MacBook Air as Primary Machine

John Gruber says the MacBook Air is "clearly designed as a secondary machine, not a main machine" — mainly because of the chip used and the storage capacity. I think this is true for his purposes, but there's an entire category of users that could use this not just as their primary, but their only computer.

MacBook Air

I have relatives — as I think most of us do — that mainly use their Macs for web, email, iTunes and iPhoto. All of those should run quite well on the MacBook Air. The only point that's left is installing software. Gruber says:

No optical drive. The new Remote Disc feature mitigates this limitation, at least for installing software. [...] But if you want to watch DVDs, you’re out of luck.

You're only out of luck if you can't afford the $99 Superdrive. So it can certainly be a primary machine for a certain class of user.

The thing developers need to be aware of is that the previous low-end benchmark for modern hardware was around 2.0GHz. That's now 1.6GHz, albeit with twice as much built-in memory as the base MacBook. The hard drive is also slower (pointed out by DaringFireball), which is harder to account for.

What this means is that you need to tell your bosses and/or family members that you need a MacBook Air for testing purposes to assure a good experience for your software.

(You're welcome.)
Design Element
MacBook Air as Primary Machine
Posted Jan 18, 2008 — 35 comments below


Brian Christensen — Jan 18, 08 5353

I definitely agree. I can think of several people I know who would be well served by the Air as their only computer. It's simple, light, and easy to put away (as unlike many of us, these types of users don't necessarily care to have a large dedicated computer desk space and would rather just use it in the living room and then put it on a shelf when not in use).

Ted — Jan 18, 08 5355

I've long believed that you are a fool to buy a version 1.0 of any Apple product offering. My rev. A Macbook Pro confirmed those fears (in the shop 4 times, finally replaced by Apple with a current gen MBP), while the iPhone has diminished them.

Still, I would think twice about ponying up $1800 for the MBA, if for no other reason than you just know that there will be a 160GB HD version in the very near future. Why they opted for 80GB drive over the 160GB drive, when the price difference on the two is negligible is beyond me.

For most people I've talked with, the puny hard drive is the main sticking point. The un-upgradeable RAM and battery doesn't bother too many people, but that 80GB HD seems to be the issue thats keeping most from considering it.

Brandon Walkin — Jan 18, 08 5356

"Why they opted for 80GB drive over the 160GB drive, when the price difference on the two is negligible is beyond me."

My guess would be that they used the 80 GB drive because it's the highest capacity single platter 1.8" drive on the market. The 160 GB model is a double platter drive which I doubt would fit in the cramped MacBook Air enclosure.

Nicko — Jan 19, 08 5357

I've ordered a MacBook Air for my wife, since it looks like it will be able to do everything that she needs just fine and it will be lighter than her existing (some what ancient) 12" PowerBook. We have enough machines around the house that the remote drive would be fine but for a whole £50 it seemed pointless not to buy the external SuperDrive.

Now the important questions, Scott, is where is the documentation on what events are generated by that Multi-Touch track pad? The demo units at MacWorld-SF were, apparently, running 10.5.1, so why are we not seeing 'pinch' and 'rotate' listed in NSEvent.h ? I want to update my applications!

Brian Christensen — Jan 19, 08 5358


Looking at the iPod classic tech specs, the 80 GB model has a depth of 0.41" versus 0.53" for the 160 GB model. Based on this, I think it's highly unlikely that there's any room for an extra 0.12" inside the current Air enclosure.

Farhan Ahmed — Jan 19, 08 5359

I completely agree. I will be buying this for my dad and sister (they both have iPods, so an optical drive is not a deal breaker; but the hard drive too small even for their needs). MBA is the perfect Mac to meet all there needs and I have other Macs around the house that would be useful with the Remote Disk functionality.

But I will wait a couple months to get it; because I too feel that an update to the hard drive is coming as pointed out earlier. I could be wrong; but the worse case scenario is that I will wait a little longer.

