I bought a Macbook Air. It was a pretty big deal for me. It was expensive, took a long time to get, and also marked me moving from Windows to Mac OS X.
I decided all this warranted a review of the new laptop, but I ended up writing a lot more than I expected.
This article is over 5000 words and contains an essay on switching from Windows to Mac OS X, a short review of Apple’s customer service, a review of the MacBook Air itself, and a bit about my current setup.
I would love for you to read it all and hopefully enjoy every minute of it, but I know it is very long.
Here’s a table of contents in case you need to skip around:
Thanks for reading!
I’m only 25, but I’ve been a Windows user for more than ten years. The first computer my parents bought in 1997 ran Windows 95. It was a big clunky white box and I fell in love with it. Over the next few years I learned the ins and outs of the hardware and the operating system. I would go on to build three or four more computers in high school, all desktops running Windows XP.
Of all the computers I’ve purchased out of desire, not need or circumstance, the MacBook Air is the first laptop, most expensive, and only one not running Windows.
Why didn’t I ever consider Mac before? Well, I was one of those Windows users. The kind that didn’t particularly like Apple, for multiple reasons, and despite being a “power user” (read: nerd), I was perfectly content with Windows and all its shortcomings.
This section is dedicated to all my Windows brothers and sisters out there. I hope you don’t feel betrayed that I’ve left your ranks. I hope you give me the chance to explain my motivations.
There are some practical reasons I never used Mac, some financial ones, some mildly philosophical ones, and some plain-old personal bias ones.
Let’s start with the practical. I was building desktops. It was really fun and exciting to buy a bunch of parts online and assemble a machine with your bare hands. I loved it. I loved being able to upgrade it. And I loved having an extensive knowledge of every component in my computer. I had used System 7 and some old Macintosh machines at school, but besides that Apple wasn’t even on my radar. I never considered it. After a couple years, with Jobs back at the helm, Apple released the iMac G3. Those big blue monstrosities that were completely built into a monitor. That wasn’t the type of computer I ever considered assembling on my own. I don’t even know if it was possible. Could you order PowerPC processors on Tiger Direct?
Besides, I was building Windows machines as part of my new PC gaming hobby. I was playing Half-Life and Counterstrike and Diablo and Unreal Tournament. They were Windows applications. It was never really a conscious choice to use Windows, it was just the only practical option.
Next, financial reasons: I was a broke teenager. The iMac G3 cost around $1300. In today’s dollars, that’s about $1750. I didn’t have that kind of money then. I was building my computers for a couple hundred bucks a piece, and then slowly upgrading them over the years as I saved up for better video cards.
As I got older, and eventually went to college, the financial and practical reasons for not owning a Mac weren’t as salient. I was still gaming and still broke, but the philosophical and personal ones ended up moving to the forefront.
The Mac operating system behaves like someone saying “don’t worry about it” when you ask them a question. Sometimes it’s great and a relief. Like when you ask your doctor what you should do about your slightly high cholesterol and he tells you “don’t worry about it.” Great, what a relief. I don’t have to worry or stress over this. It’ll take care of itself.
Other times, it makes you hate the person. Like if you ask your roommate for the overdue rent and he says “don’t worry about it.” What do you mean don’t worry about it? Stop being a condescending douche. I need to worry about it.
This is how Mac OS treats users. And a lot of times it’s great, especially if you’re an average user who doesn’t want to worry about anything. But I knew how to handle my computing environment. I was battle tested from years of tweaking installs of Windows until they ran exactly the way I wanted them to. I knew what services to disable, I knew what system components were junk, I knew the best way to keep the installation nice and clean. I had my favorite applications with all of my favorite preferences.
Why would I leave the castle I built for myself for a house somebody else built for me? Yes, my castle had rough edges, bad lighting, occasionally leaky plumbing. But I knew how to go to the basement and fix the pipes.
Mac OS is a nice, shiny, modern home with robots that do all the housework. That wasn’t what I wanted. I liked having to worry about it.
