Journal

Photography, photoshop, and the philosophy of taking pictures by photographer Bill Wadman, co-host of On Taking Pictures.

Macbook Air 13" (2011) First Thoughts

My 2008 unibody aluminum Macbook, yes that one that they only made for about 5 months, was getting a little long in the tooth. So I gave my partner Heather my unibody as a replacement for her black Macbook and started looking at the upgrade options. First off, I'd like to point out that at no point is my laptop my main machine. I've got a very powerful Hackintosh with 24GB of ram and 9TB of drives with which I do serious work. My laptop is usually just sitting next to me with my email up, or for skyping with the family, or reading the news on the bed. Occasionally however, I travel with it and use it to backup my cards and do some basic Lightroom adjustments and minor Photoshop before posting an image or two online.

An iPad was ruled out immediately. I had bought and sold one a few months ago when the iPad 2 was released. I was largely unimpressed. I like having a keyboard and create more than I consume, so I needed to move further up the chain. I knew I wanted something light, and I don't need the juice in a Macbook Pro. Again, this isn't my main machine. This left me to consider the new Airs.

With the i5 processors and 128GB SSD for a reasonable price, I was mostly sold from the start. The main question was deciding between 11" and 13". I love the idea of the 11". Little tiny thing not much bigger than an iPad that you can run actually software on. However, in the end I went with 13" for a couple of reasons. First, when working with pictures, the extra pixels make a difference. Especially the 144 extra vertical pixels, especially in Lightroom where the filmstrip takes up vertical space along the bottom. Secondly, the 11" stock configuration has a slightly slower CPU, 1.6GHz vs 1.7GHz, which may not sound like much, but modern Intel chips do this neat trick where they overclock themselves when not using all the cores. The 1.6 chip overclocks to 2.3GHz where the 1.7 overclocks to 2.7GHz, and that extra 400MHz can make a difference when you're rendering a couple hundred RAW previews which generally happens on a single thread.

So I stopped by the Apple store down on 14th street, and picked myself up the bottom of the rung 13" with 4GB of Ram and 128GB SSD with my ASMP Apple discount. Came to about $1325 after tax.  Just for a minute consider the amount of computing power in a chasis less than 3 pounds which costs so little.  That's about half what a decently set up original IBM PC would have cost, and that's not even taking inflation into account.  Moore's law is your friend.

I brought it home and then agonized with myself for a couple hours over whether I should even open the box. $1300 is not a lot for what you get, but it's certainly not pocket change. And how often do I NEED a laptop anyway? Shouldn't I just save the money and take it back? I constantly get buyer's remorse after large purchases. It's like my father is constantly behind my shoulder making me feel guilty.  Well, I won't build the suspense any longer, I opened the damn box up and here are a few of my thoughts based upon less than a day of use.

First off it's fast. Like really fast.  But this is to be expected, it's got a fast SSD in it. My first in a laptop.  So not only is everything nearly instantaneous, even the boot time isn't more than a few seconds really, but it's also almost completely silent.  The only thing I've found to get the fans going so far is skype video, but that's to be expected.  I would say that if you weren't doing serious photo or video work and instead using the computer for what other people use their computers for,( i.e. web, email, facebook, calendar, music) that this would make a fine primary machine as long as you can live within 128GB of drive space. You would probably want to get an extra external drive.  That said, it would probably be the fastest feeling computer most people have ever used. It's that zippy.

Let's talk about the screen. It's got a nice resolution for the size (1440x900) and it's plenty bright, but it's still a TN panel, so there is still some color shift in both the vertical and horizontal axis. And I suspect the color depth is 6 bits per channel at best. There's some serious dithering going on in the radial gradients on the login page. It's better than my last Macbook though, and considering the size of the machine it's in I'll give it the benefit of the doubt. It wouldn't work as your primary monitor, however, and sadly, Apple's stock profiles suck. Whatever white point they use is way off from the 6500k that I work in.  Also as it turns out, the software that is used with my i1 Display 2 colorimeter is PowerPC based. So without Rosetta in this new OS, I'm up the creek on pulling this screen into shape.   So I'll have to find a way around that profiling issue before giving this the seal of approval from a color point of view.

Battery life is impressive so far, I've not used it past 70% or so, but it looks like it's between 5-6 hours of my normal use.  When I was on Skype earlier it quickly dropped the estimated time down from 6 hours to 2 hours. So be warned that it's not limitless.  I have still not tried pulling some RAW images in to see how they're handled.  On my old machine, loading in 150 images from my 5D2 and letting it build previews would quickly leave me with half my battery in only 15 minutes.  Hopefully this will be a bit better.

It's obviously a light laptop, though somehow it doesn't feel as light as it is to me sometimes. Pick up my old one in one hand, and the new one in the other and there's difference, but it's not the night and day difference that the thickness of the machines would imply. Maybe that's just more of my lust for the 11" which is another half pound lighter still. Also I've found when sitting on the couch typing, like I am right now, it's almost too light in the base. Not quite enough to counterweight the screen to keep it stable under your hands.  I'm certainly not asking for it to be heavier, but it's an interesting unintended consequence.

Overall,  so far, so good.  It's fast, light, relatively small and does everything it's supposed to do well. I'll give it 100 RAW files to chew through tomorrow and get back to you on how it acts as a travel photo machine. My guess is that within the limitations of the screen and battery, it'll do just fine. By far the nicest laptop I've owned when you average everything out. But then as technology improves, that's exactly how it should be. Better, faster, cheaper.  Keep it up, guys.

UPDATE: Ok, so I've imported 206 21MP RAW files into Lightroom 3 and rendered standard previews. The battery went from 48% to 42% in the 12 minutes or so it took, and the laptop fans didn't sound like they were trying to take off for Madrid. All a huge improvement on my old unibody Macbook. Part of this is due to the more efficient/lower voltage CPU I'm sure, but I'll give some credit to the SSD as well. No spinning means faster disk access and less juice used.

Now if I can just figure out a way to profile this screen without buying a new puck and we'll be in business.