Scott Stevenson — Jan 19, 08 5360 Scotty the Leopard

@Nicko: Scott, is where is the documentation on what events are generated by that Multi-Touch track pad?

I don't think anything has been published yet.

Julian Schrader — Jan 19, 08 5361

True words. The MacBook Air could be the perfect computer for many people I know.

And as long as you install software from the net, you won't even need the USB-Superdrive.

Jesper — Jan 19, 08 5362

Another thing the MacBook Air will hopefully force out of developers is to hit disk less often. The flash disk has a limited number of writes, and while the calculated age may be around 12 years (I can't find this link) because of the relatively low number of writes being made up by the same block not usually written all the time with 64 GB to choose from, it's possible to shorten it dramatically just by hitting disk all the time.

If a hard disk fails after five years, it's usually because it's five years old, and to a certain limit you can't fasten that onset just by being rough with it. Not so with flash disks.

Jimmy the Geek — Jan 19, 08 5363

That much money for a secondary machine would be insane.

Scott Stevenson — Jan 19, 08 5364 Scotty the Leopard

@Jimmy the Geek: That much money for a secondary machine would be insane

A lot of people pay the same or more for a laptop in addition to their full desktop.

The boy Ken — Jan 19, 08 5365

@ Jesper:

The Flash disk will be used for virtual memory, so it'll be being hit all the time anyway.

In terms of the superdrive, there's no way I'd buy an MBA without one. How else do you install the next OS onto it (or reformat and reinstall a dodgy disk in it) - can Remote Disc be used when it won't even boot? I somehow doubt Apple put Airport / Bonjour / Remote Disc down at a level underneath the bootloader...

That said, the ability to leave the superdrive at home is good (less weight to be carrying around). If my 17" PB had a 2nd battery and an external superdrive, I'd be happy (and stronger too by now).

Peter Vidler — Jan 19, 08 5366

The trouble is that for most of the users you mention, an Asus Eee would probably do as well for a fraction of the cost.

Jim Matthews — Jan 19, 08 5367

@ The boy Ken: I somehow doubt Apple put Airport / Bonjour / Remote Disc down at a level underneath the bootloader...

Actually, according to an Apple engineer who worked on it, they did. EFI can now join WiFi networks and mount a disk image or optical disk published by another machine via http. The machine with the DVD runs an app called Remote Install Assistant.

Matt — Jan 19, 08 5369

Here is the thing about missing firewire. When my mom was in the market for a new laptop to use as her primary computer, she was planning on using it for email, word processing, photo storage, and general web use. She never had any intention or thought of editing video. But then she had to do a project for some kind of certification she was seeking (she is a teacher), and she needed to shoot some video, and turn it in as a DVD. So now all of the sudden her firewire port and iDVD's OneStep DVD feature are really nice. The point is it's hard to know what you will ever use a computer for during it's entire lifetime.

Craig S. Cottingham — Jan 19, 08 5371

@Peter Vidler: The trouble is that for most of the users you mention, an Asus Eee would probably do as well for a fraction of the cost.
An Asus Eee won't do anywhere as well for any cost, because it's not a supported platform for Mac OS X. :-)

Eric — Jan 19, 08 5372


Do you think the MacBook Air is fit for writing and compiling source code for large projects (25,000 lines) in Xcode? I really want one of these, but I am worried about the hard drive and processor speed.

Thanks so much,

Michal — Jan 19, 08 5373

I'm still on a PowerBook (primary and the only machine), simply because MacBooks released up to now didn't attract me enough to want one. I haven't had Air in hands yet, but from photos this is THE product I was waiting for. I'm a standard user, email, web, photos, and some Cocoa.

Paul Franceus — Jan 19, 08 5374

I just ordered an Air for my girlfriend. It's the perfect machine for her - light weight and not a lot of complication. She surfs the web, downloads podcasts to her iPhone, checks her email and does word processing and presentations. She always complained about the weight of my old TiBook that this is replacing.

