I have spent the last few weeks glued to a new 11-inch MacBook Air.
For the most part, it is finally the laptop I’ve been waiting for: Light enough to carry around everywhere, while quick enough to do what I want it to do.
Whereas the iPad is a great play machine, the MacBook Air has been a great work machine. (For producing things like… this entire review!)
There are some things about it that I really like, and some things I’d like to change.
But in general, it has proven itself to be a great secondary computer. And I’m keeping it and my iPad.
This thing is tiny and it's thin and it's light. It's the first computer I've ever owned that I can truly take everywhere, without making my backpack feel heavy.
So 'portability' is definitely the best thing about the 11-inch MacBook Air, which makes it an amazing second computer. I can almost type on it using an aeroplane tray table with the seat down in front of me.
The 13-inch model isn't that much heavier or bulkier. (And many may prefer it for other reasons; read on.) But it's not the same.
The MacBook Air has replaced my iPad for most of the web browsing I do at home on the couch, because it can handle a bunch of browser tabs at once, can handle complex web apps like this site's content management system, and can support Flash video and animation, when necessary.
It has also replaced my iPad as my note-taking device at work. In this case, the physical keyboard is worth its extra bulk, and the ability to fly between apps is helpful.
But I still use the iPad plenty for reading e-books, surfing the web and Twitter from bed, watching video, at the gym, on the road, etc. It still feels more personal and more relaxing.
I think I'll get enough use out of each of them to justify having both. (But I might not upgrade to the next iPad as quickly as I would have...)
Unlike the iPad, which blew me away with its battery life, I find myself worrying about the MacBook Air's battery more than I expected, and keeping it plugged in a lot.
Part of this seems to be because I'm using the Chrome browser to access websites that use Adobe Flash, which eats up more processing power (and battery life) than otherwise.
Part of it could be a mental thing, nervous when my battery meter gets below 50%. Unlike the iPad's, which I usually ride down to 10% before charging it. (This seems to take forever to do, though.)
If long battery life is a priority, the 13-inch MacBook Air may be a better computer for you. It's supposed to last an extra 2 hours per charge.
I've never owned a netbook, in part because the pint-sized keyboard looked like a real pain to use.
That's not the case with the MacBook Air's spacious keyboard and large buttons. I can type fast and accurately, the same was as any other Mac keyboard. It's a huge help when you're trying to get work done.
Some have complained that the keyboard isn't backlit, like some other MacBook keyboards. I've never owned a backlit keyboard, so this isn't something I miss. I pretty much only type in places where it's light, and I don't really have trouble finding the keys anyway. I'd rather have the battery life (and lower price) than a backlit keyboard. This seems more like a luxury than a necessary function.
The 11-inch MacBook Air has a bright, beautiful screen, which puts all my old laptop screens to shame.
But it is very small. (This is how the computer is so tiny. Duh.)
It's probably too small to use as a primary computer, which is where the 13-inch MacBook Air is a better bet. About a third of the time, I wish I had gotten the 13-inch Air, even just using it as a secondary computer, because I think it would feel better to work on.
The nice thing is that the screen is super-hi-res, so you can see more pixels than you would otherwise. (It has the same number of pixels as the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and reminds me a little of the 'retina' display on my iPhone 4.) But that means that text is tiny, and can be hard to read. I've found myself boosting the font size on some websites just to read them from a few feet away.
Our old PowerBooks and MacBooks used to melt our clothes. Not so, for the new MacBook Air.
It generates some heat, especially when doing processor-intense stuff like watching web video. But it's not bad at all.
One of the things I love about the iPad the most is the 3G Internet connection -- being able to get online from anywhere. I've used it to stream baseball games at the gym, Netflix movies on a bus, and to read email in taxis.
It would be great if Apple at least offered a similar feature for the MacBook Air. Perhaps the same $129 extra fee for the 3G modem as the iPad, and pre-paid plans without contracts, available from AT&T or whomever Apple wants to work with.
Perhaps Apple intends you to do this via an iPhone tethering plan. Or perhaps it's waiting for LTE 4G before building it into laptops.
Either way, I've been testing a Clear 4G mi-fi device with the MacBook Air, and it's pretty nice. Download speeds have ranged from about 1 Mbps to 3 Mbps, and the pricing isn't insane. A mi-fi device might be a better option now if you're juggling an iPad, MacBook Air, or other devices.
It's not a very powerful computer, by design. But it's quick, and hasn't choked on any of the software I've been using.
The Air has a relatively modest processor, which keeps its price and power consumption low.
But its flash-based storage (no spinning hard drive!) and the $100 RAM upgrade I ordered (4 GB total) have made the Air surprisingly quick.
I mostly use it for the web, TweetDeck, Photoshop Elements, and iTunes, and so far, it hasn't choked on anything.
This is my first computer without a DVD/optical drive. And so far, I haven't missed it -- especially the space it took up for a feature I never used.
For some, this may be a problem for installing software, or ripping music. But I've been able to download all the apps I need. For example, Adobe has full versions of all its software, including Photoshop, on its website.
And Apple's Mac App Store is just around the corner.
A lot of people are going to say, 'Why would I spend $1000+ on a MacBook Air when a Windows netbook is $300?' To those people, I would say, go ahead, buy a netbook.
But if you've decided to buy a Mac, it's hard to find a better value than the 11-inch MacBook Air, starting at $1,000.
Especially -- as we've said -- if this is a secondary computer.
BOTTOM LINE: The 11-inch MacBook Air is a great second computer. The 13-inch MacBook Air could be a great primary computer.
If you want a computer that you can keep in your bag, carry around everywhere, use at the office, at home, and on the road, and complement your primary big-screen computer, the 11-inch MacBook Air is a good buy.
If you want to use a computer for more than 4-5 hours without charging, use a laptop as your primary computer, or appreciate a bigger screen, the 13-inch is probably the computer for you.
The idea of having both a MacBook Air and an iPad is not as ridiculous as it seems. They are both good at different things, and each has weaknesses.
But if you only want to buy one...
If you want something that's good for fun stuff -- browsing the web, reading e-books, watching videos, playing games, listening to music -- the iPad is still better, I think. (Especially if you have a functional laptop that you don't mind carrying around.) The touch controls and lack of a keyboard are still phenomenal.
If you want something that's good for work stuff -- using a bunch of apps at a time, using a bunch of browser tabs at a time, typing really fast, running Adobe AIR apps or using Flash content -- the MacBook Air is better.
But if money isn't an issue, you could still find time to use both.
Many have wondered whether a 15-inch MacBook Air would ever exist.
Given what Apple has said about the new MacBook Airs being the future of the Mac, you'd have to think so.
Perhaps next year sometime?