One year with the MacBook Air

Last June I switched from a Windows 8 desktop, without a touch screen, to an Apple MacBook Air.

Four reasons prompted the move:

  • For the first time in ages I needed portability and my older Windows laptop was too long in the tooth.
  • After looking at and test-driving UltraBooks I saw Apple’s 2013 MacBook Air cost the same as a comparable Windows 8 PC. In the event I picked up a 13-inch Apple MacBook Air with a 256 GB solid state drive for NZ$1700.
  • I’d been using an Apple iPad for a year and an iPhone for a few months. It was clear Apple’s technology stack suits the way I work.
  • The MacBook Air’s thin, light design was important but more than anything I couldn’t go past its claimed 12-hour battery life

How did it work out?

Portability

Although I didn’t work away from home as often as expected, when I did, the MacBook Air’s thin, light design  was everything I hoped for. It did service at four or five away from home conferences and many client offices around Auckland. I also used it on planes and in cafes.

Because I’m a journalist, I need a decent keyboard and a good, readable screen. Windows UltraBooks offer  similar hardware, to date no-one has improved on the six-year-old MacBook Air format.

MacBook Air all-day battery

Battery life isn’t what it was. A year ago I could work more than ten hours on a single charge. Today there’s still enough juice to last a whole day away from home. I get about eight hours out of the MacBook Air now.

I rarely feel the need to pack a power supply when I’m working in someone’s office which means I can slip the computer into a neat leather case.

In part the shorter time is because battery life declines over time. However, I’ve changed the settings and now crank up the screen brightness which drains power faster. I also tend to leave Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on even when I’m not using them.

Even  so, I’d say Apple delivered on its battery life promise.

Keyboard, screen

I worried about ergonomic problems when I moved from a Windows desktop with full keyboard to the MacBook Air. There were none. Even when I ran into serious eye problems earlier this year, the MacBook and its ability to zoom was just fine.

Some complain the MacBook Air doesn’t have the high-resolution Retina display found on the iPad Air or the MacBook Pro. Presumably a big increase in pixels would push the battery harder — I prefer to stick with the existing display.

One other point, the MacBook Air’s 3:4 format screen is better for writing than the thinner postbox-shaped displays found elsewhere.

OS X, applications

Moving from Windows to OS X didn’t present any serious problems. A year on I still have to look up how to do obscure, rarely performed tasks on the Macintosh operating system. But I didn’t experience any hiccups. OS X is stable, I can go a long time between reboots and I’m not always sure they are necessary anyway.

Microsoft makes it easy to switch from Windows to OS X. My Office 365 subscription means I have to put up with out-of-date Office apps.

When I wrote Two months with the MacBook Air I said:

The 2011 Mac version of Microsoft Office is a disappointment after the 2013 Windows version. I find myself using it less and less preferring other tools. Unless Microsoft fixes this, I won’t renew my Office 365 subscription when it lapses early next year.

That didn’t happen because my Office 365 licence is shared with the other computers at home and my iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone. Damn it, Office 365 is too good a deal. And anyway Microsoft says a refresh is due soon. Maybe. In the meantime, I’ve been using Apple’s iWorks software.

What happened since buying the MacBook Air?

Microsoft’s first generation Surface devices were on sale when I bought my MacBook Air. I passed over these because the original RT Surface was underpowered and the first generation Surface Pro was both a touch underpowered and overpriced.

Although Chromebooks are not ideal tools for journalists and professional writers, their throwaway price and ridiculously low management overheads make them worth thinking about. OK. I’ve stopped thinking about them. The keyboards, screens and writing software are not up to the job. Let’s move on.

To me the Surface sits somewhere between the MacBook Air and the iPad. It’s a tablet, but the letter box-shaped Window means it’s not so comfortable switching between portrait and landscape modes. It’s a tablet, but I bet few Surface owners choose not to buy the optional keyboard.

Microsoft Surface

In practice Surface feels more like a touch screen laptop. I’ve nothing against touch screens. They have their place, but when you bang out words for a living, you don’t want to move your fingers too often from the keyboard to the screen. When I spent time with a Surface I ended up with horrible wrist pains from that action.