Ben — Jan 19, 08 5375

@Eric: I wouldn't choose an Air for a serious development machine-- you tend to want as much juice as you can reasonably have on a dev machine if you plan to keep using it for a few years, and frankly the value for money on a 15" MacBook Pro is much higher-- for only $200 more, you get 2 more inches of screen, which is significant for a developer, as well as more juice, more, faster storage, and upgradeable memory. That said, depending on your needs, it certainly is powerful enough to *work* (I used a 12" Powerbook for development for a couple years), you just might be grumbling at the choice a little bit down the road.

@Jesper: A nice thought, but developers should give frequency disk writes zero more consideration than they do now-- there's simply no meaningful reason to do so. No user with an SSD disk will worry about whether a particular piece of software is contributing more or less to its long-term failure, and no app developer would ever be able to measure their impact on such a failure in any meaningful way, so there's no reason to spend a moment of development time worrying about it. If an SSD was really so "fragile" as to require special care in write frequency, it would never be qualified for inclusion in a mainstream consumer computer by a major manufacturer. Also, the people who are able to measure any such effects (Apple hardware qual or OS team) are the only real ones who are able to take meaningful mitigating steps, like building magic block migration into the filesystem.

Chris L — Jan 19, 08 5376

Interesting article here. A back of the envelope calculation says an SSD drive could last 51 years even if you were writing to it as fast as you can for 24 hours a day.

Mike — Jan 20, 08 5377

One feature that does intrigue me about Vista is the so-called ready-boost option to use a USB flash key as additional ram space. Any idea if Apple has similar plans in the pipeline? I have no idea how well this works; I don't use windows willfully anywhere and only have macs at home. It just seems like a neat possibility especially when you can't upgrade Ram easily.

Frank McConnell — Jan 20, 08 5378

There are a lot of folks who could use the Air as their only computer. I wonder how many of them will, though! The MacBook still looks like the better deal, unless you need or want the lower weight of the Air, or have something against polycarbonate.

That said, the Air is probably a win from the manufacturing and support point of view. There's only one BTO option (flash disk vs. rotating rust), one of them reduces the number of moving parts even further, and there are fewer connectors to fail.

I think we'll be seeing more computers like this in the future -- I wouldn't be surprised to see the SO-DIMM sockets disappearing from MacBooks and iMacs.

Blain — Jan 20, 08 5379

Heh. I didn't notice the MacBook Air's acronym until just now. MBA, as in the business degree. It'd be perfect for business types that have IT support. Sealed up, light, less things to break, and they can use it as a tax write-off. Lack of expansion is no problem; the business would lease it, and simply replace it with a new one later on.

As for a primary, there's already a market of external USB optical drives, as well as usb to firewire adapters. Keep all the peripherals and monitors at home, and just carry the laptop about.

Definitely a possible primary for students. For coders, perhaps not as much because we're not exactly on the go as much.

1.6Ghz is still a lot of speed, especially given some of us still using a 1.5Ghz G4 as a dev machine. Finally, space shouldn't be an issue, as the drive should only carry the essentials; everyone keeps backups and archives on external devices or nonportable systems, right? Right?

Scot W. Stevenson — Jan 22, 08 5384

What I think would really help Apple here would be a real synchronization program. I have an iMac and a MacBook, and use unison to keep them in sync. Most of the perceive problems with the Air vanish in thin, uh, air this way (except that my wife would kill me).

I have no idea why Apple did not introduce some form of unison on steroids with the Air. Since .Mac won't even synchronize your mail folders, let alone your documents or music, they offer no way to use two computers without a major hassle.

Y, Scot

J Nozzi — Jan 22, 08 5385

@Scott: I agree completely regarding file synchronization. It isn't as if Leopard doesn't now have the means to make such a thing much faster (discovery of changed files, that is). Combine that with Time Capsule or an Air Disk and you have the perfect central "Truth".

