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d333 2010 11-inch MacBook Air Thoughts I

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In what can probably be labeled an impulsive purchase I picked up the (old, 2010) 11-inch MacBook Air about a week and a half ago. Obviously, I think I got a pretty good deal, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. But this is again, one of those things that’s kind of been on the back of my mind for a long time, though I’m pretty sure I’ve never written about it.

The first time I used an Apple computer must have been in junior high… around 2002. As late as maybe even 2007, our computer lab ran Power Mac G3 AiOs, which were already obsolete in 2002. Not being very tech savvy at the time, I assumed all Apple hardware was as rubbish as a four to five year-old G3 AiO and never gave it a second thought. Clearly I’ve changed my mind over the past eight to nine years, but things have also gotten a lot better.

I’ve liked the MBA 11 since launch because I don’t believe that there is, by a fairly long shot, a comparable “conventional” equivalent. It’s basically right between the top end of netbooks and the bottom end of traditional ultraportables. This is a fairly vague and messy kind of comparison to make, especially given that the MBA line has just been refreshed, but I’ll try to get across how I see it.

As of today, for the price I paid (about $600) you could get a decent netbook for maybe half or two-thirds of the cost, but oftentimes those netbooks are not only thicker, but heavier as well. The Intel Atom is also slow as crap… let’s just say I wouldn’t run Windows 7 on it, even with a good SSD. On the traditional ultraportable side, things are murkier because offerings range from something relatively cheap like the last-gen $600 Dell Vostro V130, the standard ultraportable of the world, the $850 ThinkPad x220, or the very high-end $1650 Samsung 9 Series.

These are all admittedly, including the already last-gen V130, much faster than the Penryn-based 2010 MBA 11, but none of them come close to size and weight. The MBA 11 measures 0.68″ x 11.8″ x 7.56″ (these are AnandTech’s figures) at 2.3lbs (this is my figure, which matches Anand’s). The V130 is 0.78 x 13 x 9.06 at 3.6lbs, the x220 is 1.5(!) x 12 x 8.2, and even the extremely expensive Samsung still measures 0.64 x 12.9 x 8.9 at 2.88lb. The Samsung might be slightly thinner, but it still has a bigger footprint, heavier weight, and a price tag more than twice what I paid. Battery lives also range from rubbish (V130 at 3Hrs) to very good (x220 at 8Hrs).

Of course the prices I’m talking about are MSRP. I would bet that it’s possible to get a V130 for $400, an x220 for $650, and it looks like you can now get the Samsung for around $1000… but it still doesn’t make the units any thinner, lighter, or long lived on battery.

I think the closest competitor is actually a used ThinkPad x200s, which seems to go for about $500. It measures 1.1 x 8.3 x 11.6 (the height figures I’ve been using is the maximum height for all these machines) at 2.6lbs with the smallest battery, which should provide about five hours of runtime. The x200s also has the option for a WXGA+ (1440 x 900) screen, most likely an expensive option, but a nod back to the days of SXGA+ in an x60(t) or x61(t) and appreciated. It is still, nonetheless, larger and heavier despite the only minimal decrease in offline runtime.

I could go on and on with this spec comparison, but my point in the end is that there is no comparable “conventional” (read: Windows) alternative to the MBA 11 form factor. Period. The high quality netbooks from HP, Dell, and Lenovo’s business lineups may be a little cheaper, but they are all fatter, possibly heavier, seemingly always rubbish in some category whether it be performance, battery life, or whatever. Similar things, I think, can be said for more expensive ultraportables.

You also get an SSD (and not a bad one!) stock with the MBA!

Concerning the MBA 13, it doesn’t have this same value proposition. Even when the 0.76 x 12.8 x 8.94 first MBA 13 launched in 2008, at 3.0lbs, there were viable conventional alternatives. The ThinkPad x300, at 0.92 x 12.4 x 9.1 was a little thicker, but nominally lighter at 2.93lbs. The 0.7 x 12.7 x 9.0 HP Envy 133 was slightly thinner, but somewhat heavier at 3.4lbs (to this day I really like the design of the 133; I wish the modern HP Envy lineup had the same ID).

Pricing is a little murky here: The first MBA 13 started at $1800, the x300 at $2500, and the 133 at $2100. Nonetheless, included with the x300, in an age where such a thing is easily more than $500, is a first-gen Samsung SSD, and a equally rare and expensive thin optical drive… it is arguably a better value than the MBA, and most certainly the 133, both of which shipped with slow, small hard drives. Battery lives were comparable across the three original super-slim ultraportables.

I could once again go on: today, the 0.68 x 12.8 x 8.94, 2.96lb MBA 13 (the newest one to boot) goes toe to toe with Samsung 9 Series in basically all aspects; heck it’s even a little heavier and I think a little more expensive 2nd hand. My point is that there are comparable “conventional” alternatives in the 13-inch space, but not in the 11-inch space. So the MBA 11 is actually quite unique.

At the same time I’m not totally sure I’m going to keep the MBA, and even if I do, I’m not totally sure how much use I’m going to get out of it.

In general, I want to have two computers: a home machine and a travel machine. When compute power still mattered, the home machine was the powerhouse, and the travel machine was not. Nowadays, especially with the planned x220t and t420 upgrades in the future, the computer power will be the same. That being said, I could probably get away with a single computer these days, but a bunch of small things entice me to keep the second one. I won’t bother covering that, the point here: two computers, a desktop replacement and an ultraportable.

The other requirement is that one machine should be a tablet. This is such that, when I travel, I don’t need to buy or carry another piece of hardware.

I like my x200t, but it’s not really an ultraportable. With the 8-cell battery, the weight is some 4lbs, and it’s more or less just as thick as my t400. Given that convertible tablets aren’t really going to get any thinner (at least it really doesn’t seem like it) once the processing power becomes enough [to play SC2], it is very possible to make the tablet the desktop replacement and get something really thin and light with which to travel. Enter the MBA 11.

The problem with that setup is that I think it will be difficult to use the tablet as a tablet when it’s connected to a DTR setup. It’ll already be a pain to get three monitors out of it (the main screen and my two desktop monitors) and I will have a bunch of cables running out of it or its dock all the time, making it it difficult to move around even within the scope of my table. Given that I definitely won’t have it in front of me all the time, this is definitely going to be a pain point. In general, this whole setup, while it meets my original requirements, just doesn’t seem very pleasant to use.

And that brings me to the three machine fleet, which is, tentatively what I have right now. I have the t400, docked, the x200t for any tablet requirements, and the MBA 11 if I have to carry a laptop for a long time. This also meets the original two requirements, but it becomes excessive having three laptops, at least in my current worldview. I tried to get my dad to timeshare the MBA with me (and thus pay some of the price), but he’s managing to get by without a laptop and just his DTR and iPhone.

Putting the MBA out of the picture, I’ve considered getting a 4-cell battery for the x200t, which will take it down to something like 3.2lbs, and may be a much more practical solution to this whole issue…

There is also a lame picture attached to this post. This is one more version/view Normandie. It’s a slightly earlier version than last week’s and shorter by one “section”. The bumps on the top are lifeboats.

Published by D, on August 28th, 2011 at 12:16 pm. Filled under: d_others,d_sketch Tags: , No Comments

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