Despite all that, second generation Surface devices — and more recently the Surface Pro 3 — are fine alternatives to the MacBook Air. Surface would be my second choice behind a new MacBook Air.

Three things give the MacBook Air an edge:

  • A better, squarer display is important for writing. I need to see more lines of text and not a greater width of text. Incidentally, it’s harder to proofread across a wide measure. And the 13-inch screen makes for better writing productivity.
  • Microsoft’s newer Type Cover 2 keyboards are better than most tablet add-ons, but they are not as good for my kind of bashing out words typing style as the MacBook’s keyboard. Also, having the keyboard as an add-on means there’s something that conceivably could get left behind. I can’t risk that.
  • Microsoft’s Surface makes the MacBook Air look inexpensive. A 2014 MacBook Air with 13-inch screen and 256GB storage costs NZ$1650. A Surface Pro 3 with the same storage and a typewriter style keyboard is 25 percent more expensive at NZ$2077.

One year on

So far I’ve not mentioned what is perhaps the most important aspect of owning any work computer: productivity.

Life with the MacBook Air is more straightforward than my time with Windows. I doubt I’ve spent more than an hour or two doing anything resembling maintenance since I got the computer. In contrast I spent a couple of hours last week fixing a minor problem on my daughter’s Windows laptop.

The hours I’ve regained are more than worth the price of the computer.

At the same time, OS X does better at getting out-of-the-way than Windows. There’s a better focus on the user interface and that leads to greater productivity. On the flip side, there’s less flexibility, but that’s not what I look for in a work tool.

After one year I’m still convinced I made the right decision with the MacBook Air. I’d certainly buy another, perhaps after the next refresh or the one after that.

5 thoughts on “One year with the MacBook Air

  1. To me one of the most important things in the whole Mac or PC argument is the far superior touchpads on Macs. My daily driver is a retina MacBook Pro, and gosh, I feel retarded when I need to help my flatmate with anything on his Windows 8 ThinkPad!

    On another note, the MBA13 screen is not 4:3, it’s 16:10. But it feels really, really different from 16:9 screens most Windows laptops offer.

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    • Ah. I didn’t measure the screen and do the maths, I looked at a nearby 16:9 and realised it wasn’t the same. You’re right about how different it feels from 16:9.

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  2. Thanks for a helpful, practical review. I haven’t used a MacBook Air, but you’ve convinced me to give it a try sometime. Sounds even better than a MacBook Pro for most day-to-day work (which is what I’n using now). I’ve also tried an iPad and a couple of smaller tablets, but they can’t replace a proper keyboard and screen. A decent phone and decent laptop (or MacBook Air, I’m now thinking) are different enough to cover most needs (at least mine).

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  3. Excellent review. I am going to pick up a second hand Air if I can. I want to use my 17″ MBP as a more fixed machine at remote offices and travel with Air and iPad. I find my iPad does a lot of work these days. I have three BT Apple keyboards so I can link one anytime for typing long pieces of text in iAWriter.

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  4. Bill, I couldn’t agree with you more. I love my MacBook Air. I have had mine about a year now and the battery life is incredible. I am more productive today than I was a year ago. I highly recommend the MacBook Air.

    I also have an iPhone, iPad 2, iPad Mini with Retina display along with a 15″ 2009 MBP and as Henk mentioned I have turned it into more of a stationary machine. I use the iPad Mini mainly for reading and light internet surfing or viewing training videos while I do the actual work on the MacBook Air.

    Unfortunately my daily job requires that I use a windows machine. The good news is that I get to work from home so I leave my work laptop at work in my cubicle and RDP into it from the MacBook Air. I couldn’t be happier. No power cords to take with me as I travel from my office to the garage or patio out to work. The freedom to not be tethered is just awesome and wouldn’t trade it for anything.

    Excellent write Bill. I can definitely say my next purchase will be another Macbook Air should something happen to this one.

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