Apple Macbook Air 11″, and why I decided to get one

I said I’d never get a Mac.

I swore I’d never get a Mac.

I thought people who had Macs were pretentious.  I thought people who had Macs had more money than sense.  Linux worked just fine for me and I was also pleased with Windows 7.

That was before I heard about the new ultrabooks that actually came out earlier this year.  I seriously looked at them at Best Buy early in June; the Dell XPS ultrabook looked really nice, but I read some hassles about Ubuntu and there was absolutely no guarantee about battery life (they were advertising almost eight hours of battery life under Windows 7).  I asked some questions, then wandered over to the Apple desk.  I played with both 11″ and 13″ Airs, and was impressed.

(This is long, so we’ll go under a cut.)

I was sick of my netbook being too damn slow and not being able to connect to wifi if it wasn’t right next to the router.  My laptop was getting to be long in the tooth and ran too hot when I was playing games.  I was going to build my desktop and didn’t want a full-form laptop that was very heavy to take home with me.

I spent a lot of time looking at my options.  I, of course, consulted Zareason and System76, but nothing was offered at the size I wanted (11″ or 13″) at the weight I wanted (2-3 lbs), the thickness I wanted (I dunno, an inch or less?), and the battery life I wanted (4.5 hours or more).  The Intel ultrabooks looked really awesome, but there was no guarantee that they would work the way I wanted with Ubuntu and retain the battery life advertised on the tags.  I was really leaning toward the Dell XPS 13 inch ultrabook.  It had an aluminum chassis, a decently sized screen, and what looked to be an awesome keyboard.  I didn’t have specs relating to the wireless card brand, so I couldn’t really figure out if it would work out of the box in Ubuntu without a massive undertaking by me.  I really didn’t want a project for my mobile computing device, so I decided not to buy just then.

Enter stage left, my trip to Portland, Oregon.

On Friday, we went shopping at the Frontier Mall in downtown Portland.  I went to the Apple store in there.  I knew I was looking for the upgraded 11″ (4 gb RAM and 128 gb SSD).  So, I bought it.  And a case.  And for about $1200, I had a brand new Air and case.  Nice.

What was I going to do with it?

Well, first I was going to get through the Portland airport security (which was no picnic) and then I was going to go set it up.  I ended up getting Dropbox installed and downloading my files, Adium, Chrome, and LibreOffice and I was pretty much set.

I’ve been using it for browsing, writing, reading pdfs, portable stuff, IMing, etc.  I could see this being a great development machine, especially with the updated RAM and SSD.

What do I absolutely love about this laptop?  How about a list:

  • Speed.  This thing is up and running in about 10 seconds flat.  Most of the 10 seconds is due to me typing in my password.
  • Weight.  This thing is light as a feather.  About 2-ish pounds.
  • Size.  I wasn’t sure about the 11″ screen, but it’s pretty awesome for what I’m using it for, especially since I set up Spaces for 4 desktops.
  • Battery life.  4-4.5 hours with wifi on, 6 without.  Amazing.
  • OSX Lion/Mountain Lion.  I like OSX since it’s close to what I expect from using Ubuntu.
  • Build.  The build quality on this thing is better than my System76 machines and those had amazing build quality.  Matter-of-fact, my mom is using my Pangolin Pro as a secondary computer with Kubuntu on it.
  • The charger.  The way Jobs and Co have designed the mag-safe thing is amazing.  Also, the extendable charger.  If you need the extra cording, it’s there, but if you don’t, you can easily change it out for a shorter charger.  Awesome.
  • The keyboard.  Solid, comfortable, awesome.
  • The touchpad.  I love multitouch.  Don’t know if I could go back to something else.  I also like the way the whole thing clicks when I press on it.
  • The App Store.  Brilliant and very similar to the Ubuntu repository ecosystem.  I love being able to download things from a central location and not worrying about them not being up to date.  I have installed some things from outside the app store (Libreoffice, VLC, and Adium) but they seem to integrate with the app store after being installed and will update when you tell all of your software to update.  Handy.

