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My New 13-inch MacBook Air Has A Tough Act To Follow – The ‘Book Mystique

It always takes me a while to warm up to a new computer. I’m inclined to like tools (not just IT hardware) more the longer I use them — partly familiarity I guess. A topical example would be my two old G4-upgraded Pismo PowerBooks, one of which I purchased used in October, 2001, and which has been in continuous service since then. I still like the Pismo keyboard better than any other laptop keyboard I’ve encountered, which is a big reason why I keep using them for drafting and editing tasks.

The keyboard in the 13-inch MacBook Air I ordered on Apple’s Black Friday sale is pretty good, and it’s nicely backlit, but not up to the comfort standard set by the Pismo IMO. The MacBook Air is also my first new anchor PC system in nearly five years, and it has a tough act to follow. My late-2008 unibody MacBook has been a flawless performer throughout, and will definitely be seeing continued use — probably displacing some of the stuff I use the Gismos for.

The new MacBook Air is a really nice piece of work, with Apple’s traditional solidity and precision feel. I went with the base 4 GB RAM with a 256 GB SSD upgrade configuration. I may kick myself in the future for not ponying up another $100 for a RAM upgrade to 8GB, but financial realism obligates drawing the line somewhere.


Photo Courtesy Apple

I had also considered a 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro and the holdover non-Retina Pro, and might indeed have gone with the rMBP if Apple hadn’t jacked the price in Canada to 50 bucks more than the U.S. price, while the MacBook Air’s price in $Canabucks remains at par with the greenback so far, enhancing its comparative value equation for Canuck purchasers. I’m doubtful that will last much longer, with the Canadian dollar down to $.93.xx on Wednesday.

My previous two anchor Macs were Apple Certified Refurbished units, but the MBA’s relative bargain price (dropped by $100 with the Haswell et al. upgrade in June) plus I also got a $150 gift certificate for ordering on Black Friday, which will likely be applied to the purchase of an iPad Air sometime next year. A similarly configured ACR mid-2013 Air would have been only $100 cheaper with no Gift Card and possibly not even Mavericks and the newly bundled iWork software suite, so buying new this time was a much better value.

You can’t really evaluate a workhorse computer until it’s in your work environment, but impressions in the early going are mostly positive. It’s amazingly slim, but not much different footprint-wise than the old MacBook. I had been curious about how it would perform and feel in the tasks and venues that have been more and more shunted to the iPad. This 13-inch Air really isn’t an iPad substitute. Perhaps the 11- inch MBA would come closer as a rival for portability, and I considered it, but the 13-incher’s 1440×900 display resolution, one-third longer battery runtime, and SD Card slot seemed like too much extra value to pass up for only $100 more up front. In general I think the current 13-inch MacBook Air at $1099 represents the most laptop for the money Apple has ever offered. I’ll always love my Pismos, but they would have cost some CAN$4,000 at the high end when new.

I have mixed feelings about the 1440 x 900 display resolution in the same physical space as the 1280 x 800 screen on my old MacBook. The 1440 x 900 res. was very comfortable on my old 17-inch PowerBook G4, but squeezing it into a 13-inch panel makes stuff awfully small for my now in their seventh decade eyes. I use my anchor Mac mostly as a desktop substitute in my office, on a laptop stand to elevate the screen closer to neutral eye level, and with external keyboard and pointing devices connected, and myself sitting about three feet away from the monitor. This has worked fine with the MacBook, thanks to mid-range computer bifocals, and I can manage with the smaller default images on the MacBook Air’s panel, but I’m thinking seriously about getting an external monitor, which is something I’ve never bothered with before.

This was one of the points that had me seriously considering opting for a last of the Mohicans 13″ MacBook Pro, which shares its form factor and panel resolution with my late-2008 MacBook, but it seemed like too much yesterday’s technology, and the second-generation MacBook Airs have intrigued me since they first arrived in 2010. The Haswell CPU upgrade and price cuts last June made the MacBook Air pretty irresistible, and as well I wanted to experience what SSD speed could do for my workflow. The 802.11ac Wi-Fi will probably also be appreciated in the future if I upgrade to the new AirPort Extreme base station or other wireless router that supports it. Not a big priority for me, as my primary bandwidth bottleneck is the wireless throughput to my wireless ISP provider, which is the only nominally high-speed Internet available in this neck of the woods. The new AirPort Extreme features three-stream 802.11ac Wi-Fi technology with a maximum data rate of 1.3Gbps, or almost three times faster than 802.11n claimed by Apple, and the new base stations include high-powered radios and a six-element beam-forming antenna array to maximize range and performance. The only bad part is that AirPort Extreme sells for a suggested retail price of $199 – more than twice what I paid for my current Belkin router. Additional technical specifications are available online at:
http://www.apple.com/airport-extreme

There’s also the macBook Air’s more powerful Intel HD Graphics 5000 integrated processor units claimed to give the MacBook Air up to 40 percent faster performance than the HD Graphics 4000 IGPUs in the 13-inch MacBook Pro. I don,t do much work with graphics intensive apps, but more graphics power stands to be more future-proof, and I keep my computers for a long time. Apple also claims the upgraded flash storage provides speeds up to 45 percent faster than the previous generation SSDs used, and nine times faster than traditional hard drives. I would have liked to have the old school MacBook Pro’s FireWire support, but I’ve managed with the FireWire-less MacBook for four and a half years, so that obviously wasn’t a deal-breaker. USB 3 is more relevant these days.

Actually, so far, I haven’t found the speed increase all that dramatic compared with the 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook. These sorts of impressions are always relative, but I still spend a lot of time on the ancient Pismos, and the speed advantage of the 1.3 GHz Haswell MacBook Air over the MacBook isn’t nearly as great as the difference between a 550 MHz G4 Pismo and the C2D MacBook. That said, more speed is always welcome, and the no moving parts ruggedness and operating silence of flash memory appeals greatly.

I’m still in the process of installing my applications and migrating my files to the Air. I haven’t had much spare time lately, so it’s slow going, and something I want to do thoughtfully and without hurrying. I haven’t done a really fresh from scratch setup of my operations for many years, and I figure there’s a lot of unnecessary baggage that would come with just porting my stuff over from the MacBook or cloning and transferring the MacBook’s hard disk contents. The MacBook Air has OS X 10.9 Mavericks loaded up and can’t run 10.6 Snow Leopard which still gets plenty of uptime on my old MacBook, and dual-boots from 10.8 Mountain Lion as well on a separate HDD partition. That cord-cutting is something I’ve been dreading for several years now, as I there are still some apps in my production suite for which there are no really satisfactory non-Carbon replacements. That said, I’ve run enough in Mountain Lion (I skipped 10.7 Lion altogether), that I’ve settled on workarounds that are usable, albeit not ideal.

Speaking of drive partitioning, I didn’t partition the 256 GHz SSD in the Air, breaking another longstanding precedent. I even partitioned the little (although physically huge 20 MHz SCSI HDD of my original Mac Plus 22 years ago. I’ve always liked having two bootable systems installed, but perhaps that is no longer as relevant as it once was.


Photo Courtesy Apple

All in all, I’m quite happy so far with my decision to go with the MacBook Air. It will take a while for me to make a comprehensive evaluation, and it has a tough act to follow. Currently, I would have to provisionally say the late-2008 MacBook is the best Mac I’ve owned so far until the MacBook Air proves itself better over the long haul.

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