Apple MacBook Air 13"

Last updated September 4, 2012

Everything you need in as small a package as possible - with little compromise.

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Introduction

The 2012 Apple MacBook Air is enough mobile computing muscle for most tasks you'll face on the road, including image backup and post-processing. While it's not a desktop replacement as the Pro line might be, it doesn't try to be either. There are some compromises towards that end - but the trade-off is worth it in the interest of portability. It excels in this regard like no other laptop, and if you're looking for a true, reliable travel companion - it should jump to the top of your list.

This isn't meant to be an in-depth review of the Air, or OS X for that matter. More of a detailed overview...

The Configuration

We went with the 13" model over the more compact 11" model for several reasons, but the biggest were the screen size, the SSD capacity and the built-in SDXC card slot. An 11" screen is just too small for high resolution images and editing them. Just the tool palettes and application interface alone would consume a good deal of the available resolution - leaving little to view the image with. The 13" is a more reasonable, and workable compromise. The actual difference is 1366 x 768 compared to 1440 x 900, or 74x132 pixels. It doesn't sound like much, but every one of them count and that extra resolution for example can contain the menu bar and Dock combined with room to spare over the 11" model. The second reason was that the 13" model offered double the capacity of the 11" SSD drive at 256GB vs. 128GB. And finally the third reason, which is a great feature for Leica shooters - is the built-in SDXC card slot. This means no more carrying a reader and/or USB cable if you don't want to. Of course you still can, but when weight and bulk (or just absent mindedness) matters... It's also among the fastest SDXC readers available currently (being based on USB 3). Reading the 18MP DNGs from the M9 is quite fast (depending on your card also).

The configuration used in this particular review was a nearly maxed-out 13" model. It had both 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3L SDRAM and the 2.0GHz Intel Dual-Core Core i7 (Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz) build to order (BTO) options. It seemed silly not to get them, considering that you would have to live with your decision for the duration and both were an extra $200 USD combined. Both the 11" and 13" models can be upgraded to this combo of RAM and CPU. Where we drew the line was with the SSD capacity. The native 256GB drive on the 13" should be more than enough for OS X, your application suite and plenty of space left over for media for even the most demanding, far-off shoots. The spike in price of $500 USD for the 500GB SSD didn't seem justifiable, but it is available if you really need it.

Grand total for this machine as specified above comes to $1,699 USD. So what do you get for that - and is it worth it in practice?

Quick Overview

The MacBook Air (both sizes) share a similar design and all the same materials, etc. That is basically a solid-feeling aluminum chassis. It tapers towards the front to an amazingly thin edge. This is a huge improvement over the thicker MacBook Pro models, as one usually rests their hands here and the taller, sharper-feeling edge of the Pro can be irritating to some. You'll find no creaks or groans of plastic parts here. The display stands out in stark black contrast and looks lovely juxtaposed against the rest of the machine. Needless to say, this is Apple design at its finest.

One of the most polarizing design decisions must be the glossy screen. On the Pro models you have a choice and can opt for a matte screen. Not so on the Air (or iMac and desktop displays). The screen is heavily multicoated. Some people love them, others hate them. The biggest objection is screen reflectivity. It really just comes down to where you use the laptop most often. Is it in a sunny cafe, or in your studio? That is, bright daylight - or more subdued, controlled lighting? If you tend towards the former it might be an issue, but it's rarely one with the latter. Even under typical fluorescent office lighting the screen is more than bright enough to drown out most any reflections. Some people seem to have a problem "tuning them out" once observed however, so If there's any doubt - check out some glossy screen laptops not just at the Apple store but elsewhere as well to compare. Color-wise, the screen fares well with deep blacks, bright whites, saturated colors and sharp details - where matte screens usually come up short. Accuracy and viewing angle are quite good. The LED backlighting provides for an instant-on experience and no fading over time like with older CCFL technology.

If you haven't bought a laptop in a while, there's one thing that will really change how you think about them. Knowing there's an SSD inside. Not only is it tiny, it's much less demanding on your battery and ridiculously faster. But as a laptop user, one huge change means no moving parts (aside from the fan). Your data has never been safer or quicker to access than it is now. Comparing the speed of old, slow-moving mechanical hard drives (even souped up 7,200rpm drives) will pale in comparison to the speed of SSDs. There's no noise, either.


As for what makes the Air what it is... Look not at the features it includes but rather those it doesn't. For one, it doesn't have one of the most ubiquitous ports found on every computer built in this decade - an Ethernet port. This laptop is WiFi-only by default. In fact, it has very few ports at all. MagSafe 2 (power), 2x USB 3, headphone and Thunderbolt ports - nothing more. Though it does sport a built-in microphone on one side and an SDXC card slot on the other. This makes for a very svelte configuration indeed. If you can't adapt whatever you'd got via USB or Thunderbolt, you probably don't need it anyway. Some might not appreciate the optional $29 USD USB Ethernet Adapter but it is available if you need the speed of GigE.