What do I not like so much?  Not too much:

  • OSX.  It’s very different from Windows and even Ubuntu somewhat, but it does carry some of the BSD/Unix-like ethos that it was borne out of.  I like the way the desktop is laid out as well as the dock idea.  I immediately moved the dock to the left so it emulated my Ubuntu desktop and shrunk it down because I didn’t need a huge dock.  Some things are wonky though; the logout setup, the Apple menu in the left corner, and the fact that you have to “quit” things instead of “close” them.  Drives me nuts when I meant to quit my browser and I see it’s still running but just closed.
  • Lack of free programs in the App Store.  So many of the apps require me to pay before I can try them out.  Under Ubuntu I can install an app and if it doesn’t work for me, I can uninstall it without a problem.  I don’t mind paying for applications, but I’d like to be able to try them out first.
  • Closed ecosystem.  Though I suppose once you get used to the idea of “the Apple way” it makes sense.  I don’t think I’ll be trying Ubuntu on this thing; maybe after Apple’s operating system will no longer support my machine.
  • The function keys.  I’ve not figured out how to get something to register F5 or F6 or whatever; seems like Apple wants you to use what I think the secondary options are as the primary options.
  • iChat.  I don’t like iChat (now Messages).  Doesn’t seem to work for me; I like Adium.  We now need Adium to use the messaging menu thing now.  I hope it does get support for that.

What have I bought since I bought the machine?  Well, I picked up Sparrow for $5 when it was on sale a few weekends ago (best investment ever; I love Sparrow).  I also picked up a microblogger app that allows me to post to multiple microblogs.  I need to figure out how to get it to work with identica though.

So.  There are people out there that would ask “Why would you buy a Mac when you are vocal about open-source software and freedom?”

Well, I’m multifaceted on this issue.  Yes, I’ve said before that I’d never use a Mac because they were overpriced and underpowered.  I thought they were cultish (and granted, their store is very… I don’t know; unsettling, perhaps, in that regard?).  I thought that people who used Macs had more money than sense, and goddamnit, Linux was just fine with me.  It “just worked” you see, and I didn’t have to worry about anything.  Linux was free and I’d had relatively few issues with it.

“Relatively few” is the appropriate phrase here.  When Ubuntu works, it’s an amazing OS, full of freedom and speed, and also penguins.  But when it’s not… well… It’s a bundle of pain and terminal commands.

We can file this under “things that bug me about Ubuntu”:

  • Wired to wireless interface change drops connection to internet.  Just as it sounds; when I unplug the wire from my laptop, I lose my connection completely and have to restart my messaging programs.  I also got this behavior with Windows 7 and do currently with my Windows XP machine at work.
  • Unity not showing icons in the dock.  I think this is Unity more than Linux in general.
  • Wireless drivers.  ‘Nuff said.
  • nVidia issues.
  • Intel Ivy Bridge issues (though this is a kernel problem).
  • Graphics issues in general.

So.  My grievances with Linux in general; they can be boiled down to “graphics issues” and “wireless issues”.  Most wired things work out of the box, but if you’re stuck with funky wireless drivers that require the wrapper, things can get hairy.  If you’re lucky, you’ve picked up a notebook that works out of the box (which is awesome) but if you’re not, your new wireless device needs to have some setup.  This is what I wanted to avoid.

Overall?  I love Linux.  What’d I really love is for Ubuntu to work out of the box with the Dell XPS ultrabook and retain the 8 hour battery life as well as have awesome range on the wireless card.

Ultimately, I decided on the Air because it was the right form factor and had what I wanted.  It was a little more expensive that I wanted, but I was ok with paying for quality.  Also, OSX is about as close as we can get to “mainstream Unix” right now that’s not set up for a specific purpose (like CAD or something).

I continue to run Ubuntu as my main OS.  Windows houses my games (my “wintendo”), and OSX is for my portable computer.  It’s relatively safe from viruses (yes, I know you can get viruses on the Mac; be careful and you don’t have to worry about it) and malware.  I don’t like the broadcast thing called AirPlay, but I just disable it and don’t worry about others being able to browse my files.

This is getting really long; my more in-depth review of OSX Mountain Lion will be forthcoming.  In it, I’ll detail what I use on this computer, and my more in-depth niggles and irritations.  There will never be a perfect OS, unless you could combine the best things out of Ubuntu, OSX and Windows.  I doubt that will happen anytime soon.

14 thoughts on “Apple Macbook Air 11″, and why I decided to get one”

  1. I bought an 11″ Air not long after if first came out. With hindsight I should have waited for the one with the illuminated keyboard, but besides that I have no regrets.

    The App store can be great, but you’ve already hit upon one of its major limitations. The Mac software community actually has a great history of providing fully functional demos of software and encouraging ‘try before you by’. They can’t offer this on the App store, so check out their website. In many cases, I’d still by from developers directly rather than use the App store.