Obviously, there were degrees. I wasn’t going to go live out in the woods like some sort of Linux user. I needed walls and a warm place to sleep. I just didn’t need robot servants.
Alright, enough housing analogies. You get the point. “It Just Works” ™ was the annoying slogan of a nanny-OS.
But my preference for a particular operating system approach wasn’t even the biggest obstacle. Buckle-up existing Mac users, it’s about to get personal.
I didn’t like people who owned Macs.
I know, I know. It’s not like I thought Mac users were bad people. They were just… annoying. And not all of them. Just a particular breed.
I experienced these Mac users as not knowing anything about computers. They bought their Mac because it was expensive and pretty. And they were snobby about it for the same reasons.
They were the types of people who would criticize Windows endlessly, without any real understanding of the problems with that operating system. It was more because criticizing Microsoft was trendy. (Trust me, nerds who use Windows are the harshest Windows critics I’ve met, but they don’t do it to look cool or tech savvy.)
These were the same people who would say things to me like, “Macs are better for graphic design and video editing and creative stuff like that.”
And every Windows user would immediately think, Why? Why are they better? Because Photoshop running on an Intel CPU in a Windows environment is completely different from Photoshop running on an Intel CPU in an OS X environment? Oh yeah, that’s right, in one, your designs are mediocre. In the other, your designs are lickable.
You know, I still have clients say similar things when I walk into their offices with my Sony Vaio. “Oh, you’re a designer and you don’t have a Mac?” I sometimes wondered if they reconsidered their choice to hire me when they learned I was going to be writing HTML in Notepad++ instead of Textmate.
Windows users reading this, I know you have felt my pain.
Anyway, there you have it. Those are the reasons I never considered buying an Apple computer in the past. I am by no means claiming that they are all rational, or fair, but it was my view in my late teens and early twenties.
I’m sure by this point you’re asking what made me change my mind. Do I still believe all that stuff?
Let’s go in the same order.
A desktop is no longer the practical option for me. I’m traveling often, visiting clients’ offices, and my residency is only semi-permanent. When I’m running around Beijing visiting clients, the more mobile my computer the better. And I like the freedom of being able to pack up all my stuff in a couple bags and move if I need to.
As much as I would love get back into some serious PC gaming one day, that’s not a practical option for me right now either. And therefore, my processing power requirements are much lower than they used to be. I don’t need a $400 dedicated video card. Nor am I going to be putting together any laptops from parts I buy online. That’s not practical no matter what operating system you’re running.
Financially, well, let’s be honest, I’m still broke. I’m just broke with a higher income. That means I have the ability to save up and buy expensive things from time to time. I don’t have to settle for buying below the price gap.
Philosophically, I still feel some resistance to “The Apple Way.” I don’t like having to do things the way someone else thinks is the best way to do them. But, at the same time, I recognize a lot of what is great about OS X is that it let’s me free up mental space by not having to worry about things. And, when there are things I want to change, there is a huge community of nerds to help me tweak this operating system just as much as Windows.
I’ve also come to respect Apple’s approach to computers. Apple wants them to be like cars. You don’t need to know the intimate details of an internal combustion engine. You just want to get in it and drive. You want driving to be a pleasant experience, without having to learn to be a car mechanic.
I still have an indignant part that objects. People need to know how a file system works! I don’t know if that’s true though, especially when I read articles about 90% of people not using
F to find things. As much as it makes nerds grumble, computing needs to be even simpler.
And what about those annoying Apple users? Well, they’re still out there to some degree. There are probably just as many annoying Windows users too. I still roll my eyes when I think about people buying computers because they’re trendy.
There's also still an endless number of people who criticize Microsoft without really understanding why their products are the way they are. Nobody at Microsoft hates quality or good design. They’re just stuck in a boggy swamp of their own making. They don’t manufacture their own hardware so they don’t control the environments their software will run in. They’re stuck catering to countless huge corporations that are using their products. Huge corporations that are slow to accept change. They have a giant user base that they’re terrified of pissing off. None of this is an excuse, Microsoft made this bed (out of solid gold, no less), and now they have to sleep in it. Critics should take these things into account, instead of reciting mantras that Microsoft just sucks.
