Rick Hurst Web Developer in Bristol, UK


New macbook air got me all excited – the ultimate ultraportable workstation?

macbook air

I’m having to write this blog post as a brain dump – those annoying boffins at apple have got my brain in a recursive loop because they’ve released an 11 inch macbook air. I’ve always loved the idea of a very portable workstation, i’m happy to compromise on a bit of power for something small and light that I can work on anywhere.

By work, I mean web development – switching between highly visual work on the appearance of web sites, including using the very bloated and power hungry photoshop, to writing code and administrating databases. Although most of the time I work at a desk, with my laptop attached to an external full size monitor and keyboard, I also often work on site for design agencies, with or without an external monitor and I like to work from cafe’s or wherever I happen to be.Therefore my brain is looping around like this:-

I used to have a 12 inch powerbook, it was great – it was small, looked good, had decent battery life (for 5 years ago) but was a little bit underpowered and if I was to do a full days work on it without an external monitor to hook it up to it got tedious, as it only had a resolution of 1024 x 768

When I replaced it with a 2006 plastic macbook, that little bit of extra screen estate was enough to make it a viable machine to work on all day if I couldn’t hook up to a monitor. I bought another one a couple of years later – the original one would only take 2GB’s of RAM, so struggled with Virtual Machines, I got the second one second-hand and I now therefore have a spare, which is mostly used by my wife. They have been great and i’ll hopefully get another year or two out of them.

I have bought two netbooks in the past – a 9 inch acer aspire (which I sold to a friend while drunk), and then just before my road trip this year I bought a ten inch dell inspiron. Although capable, neither of them are pleasant to work on at all. They make good “emergency” machines, but the keyboard feels cramped, and the trackpads have both been virtually unusable. The vertical screen estate is just too small, so using forms on websites and web applications is fiddly, so even blogging with wordpress isn’t pleasant. The dell has really good battery life however, and it is small and it was less that 200 quid, so it still makes a great second emergency laptop.

Whatever I buy needs to be able to run my full development toolkit- apache webserver, mysql and postgres databases, photoshop, code editor, virtual machines. That rules out an iPad, which doesn’t run osx (or windows/linux for that matter).

So onto the macbook air – the first thing is that it looks gorgeous – like a slimmed down 12 inch powerbook – ridiculously thin and light. It seems very futuristic, but functional. at £849 in VAT for the base model it is therefore the cheapest macbook available – same price as the base model plastic macbook. I said cheapest not “cheap”, by the way!

The 11 inch macbook air has a full size keyboard and a decent trackpad, therefore it should be ok to type on, and navigate intricate interfaces. It has a native resolution of 1366 by 768 so it has more horizontal pixels than my macbook, but slightly less vertical pixels. Only slightly though – I guess i’ll be going to the apple store to see how that feels in use.

It has “up to five hours” of battery life – I think this will mean a couple of hours in reality, with the type of work I do – not brilliant. I think the efficiency and lower capacity battery means that I might have more success charging or powering it with my solar/ battery gadgets though.

The base model only has a 64GB “disk” – that would be pretty easy to fill, even if I have my music/ videos/ vm’s on an external disk. I guess an external disk would be key to this – it couldn’t be my “main machine”, but I would want it to be the machine I pick up and take with me most of the time, so i’d need to adopt a way of working that means I could quickly pick up where I leave off when I switch machines. The price starts to creep up if I choose the upgraded options – more ram, higher capacity disk etc.

By the way, i’ve only mentioned the 11 inch version. There is also a 13 inch version which is higher spec, but also higher price and if I wasn’t going to have the really small one, i’d rather get a high spec 13 inch macbook pro, for that budget. At least i’ve managed to rule that one out.. I think.

So the conclusion is that it would be a stupidly expensive indulgence for something that couldn’t be my main machine. I should be ashamed of myself – i’m not an apple fanboy (honest!). I’ve never queued inside an apple store for anything, let alone outside. I just don’t need one. It would be stupid to spend my hard earned cash on something so unnecessary.

I tell myself all of this each time I get to this point of the thought loop… but then I look at the pictures and video, tell myself that £849 minus VAT (I can reclaim through my limited company) isn’t *that* much for such an amazing gadget.. and i’m back to the start. I wonder if it’s possible to put a restraining order on myself preventing myself from going within 200 metres of the apple store…