    There’s an option under keyboard settings to get the function keys working how you like. You’ll then be able to use FN+Function to get the ‘secondary’ options.

    It’s interesting to note how the things you do and don’t like about Apple are very different from your Ubuntu likes and dislikes. The closed ecosystem can feel restrictive to a Linux user (I know, I was one too), but the benefit is not having to worry about graphics card compatibility and stuff like that. I’ve used the command line once since I switched to Macs, and that was to try and get some Linux software running. I don’t miss that side of things at all.

    1. The illuminated keyboard is tops. I’m glad I have one with that. Didn’t think I would find it a “go to” feature, but man. I wish I had one of those on my desktop.

      I noticed some programs had demos on the devs sites and I probably should have investigated a couple of the options on the websites. “Buy from the developers directly”… do they get more money this way? I know Apple takes a cut out of the profits, and I kind of understand why, but buying from the developers directly might be better.

      I will check out the keyboard thing. I find it strange why they have the secondary stuff as the primary, but if it’s changeable, then I can’t complain.

      Well, I notice a lot of similarities between the Ubuntu desktop and the OSX desktop (not a bad thing at all). I have no problems with the command line (I use it all the time under Ubuntu), and would like to give it a try on the Mac. As far as restrictions go, I’m not feeling restricted right now with the mac, but I haven’t tried a lot of out-of-the-norm stuff. Yet. Ahem. :)

      1. I’d guess that Apple decided that traditional function keys are only used by geeks, whereas more users would want volume and movie playback controls, so that should be the primary use. I have to say, I think they’re right.

        With regards to the App store, I believe Apple take 30%, but some developers are happy to accept this for increased exposure. Whether I buy in the store or directly really depends on a lot of factors.

        A lot of useful system tools like Alfred or TextExpander find the App store restrictions too severe. Even if an App like Alfred is in the store, the version for sale elsewhere has more features.

        If the app is just a simple game or anything not likely to want to make big system changes, the main advantage of using the store is that you can buy once and install on multiple machines. I also have an iMac, so I benefit from that.

        1. It’s cool that if you buy out of the App store that it is on all your Macs. I’m not sure if Ubuntu even has that.

          I’ll look into more apps. I don’t need a ton of apps right now, as I’m happy with what I have (my splurge was Sparrow when it was half off in the store). Also, I have limited room on here… 128 gb.

  2. I have a lot against Apple, company-wide, but I support your decision. We really need to get our stuff together, as the free desktop community. I am frustrated.

    I’ve been recommending folks pick up Nexus 7 tablets, if they don’t code or do a lot of writing. It feels like punishing them to suggest a free desktop that is going to cause a bunch of problems for them.

    1. It took me a long, long time to figure out that the Air was what I wanted. I was dead-set against getting anything Apple related for a very long time.

      I saw what was offered in the Windows marketplace and was unhappy with the proprietary everything they had and the usual low battery life. The exception was that Dell ultrabook, but it didn’t come with Ubuntu. ;)

      I’m between the Nexus 7 and an iPad. I’m thinking the iPad only because of the slightly larger form factor. I’d love Google to release a Nexus 9 or something that’s in direct competition to the iPad.

      I think a lot of people are frustrated with “Linux on the laptop”. Desktop is fine. No problems (except the Ivy Bridge kernel issue) right now. But on a laptop that you want to “just work” with your wireless networks and whatnot; if it doesn’t work right away, it can make users frustrated and angry and sad that they can’t just do stuff with it.

      I wish ZaReason or System76 had something like the Air (the ultra from Za is too freaking big) because I would have totally gotten that.

  3. So you’re basically saying that the “air” is the best piece of hardware on the market considering what you wanted (battery life + form factor)? My worry with supporting apple in particular — and other “encumbered” device makers — is in funding a locked down future.

    1. Wow. Lots of hate here.

      Yes, I am. I’m not “encumbered” because I can install whatever I want to the hard drive. Do I want Ubuntu on it? I sure as hell can put it on. BSD? Why the fuck not?

      Everything is encumbered in some way. Do you run Flash? Yeah. Encumbered. Android? Locked the hell down. I can’t even upgrade to Jellybean without potentially bricking my phone. That’s not free at all.

      I was talking about the HARDWARE. The HARDWARE is possibly the best I’ve ever used. I’ve never had a Windows-based computer that has this level of design put into it. Even my System 76 machines (which were awesomely designed) just don’t have the polish in the hardware that this does.