The larger point, though, is this: Whether or not there are annoying Apple users, why should that cast judgment on the quality of the products itself?
And the quality is really what this whole thing is about.
I’ve been using a Sony Vaio for the last two years. I had to buy a laptop when I left the States, and went with a Vaio that was around $750. Its tech specs were roughly equivalent to those of a Mac Book Pro that cost $2100. That’s a no brainer, right? Go with the Vaio.
My Vaio served me well for two years. But the quality difference was noticeable.
I took good care of it, but unlike a desktop sitting in an air conditioned room all day, a laptop needs to handle some extra wear and tear. It had to survive bouncing around in my backpack while I biked. I carried it with me on planes, and trains, and the backs of cabs. I used it in cold weather and hot weather, in humid summers and dry winters.
The plastic case eventually developed a crack running across it. The power charger died. The bezel around the screen slowly warped, letting backlight leak out around the edges. The excellent Sony Blu-Ray player that was built in became sluggish and used to make the system stall on POST, sometimes for as long as five minutes. The trackpad, normally responsive and accurate, would become annoyingly glitchy in low humidity. (I would have to lick my fingers for it start responding to my touch again. Weird, I know.)
I hope this doesn’t paint the Vaio as a product I was unhappy with. I wasn’t. It was a good machine, but the build quality just couldn’t hold up for years.
This is the major reason I bought a Mac. I saw the quality of my friends laptops. I saw the quality of my iPod, which I’ve had since 2006 and still works great. I’m not talking about the operating system, or the software, or even the component parts. I’m talking about the quality of the construction.
The MacBook Air I’m typing on is made of two solid pieces of aluminum. One for the display, one for the body. It’s not multiple plastic pieces glued together. It’s a single metal unibody that is tough. It won’t crack or warp.
This is something that looks and feels engineered. Precision and care went into it. That doesn’t mean it won’t show signs of wear after two years, but it’ll take them in stride.
I haven’t seen any other laptops with this level of build quality.
Now, would I make the same choice if I was buying a desktop? I don’t know. The construction of a desktop doesn’t have to meet the same requirements as a laptop, so the higher price tag might not be worth it. Right now, I would still build my own, regardless of whether I decided to run Windows on it or Mac OS X.
Are there other things to justify the high price tag? Yes, the customer service, which I’ll address in the next section. But before I do, I’d like to make one final point on the subject of Windows vs. Mac.
I refuse to root for a company.
There are a lot of people, both Windows and Mac users, that root for their company of choice and against other companies. People want Microsoft to fail and their new products to suck. Others want Apple’s next venture to fail. This I don’t understand.
I don’t care which company is successful. I don’t care which company fails. I’m interested in one entity’s success: mine.
I want what is best for me. I want the best products at the best price for me. And I don’t care who makes them. If Apple stops making the best laptops, I don’t give a shit. If Microsoft comes out with an amazing tablet next month, I wouldn’t begrudge them it. I would buy it!
Obviously, certain companies have earned my skepticism, while others have earned my trust. But that doesn’t mean I’m loyal to them in the face of my own self-interest.
I used AMD processors in the early 2000s because they were faster and cheaper than Intel. When Intel released new lines of better processors, I bought Intel (despite owning AMD stock.) I don’t care who wins. The more companies making quality products the better it is for me, but I have no horse in this race.
I would love for Microsoft to come out with a better tablet than the iPad. I would love for Sony to make a better laptop than the MacBook Air. I want Apple to have to fight off constant competitors. Why? Because I want what’s better for me, not for Apple.
I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who feel the same way, and that’s good. But I still run into people who seem to have some sort of stake in whether Apple (or whatever company they like) remains successful. I completely reject that kind of thinking, and that’s the underlying reason I switched from a Windows machine to an Apple machine.
Everyone always praises Apple’s customer service. I don’t want to write about all of the great stories I’ve heard or how nice their policies are. I’ll just briefly tell you my experience.
