MacBook Air Out of the Box

My wife told me that a "small package" was waiting for me at home. That could mean only one thing: the MacBook Air that I ordered on February 28th. I've purchased Revision-A Apple products before, but I've never, ever had to wait so long to receive one as I've waited for this machine.

I got home to find a small, squarish box which was clearly not big enough to contain a laptop of any size. The attached packing slip detailed five items, one of which was the Air, but only four items were in the box. The TNT driver had loaded two boxes at the depot and only delivered one, but the one he kept was the laptop itself! I was about to be really disappointed when my neighbour came over with a box that looked about the right size. Fortunately, the driver had realised his mistake and backtracked to drop off the second box after Carolyn had left. Relief!

My Order

So, what did I get? One custom configured MacBook Air: 1.8GHz with an 80GB hard drive. I also ordered the Ethernet adapter, since I use ethernet a fair bit at work, a second power brick and AppleCare.

Out of the Box

There's no denying that Apple made the MacBook Air box a lovely thing to open. It's more like the iPhone box than any previous Mac laptop box. As factory-installed, the Air's 80GB drive had 17.5GB of material on it, including a full iLife install. For me, that was a bit more than I wanted to devote to the system, so I decided to try a Remote Disc reinstall.

Remote Disc Installation

I thought it was important to try this new technique at least once before actual data was at stake, so I decided to reinstall the Air over USB Ethernet from my Mac Pro. I had been led to expect disastrously long installation times for this, but I was pleasantly surprised. Here's the timing:

  • 1830: Power on

  • 1831 (+0h1m): Finds Mac Pro remote install disc

  • 1834 (+0h4m): Installer booted

  • 1843: Clicked 'Install' on a nothing-but-required-printer-drivers (HP) installation.
  • 1902 (+0h32m): Green Tick shows up in Installer.

This was with a direct cable connection over the USB Ethernet adapter into a Mac Pro. I'm sure it would be significantly slower over wireless, particularly since I don't have an 802.11n network.Post-installation, I've used 9.39GB of the 80GB disk, a saving of nearly 10GB or exactly 10% of the nominal disk capacity.

App Installation over Wireless

The Air installer discs shipped with 10.5.1, so I had some updating to do. Once that was over, the next step was to install the three packages I can't download: iLife (just iPhoto), Remote Desktop and Office 2008. The process of using Remote Disc was flawless, once I figured out that I had to enable the "DVD or CD Sharing" service in Sharing preferences on the Mac Pro. I had sort of assumed that would be permanently enabled, having just done a remote OS installation.

Here are some timings over my bog-standard Netgear 802.11b/g wireless:

  • iLife (iPhoto only, ~500MB): 5 minutes from 'Install' button to green tick.
  • Remote Desktop 3 (70MB): 1 minute.
  • Aperture 2 (220MB): 3 minutes.
  • iWork (full install, ~750MB): 7 minutes whilst also running the big software update in the background.

  • Office 2008 (Word, Excel, English proofing tools, Office fonts: 815MB): 6 minutes.

So now, with my core apps loaded but no data, I'm using 12.7GB of disk. I skipped Photoshop CS3 for now, but might add it later if I find I miss it.

It's also worth noting that, whilst configuring the install, the performance of is indistinguishable from a local disc except for a slight UI pause when loading what I guess are the preflight scripts from the package. Cutely, if you press the Eject key on the MacBook Air, it unmounts the Remote Disc.

As far as I can see, Remote Disc is a perfectly adequate technology for the purpose of installing software. It is barely distinguishable from a built-in laptop DVD drive. Partly, I suspect, that's due to the Mac Pro's faster optical drive. I find it difficult to believe that many Air purchasers are going to have a need to reinstall such large packages so often that Remote Disc will be an intolerable solution for them. I can't see a USB Superdrive in my immediate future, despite its pleasing aesthetics. I can, however, see myself getting a spare USB Ethernet adapter for my bag.

Hardware Impressions

It's light. Really light. But then that's the part you probably knew already. People have also mentioned the rigidity of the case. I totally agree: it feels more like an iPhone or iPod than a MacBook Pro.

The first two times I tried to boot the MacBook Air, I thought it was dead because it made none of the whizzing-clunking sounds that the MacBook Pro DVD drives make on startup, and the hard drive is silent.

The trackpad is extremely large indeed - far larger than that on the outgoing 17" MacBook Pro - but the trackpad button is very skinny and isn't clicky enough for my taste.

I have not been the greatest fan of glossy displays in the past, but the MacBook Air's screen seems to be a significant improvement on that fitted to early generations of the MacBook. Those first glossy screens had a terribly narrow angle of view in which the colour remained consistent. Slight movements of your head would produce wild and dramatic colour shifts, to the point where it was almost useless for any application that required even mild correctness about colour and shade.

Let's hear it for LED backlighting. I was initially sceptical about exactly how much better LEDs were for backlights, but I'm a total convert. It's brighter and whiter than the MacBook Pro's fluorescent backlight, and it also seems to have a greater range of adjustments. The darkest setting is darker than the Pro's and the brightest setting is much, much brighter.

Having just hammered the hard drive continuously for two and a half hours, the fans are blowing pretty hard right now. The machine is warm underneath at the back-left corner where the hard drive lives, but the top case is evenly cool to the touch all around. Much cooler than the hard drive area on my MacBook Pro, on which I've done nothing but type this post. In the time it took me to write this paragraph, the fans have faded almost to idle.

Multi-Touch and Aperture

The multi-touch trackpad is nice, but I'll need to try and remember it's there. I haven't seen many people comment on this, so I'll note that pinch-to-zoom and the "wiki wiki wiki like your favourite DJ" gestures do work in Aperture, thusly:

  • Pinch: works in the browser to scale the thumbnails up and down. Does not work in the viewer or in fullscreen to switch between fit-to-screen and 100%, sadly.
  • Three-finger-swipe: works everywhere the left/right arrows work to move forward and backward through photos.

  • Two-finger-rotate: doesn't work anywhere. It would be lovely, though, if it could be used to control the Straighten adjustment!

So that's the story of setting up the MacBook Air. Another very, very well-done experience from Apple. Anything else you want to know?

[Update: The Late-Breaking News About Aperture 2 document details all the multi-touch gestures you can use with Aperture 2.  Also, it turns out that you actually can use the rotate gesture for the Straighten adjustment - you just have to add it to the set of adjustments first. Sweet!]