      My point was that there was NOTHING in the Windows or Linux based computer world that compares to this hardware. Most of it is gaudy plastic and under-powered chipsets (generally Atom, though that’s changing with the newest Ultrabooks) with no graphics cards and horrible battery life. I looked. Trust me.

      Also, I did not want to fight with mobile Linux. Not anymore. Why should I? I’ve done that. I’ve fought with the wireless drivers. I’ve fought with graphics issues. I’m just tired of it for something I’m going to use and don’t want to muck with.

      Oh, and if the shiny new Ultrabook you buy and put Linux on won’t boot, it’s probably because of Windows Secure Boot. Yeah. Good luck getting laptop hardware that doesn’t have that tiny bastard.

      Zareason and System76 are not interested in providing an 11″ or 13″ ultraportable that is decently affordable. The market is there, but they’re not willing to hop in, so I’m stuck with the Macbook Air or fighting with some sort of Ultrabook Intel monstrosity that may or may not work with my desired OS. I’ll take the Air.

      And please don’t think I’m uninformed. I’m wholly informed. I’ve researched the hell out of all of my options and this was the option I chose.

      1. Hate?? I didn’t see any hate in Kyle’s comment. Perhaps you misread, but his concern is a fair one; Apple’s recent moves haven’t impressed, and I do have concerns about investing in a closed ecosystem.

        That said, I’ve been idly looking at Ultrabooks ever since my wife bought an Asus Zenbook 13″ (an astonishing piece of hardware running the less-than-astonishing Windows 7) .

        (Based on the Ubuntu forums, installing Ubuntu results in trackpad issues, but the wi-fi is fine.)

        Dell’s XPS13 is due out in a version pre-installed with Ubuntu (you can download the Project Sputnik Ubuntu disk image already), which shouldn’t have any driver issues, but has the corresponding problem of being a developer’s distribution, and I’m not sure how much work is involved downloading the goodies needed to make it work for the more general user.

        If I had to buy an Ultrabook now, that’s what I’d get.

        I think you’re right in one respect; there’s precious little competition for the 11″ Air, which is an elegant little machine. When you get up to the 13″ and 14″ Ultrabooks, it gets a little more competitive.

        1. I might have mis-read but someone who attacks an informed choice seems like a zealot.

          Anyhow, I’d been looking at ultrabooks for a bit and there were absolutely NO competitors to the 11″ air. The 13″ would be nice, but I wanted something even more portable than the 13″ Air. If I was in the market for a 13″ ultrabook, I would have gone with the Dell XPS or the new Dell Ubuntu Project Sputnik computer. I wanted something that would fit in a small-ish bag or a large-ish purse; this is just the right size for extreme portability and decent computing power.

          Apple’s recent moves *do* reek of control, but I can’t seem to fault them for their way of doing things. Many people want a computer that “just works” or is like an appliance. It’s a way to access information, create information, create art (music, drawings, etc), and communicate. Oh, and play games; though I seem to do that on the Windows 7 side of my desktop.

          I do like the idea of the “App Store” and the centralized way it updates (much like Ubuntu’s repositories); again, some users might perceive this as grabbing control; I don’t.

          Apple is not just selling hardware. In some respects they’re selling an image and in others they’re selling an experience. The experience says “here’s a device that lets you do stuff”. Some people want that; for my portable computer, I did.

          In my OS defense, I did just pick up a Nexus 7 today at Microcenter; review is forthcoming, but man is it ever freaking awesome.

  4. I spend 90 percent of my time on this MacBook Pro and not the faster Linux machine with a lovely 24-inch monitor that sits next to it because the TrackPad on this laptop is so great! It’s in the right place. It has the right gestures.

    I don’t worry about the App Store. I figure it has increased the variety of applications available to me. The OS X indy developer ecosystem is noticeably more innovative and original than its Linux counterparts.

    Still, pretty much everything that’s available in Linux can be had for OS X, one way or another. Google for Homebrew, which is a packaging and dependency system that will feel familar to any Linux user, and gives you access to a boatload of stuff.

    1. I like the Air, but I spend a lot of time on Linux. Right now I’m concentrating on getting stuff like notes apps to work between all three of my OSes (Ubuntu, OSX, and Windows 7), and I’ve found some neat ones.

      The App store is fine. It’s much like the Ubuntu Store in that it keeps all your stuff updated and you can do it all at once. This doesn’t bother me at all, and I wish Windows had something like this.

      Not everything is available in OSX that is in Linux. Gwibber, particularly, is not. I’ve not found an app. I’m using the website right now.

      I will google for homebrew. Thanks.

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