One downside in a non-Apple universe (e.g. at work or when traveling) is if you don't have a modern Apple [Thunderbolt] display handy. You'll need the appropriate adapter. Using an Apple TV via Airplay works also, for wireless streaming to your HD television. If presentations are your thing, this might be something to think about as most projectors utilize DVI or even VGA connections. Apple is already several technologies ahead of these.

While we're on the subject, one last point is the MagSafe power connector has changed - as you'll note above, it's now called MagSafe 2 and no, they're not compatible. The new version is slight smaller and skinnier than the old. In and of itself not a big deal - that's progress. But if you have multiple Apple laptops, beware. A $10 USD MagSafe to MagSafe 2 Converter (which is the size of, and resembles a Chiclet) is available if you want one.

Actual Usage

Day-to-day activities such as web browsing and email, etc. are the typical Apple/Mac experience - but perhaps snappier than you'd have imagined. Applications launch quickly and reads off of the internal SSD add zip. The extra 4GB of RAM (8GB total) is highly recommended not only if you plan to use graphics applications but like to keep a lot of things open and multitask. Many tabs open in Safari, over time, can eat a lot more RAM than you think. The speed of the SSD means you don't have to leave applications open in the background, and Mac OS X's move towards iOS blurs the line even further between "open" and "closed" in Lion (10.7) and Mountain Lion (10.8) even more so. Nevertheless, the extra breathing room pays off and is only a $100 USD upgrade.

The CPU itself is zippy, especially if you opt for the fastest configuration. While the i5 (at either 1.7/2.6GHz or 1.8/2.8GHz) would be plenty for more routine tasks, again - if you plan to use graphics applications and especially plug-ins, actions or process images in batch... The upgrade to the 2.0/3.2GHz CPU will pay off. The latter also sports a larger internal cache at 4MB while the former is 3MB. Like the RAM, a worthy $100 USD upgrade.

In use, the Air feels to be a good size. Not so small as to hinder your work in any way, not so big (or heavy) to be a burden. What would you gain in choosing the Pro over the Air? A few things, and geared more towards the power user. The screen would be physically larger in case of the 15" (with no gain in resolution) but you'd gain several more ports. The biggest differences are under the hood and the Pro offers much more robust CPU options (including quad instead of dual core chips at faster speeds) and double the maximum RAM (at 16GB). If you're looking to replace your desktop, then the Pro makes sense. But if you're looking for something ultimately to travel with then the Air is a no-brainer. Where it really shines is size and weight; it's much thinner and it's 1.5 to 2.5 pounds lighter than the Pro models.

Battery life is quite respectable at seven hours for typical web browsing using WiFi. If you push the machine with graphics applications or watching video, battery life does go down a bit but not by a large amount as you might be used to. Between the more efficient CPU and SSD and even the LED screen backlighting - the tightly integrated battery maximizes run time.

As a Photographic Tool

What makes the 13" size a real sweet spot is the fact that the screen has the same resolution as most 15" laptops. This gives you enough screen real estate to accommodate the palettes and interface of programs like Photoshop and Bridge - and still have enough left over to get a reasonable view of your image. By reasonable we mean large enough to work on with things like the spot healing brush, or to see the effects of curve adjustments, etc. without excessive zooming and fussing.

When you're limited by screen space, it really pays to learn various important keyboard shortcuts for the applications you use most. For example in Photoshop, in order to view your image as large as will fit on the screen, hit ⌘+1 (command + 1). Or to view at 100% you can hit ⌘+0 (command+0). This will make frequent tasks quite fast and efficient. The more you know your tool(s) the better the overall experience (regardless of platform).

Performance-wise, this MacBook Air configuration is quite snappy. Between the ample RAM installed and the speediest processor offered, it easily handles even the most complex filters, let alone more common tweaks. The SSD also goes a long way in boosting performance. If you do a lot of batch processing, sure - a desktop iMac or Mac Pro would easily outpace it with the extra CPU cores and speed. Even the MacBook Pro would do a little better here. Nevertheless, it does a fine job for what most of us use computer for. The SSD throughput also helps in another way; application launches. Photoshop CS6 launches "cold" in three seconds, while "warm" (cached) takes two seconds. That's pretty fast.

The DNG import/conversion process depends on where your source files are. If you're using the built-in SD card slot, it's slower than reading off of the SSD. So if you're working with a lot of images, it still pays to copy them to the internal drive first. Generally a good idea anyway, to work on copies (or copies of your backup files). The actual import/conversion is quick as well.

Conclusion

The MacBook Air is a pricey, but rock-solid and absolutely capable image slinging workhorse - and looks good doing it. If you need a travel laptop where space and weight are a serious consideration but you're not willing to compromise - the 13" model fills the niche masterfully. It's surprisingly small, light and spry. While it doesn't offer a true desktop replacement, it doesn't try to be either. This is a road warrior machine.