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Apple’s July 2011 MacBook Air

For comments on the 2010 model, most of which still hold true, see Thoughts on the future of the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air as well as my 8-page 2010 MacBook Air for Photographers?.

In the comments that follow, my perspective is that of someone who has work to do— each and every day, 24 X 7. I don’t have time for shiny toys, or extra money to spend on gadgets that impair my ability to get work done. So my machine of choice is the Mac Pro, or the MacBook Pro when I’m on the go.

New features

The arrival of the Intel Sandy Bridge chipset gives the new July 2011 MacBook Air a healthy boost in performance, which is still very sluggish compared to the MacBook Pro.

Also, the addition of the backlit keyboard is nice enough, and the Thunderbolt port is a good marketing ploy, but hooking up an external display and expensive Thunderbolt peripherals to an underpowered tiny laptop isn’t making a huge amount of sense to me, except for the crowd that wants to be hip to the latest cool Apple toys. Which apparently is a very successful business, so kudos to Apple for making it work.

No upgrades

You get 4GB of memory— period. The SSD it turns out is not soldered-on, so it can be replaced eventually with a 3rd-party SSD.

Still limited

Toasters do one thing well, so if you want a toaster for your 'bread', the Macbook Air might be the ticket. It all depends on your diet.

The July 2011 MacBook Air remains a special-purpose machine with strict limitations for more demanding use. Which is not to say it won’t be adequate for many, many users.

  • Max 3.7GB usable memory (384MB of the 4GB is taken by the video system). This imposes a hard limit on performance for working with large files or multiple programs, and reduces the potential for disk caching by the OS.
  • Only two CPU cores and a clock speed that is substantially lower than the 2011 MacBook Pro, though the speed is now (apparently) commensurate with the 2010 MacBook pro, assuming adequate memory. Half the cores, and 21% lower clock speed won’t matter much for web and email and basic stuff, but will feel very sluggish for some photographic applications.
  • Expensive and few peripherals (Thunderbolt) to avoid molasses-slow USB 2 external drives.
  • Expensive and low capacity internal SSDs. The MacBook Air 13"/256GB price is nearly as much as a 15" MacBook Pro when the Air is configured with a 256GB SSD.
  • No built-in DVD drive— extra cost.
  • No possibility of 2nd internal drive.

For those with deep pockets, spending $1000 - $1600 (realistically $2100 when tax and AppleCare are added on), such a machine might be fine, but most of us photographers need a real computer also, so it’s wise to look at the whole computing budget.

Admittedly, I don’t spend any time flying or sipping lattes at a cafe, so my use for an 'Air is just not there. The main appeal for me would be for field use for photography, but the Air lacks any connectivity besides USB 2 (slow) which could be used for that use. Perhaps wireless might work, but then the camera must be specially outfitted.

The 2010 MacBook Pro is a viable desktop replacement. The MacBook Air has too many limitations be a replacement for a desktop machine:

  • Hard limit of 4GB memory, of which 384MB is scarfed up for video.
  • Two CPU cores at relatively slow clock speed vs 4 CPU cores at significantly higher clock speeds.
  • No way (yet) to connect any reasonably fast portable backup drive (Thunderbolt will eventually solve this, but not until next year).
  • No Firewire 800 port = molasses-slow USB readers for CompactFlash, and these readers are not so easy to find, or compact.
  • 1440 X 900 screen is very small for working with images efficiently.
  • No real ethernet, so even networking is slow for big file transfers.
  • Very limited internal drive options, and only one internal drive.

One can’t criticize a purpose-built machine for being what it was designed to be— intentionally limited so as to have a very compact form factor and light weight.

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