I had been eagerly awaiting the MacBook Air refresh. When it finally dropped in America, I expected some delay before I could buy it in China.
After waiting more than a month, I started to get impatient. I called Apple support a couple of times, and visited the Apple store in Beijing multiple times. Nobody had any information on when it was going to be available.
Finally, the laptop became available online, but not in the stores. The Chinese online store is, not surprisingly, all in Chinese. So I called someone at Apple and they helped me put the order in. Unfortunately, it required a bank transfer from my Chinese bank.
When I signed in to complete the bank transfer, Apple’s site redirected me to my bank’s website. I use China Citic Bank, and let me publicly announce it for the entire world: Citic Bank’s website is a gigantic piece of shit.
I knew there were going to be problems when I couldn’t even access the site without Internet Explorer. Once on the site, half the text didn’t render. It was a jumble of meaningless characters. The half that did work was in Chinese and wasn’t selectable. There was no chance of translating it.
I tried going to a Citic branch and having them help me. They refused, citing a bunch of reasons and excuses and nonsense. It was clearly a we-don’t-want-the-hassle-of-dealing-with-a-foreigner-who-needs-something-complicated-right-now situation.
At this point I was pretty frustrated. I figured I’d just have to wait until it was finally available in stores.
A friend jokingly suggested I email Tim Cook. What the hell, I thought and did.
The next morning I got a call from an unknown number.
“Hello, is this Mr. Will Moyer?”
“Hi. Yeah it is, who’s this?”
“My name is Chloe, I’m calling you regarding your email to Tim Cook.”
Holy shit, am I in trouble? Did they think my email was too snarky and they’re going to tell me not to waste their CEO’s precious time?
“Oh. Hi,” I said.
Chloe, who worked for Apple’s Online Store Executive Relations Customer Service something something, went on to apologize that I was having problems getting the MacBook Air. Apparently, someone at Apple takes notice when you have a pending order and send an email to the CEO.
She assured me they would look into the problem and would explore all options in helping me get my laptop.
Pretty nice, huh? They set up a special bank transfer for me and gave me all the information to take to my bank. They also expedited shipping and called me over and over again updating me on where the shipment was. I got a call an hour before the courier arrived with the laptop letting me know he was on his way. Then another 10 minutes before he arrived, just to make sure I was ready to receive it. Then one more after he was gone verifying that everything went okay.
This was some hands-on customer service. I was impressed.
Oh, yeah, and Tim Cook emailed me back.
I can’t make the judgment about whether or not Apple’s customer service is worth the higher price tag. It is reassuring to know it’s there. And it was amazing to have them put so much effort into helping me get what I wanted. Granted, I was trying to give them money. But most companies won’t go out of their way to like that to help a potential customer.
And, seriously, the CEO of Apple emailed me back. What more can I say?
Now, am I finally going to review this thing? Yes. But you should know there are already tons of great and in-depth reviews of MacBook Airs. If you’re considering buying them, definitely check some of them out.
I’ll try to be brief. My primary concern was the mobility and durability. This thing excels at both. It’s light, but doesn’t feel chintzy. It feels solid and strong. As I said above, it’s got a tough aluminum unibody for the screen and the body. It has that tight, well-engineered feeling.
I’ve handled so many laptops that are assembled from pieces of plastic glued or screwed together. The MacBook Air is the exact opposite in every way.
Adding to the mobility is the ridiculous battery life. Apple says you can get 7 hours of wireless web browsing. As I’m typing this, I’m also on Skype, listening to music, signed into Gmail, and Adobe Bridge is open. My battery is at 89 percent and OS X is telling me I have 4 hours and 50 minutes of battery life remaining. That is incredible. And if I turned off the music, closed the extra applications, dimmed my screen a bit, I could definitely stretch that another hour.
You could work almost all day on this without a charge. It’s approaching iPad battery life times. Amazing.
I’ll be even more impressed if I’m still getting the same battery efficiency after a year of use. We’ll see what happens.
