Personal Shopping for a MacBook Air at the Apple Store

I'm writing this on the train on the way back from a personal shopping session at the Apple Store. I specifically went there to get some time on a MacBook Air, and it was really worthwhile to do so. They lent me a staff member for an hour to talk me through some stuff about the Air. To be honest, I already knew all the tech specs about the Air and he was really there just to supervise me while I screwed around on it :-)

Last night, I prepared a portable hard drive with Leopard, Aperture 2, Xcode 3, my source code and a number of projects. They let me reboot the MacBook Air from my drive and try my stuff, which was great.

The Air I was using was a 1.8GHz with an SSD drive (which is mostly irrelevant, since I was booted from an external drive). Basically, it was great. By comparison with my 2.16GHz Core Duo MacBook Pro, the Air didn't feel meaningfully slower. Cut to the chase: what I was trying to determine was whether or not the Air is usable. I had no expectation that the Air would be a screaming-fast Aperture workstation, or a blazing compile monster. I just wanted to be sure that, if I had to fix a bug whilst on holiday, I would be able to do that without too much agony.

Aperture 2

Navigating the UI in Aperture 2 was just fine. In Quick Preview mode, it was absolutely, totally fine. It scrolled like butter. In normal RAW-rendering mode, it was slightly slower, but perfectly acceptable.

Making edits on an image was a bit more sluggish. It wasn't unusable, but there was noticeable lag in the responsiveness of the sliders. It was still better than Aperture 1.5 on my MacBook Pro. Imports also took a bit longer, but I had Aperture set to make previews on import. In the real world, I would probably turn that off.

Xcode

Building FlickrExport and all its dependencies from scratch takes 1.10 on my MacBook Pro. It took 1.40 on the Air. For me, that's an irrelevant difference. If it was four times slower, maybe I would care, but I'm not going to work on an Air for hours on end.

Personal Shopping

It felt a bit weird to have a personal assistant to help me shop, but it was really helpful. Even though I knew most of the details, it was good to have someone on hand for clarification or to bounce opinions off. What I wanted to do with the machine (boot it from my own drive) was the kind of thing that would probably get you kicked out of the store without prior arrangement, so it was definitely the right way to go. If you need more from an Apple Store than the "I want this specific iMac. Could you get it for me?" kind of shopping trip, definitely think about it.

Conclusion

I've already ordered my Air, a 1.8GHz with the 80GB hard drive. That should tell you what you need to know. I carried my 17" MacBook Pro with me on the trip today, since I had a meeting with my accountant too. The pain in my shoulder sealed the deal.

Is the Air an impressive machine? Absolutely. Is it a performance monster? Certainly not. It always seemed to me that the Air's specification would be perfectly adequate for anything I do on a laptop except Aperture and Xcode. That's what today was about determining: would it be bearable or agony? It was more than bearable.

Beyond the tech spec comparisons, though, the MacBook Air just somehow made sense to me. Partly, I guess, I'm slightly bored with the slab o' aluminium MacBook Pro. I've had three of these AluBooks now - a PowerBook G4, a 15" MacBook Pro and the current 17" MacBook Pro - and I'm ready to try something else. Also, I have a Mac Pro for all the big stuff. The MacBook Air could never be my only Mac but for what I want from a laptop right now, it's a really interesting machine.