Apple could really improve would be ditching the reflective (glossy) covering for the screen, and adding a second Thunderbolt port for the machine.

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