The 11-inch MacBook Air is marvellously twee – most people will quite literally marvel at it. It’s stupid thin. And if it were any lighter it would feel more like a trick than a tiny wonder of engineering and design.
The difference is that the iPad is the first computer you can take to bed, and the Air is not meant for lounging around under the covers. It’s a fully productive computer. It can do anything a real Mac can do, unlike the iPad. The keyboard is full-sized – at least, the keys that matter are. The trackpad is giant enough. The 1366×768 res display makes work possible on a screen this size. In practice, the Air’s nimbleness dramatically alters the real life flowchart of “What do I pull out of my bag to do this thing I need to do?” because now it’s just as quick as any other option.
On paper, what’s behind the Air’s aluminium-and-glass skirt is not impressive. A pokey, practically ancient 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, a mere 2GB of RAM and an integrated graphics card. A GeekBench score of 2253 (compared to the 13’s 3026 and the 13-inch Pro’s 3239) and taking half an hour to convert the same five-minute, 1080p Muppets video in Handbrake that took the 13-inch Air just 13 minutes, seemingly bear this out. Even the flash storage isn’t bleeding-edge speedwise, according to Anandtech’s SSD benchmarks, using a comparatively smeh Toshiba microcontroller for middle-of-the-road random read and random write performance.
But the specs seem to have little bearing on reality, at least as far as the user experience is concerned. Day to day, it is remarkably capable, even more so because you know what it’s working with. This is a legit Mac, and in everyday usage, it runs perfectly. I used it as my only computer for a week in place of a 15-inch Pro, and it miraculously juggled basically everything I needed it to without ever choking or stuttering – upwards of 20 browser tabs, IM client, chat client, Mail app, iTunes, text editor, Twitter all running simultaneously. No slowdowns. Apps open like they’re primed on Red Bull and methamphetamines. The weak-sauce CPU only punches through reality when you’re dealing with video or editing photos. If you’re watching 1080p YouTube videos or HD Netflix, it means you’ll be monotasking (and that’s with the GPU helping out). Editing RAW photos or dealing with iMovie is largely an exercise in masochism, though – and this what distinguishes it from an iPad, really – it’s doable.
While Apple products often involve the kinds of tradeoffs nerds don’t like, here Apple didn’t dick us on the display. Or the keyboard. Or the USB ports. The remarkable balance between feeling sturdy and incredible, like a piece of Tony Stark technology, and as insignificant as a magazine. The little high you get every time you use it, because it’s so small but you’re doing so much (and because you know people are looking at it, and by extension, you).
Despite being the most mutagenically similar to the iPad, it doesn’t share the miraculous battery life. It was a little heartbreaking the first time the “your battery is toast” warning popped up. During a typical work day, I ground the battery into nothing twice, netting around four hours per charge. Not terrible, truthfully. But, ironically, the Air’s immateriality just made me want so much more. Why does something so effervescent need so much energy?
A thousand bucks is still ‘spensive for a second computer, and the pricing structure for upgrades, especially the iMovie-and-Photoshop averse CPU, is designed to hurt you. Even relying on cloud storage, 64GB of storage – and really just 48GB is yours to play with – can feel awfully claustrophobic, awfully quick.
The 11-inch Air might be the first computer you can seriously take with you everywhere and almost never regret leaving your beefier machine at home. The pain of dropping a thousand dollars won’t last for very long, either. At least, not after I sell my iPad.