TL;DR - some indulgent waffle about whether or not the 11” MacBook Air is a usable development machine. The conclusion will almost certainly be: it depends, but probably.
I’ve started trying to cycle home from work recently, and I’ve found that my trusty 15” MacBook Pro can often make this a bit awkward. While there’s certainly a valid argument that I should just suck it up and get fitter, I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can at least consider resolving this by replacing my current laptop with a lighter breed.
This is actually one of several options that I’ve identified:
- Get a lighter laptop, along with a larger external display for the office, choosing between
- an 11” MacBook Air
- a 13” MacBook Air
- a 13” MacBook Pro
- Get an iMac for work, and don’t travel with my laptop
- Do nothing, get fitter, climb the highest mountain and punch the sky
I’ve spent a few months umming and ahhing, but having bored everyone I know with my deliberation, I’ve finally decided to take an 11” MacBook Air for a two-week test run. Will it’s diminutive size bother me? Will it’s slower processor (1.6 GHz Core 2 Duo vs. the 2.8GHz processor in my already-outdated MacBook Pro) frustrate me? Here’s what I am finding.
My god, this thing is portable. It’s a lovely size, somehow managing to be ridiculously compact without ever seeming too small. The main rows of keys on the keyboard are the same size as any other laptop keyboard, but what sometimes throws my hands off are the fact that the edges of the machine are that much closer; my palms need to adjust to sitting a bit closer to the keyboard.
The screen resolution is also surprisingly forgiving. I have used a Dell Mini 9 in anger, hackintoshed, and eventually found it’s relatively-low resolution (800x600) a pain. The 11” has a resolution of 1366x768, which is perfectly serviceable. I can bump up the font size in both Terminal.app (Menlo, 18pt) and TextMate (Menlo, 14pt) without sacrificing any context.
Getting the machine set up for development wasn’t too hard; I already store quite a bit of stuff on Dropbox, including working copies of most of my projects. I bootstrapped its sync by copying my Dropbox folder via a USB stick, along with some other documents, after which it did a bit of indexing and was happy to be left to establish quiet dominion over its folder and contents.
Here’s a rough outline of what it took to get the machine development-ready:
- Download homebrew
- Download XCode - this takes literally ages now that Apple have decided that everyone who wants XCode should also get the iOS development libraries. I can remember when XCode was around 500MB; now it’s 2.5GB
- Once XCode is ready, use homebrew to install a bunch of core development software:
- Once git is installed you can let the other stuff install in the background while you install [RVM], and then
- Ruby Enterprise Edition 1.8.7
- Ruby 1.9.2
- Install a few key ruby libraries
- Once all of the above have finished, for each application do something along the lines of:
Working in Terminal.app and TextMate doesn’t seem to be hindered by the lower processor speed at all; the editor is snappy, and running tests is just as fast as my old machine. Some tests naturally run slower (as we’ll see later), but I certainly never feel like I’m waiting for the machine to catch up. Perhaps this is the joy of SSD that people keep talking about.
After the first few hours of setup, I remain utterly charmed by how capable the MacBook Air is despite its diminutive form factor.
… yep, we skipped ahead.
I decided to return the MacBook Air. Let me explain why.
Firstly, it’s (almost) nothing to do with the Air’s suitability as a development machine. For the time I had the Air, I used it almost exclusively and could only fault it when comparing directly with other clearly-more-powerful machines. Day to day, it was a great little machine.
The reason why I decided to return it was because I realised that the weight saving of the Air versus the Pro was actually negligible when you take into account the raw weight of the Boris Bike. Basically, it didn’t really make it significantly easier to cycling around.
So instead, I’ve bought a 27” iMac, and I leave my laptop at home. Ain’t no lighter laptop than no laptop.
So there we have it. I really love the 11” Air, and when it comes to replacing my actual laptop, I will give that form factor serious consideration. If you need a new laptop now, I highly recommend it unless you definitely need continuous, intense computational power, or you think it’s going to somehow make a Boris Bike magically lighter.
The first thing I noticed when plugging in the external display is the difference in pixel size makes windows appear to bloat when they are dragged from the Air’s display to the external screen. It’s disconcerting, but regardless the laptop seems quite happy driving the gigantic display.
Some of my TextMate bundles and customisations are missing; that’s annoying, but it’s not the Air’s fault. I try to forgive it.
We’re both slightly relieved that Tom’s machine is faster, but slightly surprised by how small the difference in timings is. When I try to run the suite on my 15” MacBook Pro, Johnson decides in a fit of pique to segfault (clearly it is feeling betrayed), but I estimate the suite would’ve run in about two minutes forty. So the question is: does the portability offset that eighty-second drop in test suite duration?
Perhaps just knowing that this disparity exists has planted the seed of doubt, but I now feel that to properly evaluate this machine I’m going to need to switch between the two whilst working on the same project, and even working on the same story. If I don’t try to eliminate the variables, any judgement about using the Air is going to be subjective at best, and I can still feel the sheer charm of the form factor radiating into the room.
Today was the first day I carried the Air into work without the bigger laptop (which is living the office for the duration of this test period). It certainly felt good not to have the nagging pain in my shoulders after a few minutes walking with it slung lazily over one.
Walking around with the Air is great - as you might expect - because I can hardly feel that it’s there. The 15” isn’t exactly back-breaking, but once you’ve carried it through London’s transport system, you are very aware that you are encumbered.
Performance-wise I’m still generally happy working on the Air, and while I switch between it and my older-but-faster laptop, I don’t find the slow-down enough to really cramp my style at the moment.
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