What about the 13-inch screen? Well, it’s bright and crisp, like every Apple screen. My Vaio’s screen was no slouch, but this puts it to shame. I actually find the highest brightness setting too bright at night. How often does that happen? And I should note, the blacks on the screen stay black when the brightness is cranked up. There’s none of that washed-out, increased-gamma kind of brightness. Everything stays sharp and in high contrast.
I do question why the screen isn’t bigger. The bezel around the screen is larger than I expected, Apple could have easily put a 14-inch screen in without changing the overall size. Perhaps there is a technical reason, but it looks like they have enough room. That being said, I don’t mind the 13-inch screen at all. The resolution is 1440 by 900 pixels, so it actually displays more than my previous laptop.
I only have a couple of hardware concerns. The keyboard is responsive, but the arrow keys feel a little flimsy. I think they just aren’t sitting as tightly in their slots. The rest of the keys are nice and snug, the arrow keys jiggle a bit more. The up and down keys are rounded into each other, which may be allowing the extra wiggle room. It’s minor, but noticeable.
I also feel a little worried about the fan. As far as I know it blows out the back of the body, where the screen is hinged. But there isn’t much space in there and it makes me question how well it will move air. So far it hasn’t been hot at all, and the fan, if it’s running, is silent.
What about under the hood? I purchased the highest specification 13-inch model, with the 1.8GHz Intel Core i7. It has 4GB of RAM and a 256GB solid state hard drive. The video card is an onboard Intel HD Graphics 3000 using shared memory.
The i7 in the MacBook Air is fast as hell and definitely beats the Core 2 Duo. And the solid state drive makes a huge difference when booting and opening files. Everything in the OS feels snappy. And the machine boots up in under 10 seconds, seriously.
Professional users who do more than just email and web might be worried about speed. I’ve been doing design work on my Vaio for the past couple of years, which had a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4GB of RAM, 320GB hard drive, and a crappy onboard Intel graphics chip.
It worked great most of the time, but when Photoshop files got too large, or I had a lot of processes running at once, I could notice it slowing down.
From what I’ve seen, with the i7 and the solid state drive, there’s no reason to expect I’d have any problem doing it on the MacBook Air.
(Apparently there is some debate over whether or not its a good idea to let Photoshop, and other similar programs, use an SSD for their swap files. See, when Photoshop gets done eating up all your RAM, which happens rather quickly, it uses the hard drive to store working data. It’s like RAM spillover. Some people say letting Photoshop use your SSD for this will give you better performance, because the SSD is fast. Others, though, say it’ll shorten the life of your SSD and you’ll end up having to replace it. You guys have any thoughts on this?)
Unless you’re gaming or doing serious amounts of CPU work – like video editing or 3D rendering or batch processing tons of photos – the MacBook Air is plenty fast. Otherwise, you’ll have to look toward the MacBook Pro or a desktop alternative.
The only real limitation is the size of the hard drive. The solid state drive is great for speed, but I’m going to need to buy a portable external to carry around with me.
I also should mention my impressions of Lion. I like it. It doesn’t strike me as being much different from Snow Leopard, but there are some little things that seemed specifically aimed at people switching from Windows.
For example, you can resize from any edge of a window. You no longer need to use the little grip in the bottom-right corner. That always used to annoy me when hopping between Windows and Mac OS X.
The corner “hot spots” are off by default, presumably replaced by mouse gestures. There’s no more accidentally triggering the dashboard when you put the mouse in the wrong spot.
Applications can go fullscreen now, which is nice.
There are also features that are clearly for new users and people used to iOS. Launchpad, for example, displays a layout of icons like the iOS homescreen. I guess this is for people who don’t want to search through the Finder every time they need an application, but also don’t want to load up their dock with every shortcut. I can see its appeal for new users, though I don’t have much use for it.
Mission Control is cool. It gives you an overall view of what is running on your machine, including multiple desktops and fullscreen applications. It reminds me of Panorama (or Tab Candy) for Firefox.
