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MacBook Air 2010 — A Photographer’s View

Last updated 2011-01-09 - Send Feedback
Related: laptop, MacBook, MacBook Air, Macs, RAW, SanDisk, storage, USB

For casual web browsing, mail, etc, the Air oozes that fun feel one gets with the iPhone or iPad. No argument there. The small screen is fine for such uses, but as cool as the Air is, the small screen breaches the Apple mind warp after a while. You’ve got to need small and light as a priority to make the Air your primary machine. Otherwise it’s an expensive adjunct to a more capable computer with a larger screen.

My perspective below is that of a photographer in the outdoors and traveling, where I might shoot from dawn to dusk. Others have totally different goals, but I’m spelling it out here from my perspective as I’d hope to use a laptop in the field.

Size and weight

Here, the Air has huge appeal, but I have yet to figure out how it could be useful in my backpack. Otherwise, it sits in my car, and whether it’s 7 pounds or 1.5 pounds is irrelevant. But the screen is always small and mirror-like when I open up the Air.

If the Air could act as a WiFi network, accepting (instantly) images sent view a card like the EyeFi, then it might serve a useful purpose, albeit in limited scenarios where I have an immediate need to check composition or focus accuracy.

By the time all the extra stuff is added to an Air, it’s not so small and light: external DVD drive, power brick, card reader, backup drive, etc. Not everyone will carry all of that, but most people will need at least some of it.

Since most working photographers have budget pressures, I cannot endorse the MacBook Air for professional use unless the overriding needs is compactness and low weight.


I observed speeds of 10.6 MB/sec copying large files to the Air from my Mac Pro over wireless, under ideal conditions with an Airport Extreme. In short, casual use is OK, anything else is awfully slow.

The pity is that inclusion of a real ethernet port would have allowed speeds up to 100MB/sec for external storage, giving Air users an option for high speed storage. But Apple omitted that option. You can buy (at extra cost) an external dongle for ethernet, throttled through the sluggish USB port— it’s not ethernet speed, though it’s likely to be more reliably fast than wireless.

Wireless is how most users will operate the Air, which offers perfectly good performance for internet and similar, but not for transferring large files to or from a file server. And that’s assuming the best possible wireless signal. It’s a tedious exercise to transfer even a few gigabytes to or from the Air, as I quickly discovered.

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See the performance tests.

JPEG shooters should find the performance very acceptable, since the SSD drive allows reading files off disk very quickly. But RAW files require a lot of processing power.

I shoot a 24MP digital camera (Nikon D3x) using RAW. The Air has just barely acceptable performance for RAW file conversion, but really I’m wasting my time with it; when traveling, it’s shoot all day, then bedtime in some remote area, so I don’t have much patience with a toy.

With medium format cameras like the Leica S2 (75MB RAW files), performance opening RAW files is intolerably slow. And that doesn’t count the slow download speed (see below).

Downloading SDHC digital camera cards

The 13" MacBook Air has a built-in SDHC card reader. Many digital cameras and even a few professional ones now use SDHC. It’s unclear if the card slot supports the new higher capacity and faster SDXC cards.

Using my SanDisk Extreme 32GB SDHC card (SanDisk states 30MB/sec), I measured these speeds copying files to and from the card (MB = 1000^3):

SDHC slot Read:  27 MB/sec
SDHC slot Write:  12 MB/sec
SanDisk USB Read: 20.4M B/sec
SanDisk USB Read: 10.9 MB/sec

In short, the SDHC slot reads at speeds close to the rated speed of the card.

But to read my SanDisk Extreme Pro Compact Flash cards, I’d need a USB reader, and it looks like that might run at closer to 1/3 the speed of my Firewire 800 card reader on the MacBook Pro, assuming a non-bulky pro-grade reader for Compact Flash even exists (I have yet to find one). More below on this.

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Downloading Compact Flash digital camera cards

It’s impossible to download Compact Flash storage cards quickly on the MacBook Air (Compact Flash storage is used by most professional cameras).

For the MacBook Pro, I have a compact Firewire 800 card reader for downloading my Compact Flash cards at speeds of 55MB/sec (not specs, what I actually measure).

With the MacBook Air, I still haven’t found a suitably compact and fast USB Compact Flash reader; I do have a clunky 5-format reader that does perhaps 16MB/sec at best. In short, a bulky, slow device instead of a sleek fast device. Uggghhh.


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