Overall, however, even in the absence of such synchronization, the MacBook Air caused me to immediately reevaluate how I actually use my MacBook Pro. I tend to be very anal about keeping everything I might possibly need or want with me at all times. Not only my files, but all my hardware, too. I have a case-within-a-case with an extra power brick, Ethernet cable, video adaptor, minijack-to-minijack cable, iPhone sync cable, USB, and firewire cable. In other words, I carry a lot of crap everywhere I go. :-)

I began rethinking that approach, however. I rarely use any of the hardware (even though it's really handy when I need it), nor even the files. By decentralizing things (and letting go of some of my digital baggage), I could probably fit.

If I could throw most of my home folder's contents into "long term storage", use the .Mac Back to my Mac feature to get at it if I really need to, I think it's a reasonable compromise. "Zen and the Art of Portable Computing", if you will. I wish I could borrow somebody's MBA for a week or two ... just to get a feel for whether or not even those fears are justified.

I would probably have already pre-ordered an Air if it weren't for two things: performance and screen size (the latter being of critical importance for someone with less-than-perfect vision).

Scott Stevenson — Jan 22, 08 5386 Scotty the Leopard

Just to be clear, "Scot W. Stevenson" is not me.

J Nozzi — Jan 22, 08 5387

... but the font is the same. It looks just like you! ;-)

Chris L — Jan 23, 08 5389

To answer Mike - Windows ReadyBoost is a cache of the system page file. It is supposed to help when you run out of RAM and start to have lots of page ins. The pages can be read from the flash memory instead of the hard disk. I can't find much hard evidence that it helps much. It seems to be intended for non-upgradeable systems that are stuck with 512 MB.

Blain — Jan 24, 08 5393

Readyboost is a neat idea to an extent, but yah, in essence, it's more of "Making the virtual memory thrashing suck less." 2GB RAM is the better solution.

The one fly in my "Duo Dock reborn with USB" theory: the superdrive addon requires more juice than the USB spec; it might not work with hubs.

Ben — Jan 26, 08 5396

@Eric from earlier who was asking about using the Air as a development machine:

See the engadget benchmarks here:

The Air is significantly underperformant relative to all the other portables. Its value proposition for you as a customer is clearly the form factor and design. Everything else is compromised in favor of achieving that one goal. I wouldn't waste the money on it as a dev machine.

Eric — Jan 26, 08 5399

@Ben: Thanks for your comments about the MBA as a dev machine. They were really helpful. It seems to me that I might have to wait for a later version before making the purchase. Which is too bad because the machine is just too darn beautiful. Oh well... We can't get it all.


Jesper — Jan 27, 08 5400

I guess I forgot to write about this.

A relative has a 17" PowerBook - the second to last model they ever made. He bought it the day before they introduced new ones, right after driving around town repeatedly wondering why it was sold out everywhere but in one place. ;)

He's been watching carbon fiber Vaios with envy, and has asked me repeatedly if Apple had "come to its senses yet". I've sent him the link to MacBook Air. Whether I'll recommend it or not is a question of if he can cram into 80 or 64 GB of storage - MacBook Air, slow as it is, is significantly faster than the 17" PowerBook, he can afford the external SuperDrive, has never tended to plug in lots of extras, he's not using his computer heavily and has actually asked for "wireless backup".

So, for all the ones asking who this machine is for, the answer is simple: my relative.

anony moose — Jan 30, 08 5420

Eric -- 25,000 lines... that's not a large program, that's a toy. The Air will suit you just fine. I work on a program that's 1.5m lines... the 8 core is my friend.

Travelsheep — Jul 12, 09 6830

I dared to buy the MacBook Air 2.1 Ghz and I use it as my primary machine for web development. I use textmate, couple of servers, photoshop, loads of tabs on firefox. It's awesome. I write about it on my blog


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