I love this model of organization. Instead of giving you a permanent bar of tabs or open programs it gives you easy access to “zoom out” and organize. It’s much better than the inherent stress of being constantly reminded that you have a bunch of stuff running, cluttering up your mental space.
My only complaint is that I wish I could rename and reorganize my multiple “desktops.” Apparently, this used to be possible in Spaces but was removed in Mission Control. I’d like to see it back.
The Mac App Store, I love it. Windows users, think Steam, but for programs. It’s great.
Let’s see, what else is new? Oh yeah, I’ve read a lot of posts mentioning the “natural” scrolling in Lion. Basically, scrolling is reversed, so when you drag your fingers down the pad, you move up the page. Imagine that you’re dragging the content itself instead of dragging the scroll bar and it makes sense. Either way, it’s not a big deal at all. After five minutes my mind adjusted and I didn’t even realize it was reverse anymore. (It can also be disabled if you find it annoying.)
Lion isn’t anything shocking or startling, especially if you’ve used a Mac before. But the little niceties make it more comfortable for those switching from Windows.
Anyway, I think that’s pretty much all I have to say about the Air. It should be clear that I’m extremely impressed with it from a technical standpoint. It is a masterfully engineered and well-crafted machine.
It was well worth the money and the effort I put into getting it. I recommend it to anyone thinking about purchasing a laptop.
I want to talk briefly about my setup and how I’m using my Mac. If anybody out there has any advice or suggestions or criticism, I’d be happy to hear it. I’m going to try out different approaches during the next couple of months while I try to find out what works best.
The first thing you should know is that I don’t like using the mouse.
My hands are on the keyboard when I’m working or writing. I try to avoid switching to the mouse as much as possible. Pointing and clicking are necessary and unavoidable sometimes, especially in applications like Photoshop, but I like to limit it when I can.
Specifically, I find gestures annoying. Having to pick up my hands and then pinch or spread with three fingers on the trackpad just feels awkward and slow.
The trackpad is awesome and I’m super impressed with it from a technical, hardware standpoint. But from a productivity standpoint, mouse gestures have – and probably always will – seem a little silly to me.
I’ve also made other changes in an effort to avoid using the mouse.
For instance, I’ve hidden the dock and removed all icons from it. It’ll still show open applications and pop up little notifications like when a download has finished, but besides that it has no use.
The dock is like the taskbar in Windows but more obtrusive. And with things like Mission Control, I don’t really need the constant visual reminder of what I have open. I’d rather have the vertical space, and less screen clutter.
If I want an overview of my open applications, I just hit
up and can see Mission Control. If I want to switch applications I use
(The only problem with switching applications using
tab is that if for some reason I minimize a window, it won’t pop up when I
tab to it. I’ll have to use the mouse to find it in the dock and then click it to maximize. Is there something I’m missing that would save me time, or should I just be more careful not to minimize?)
Why don’t I use the dock to launch applications? I use Alfred. I just double tap
command and start typing the name. It’s faster than using the mouse and the dock (which I’d have to load up with icons to be useful anyway) and much faster than using Finder or Launch Pad.
I also set up multiple desktops or spaces or whatever they’re called now. I switch between them with
left. That way I can have a desktop running Photoshop and Bridge or whatever, and when I hit
left I’ll switch back to my “main” desktop and not have them cluttering up my screen or mental space. They’re separate. With the dock hidden, I can forget that they are even open. And when I go to Mission Control, they’re neatly separated into a different “space” at the top. The same goes for full screen applications.
The main programs I’m using are: Sublime Text 2 as my text editor, Marked for Markdown preview and export, Google Chrome, VLC for music and movies, Twitter for Mac, and Alfred. I use Photoshop all the time, obviously, and Bridge for my photo management. I need some good FTP recommendations. I’d prefer a free app.
That’s the overview of how I’m working on my Mac. Like I said, I’m sure it’ll change and develop over the next few months. I really want tips for how to improve this setup, so if anybody has them please comment or email me.
Published on September 24, 2011