Is the 13″ Macbook Air A Good Laptop for the Digital Photographer?

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I travel a lot, and when on the road I typically carry several cameras, a computer, my Kindle, all the associated chargers, cords, extra hard drives and other accoutrements necessary to move my digital world with me. If there’s any room left over, I also consider taking clothes and those other secondary items. Needless to say, my bag’s heavy, so I’m constantly looking for ways to lighten it. For the past couple of years I’ve been carrying a 13" Macbook, which has been a great computer, and fully capable of everything I need for months-long excursions. But it was very difficult not to note the new 13" Macbook Air upon its release. More specifically, to note that it weighs 1.5 pounds less than my 13" Macbook. What wasn’t obvious was whether it was enough computer to handle a digital photo workflow. So I bought one. Here’s how it stacks up.

There are plenty of reviews out there about the Air, so I’m not going to go into any details about its specs or capabilities. If you’re looking for a road-worthy computer to drive your digital photography workflow, then your main concerns will be speed, storage, and I/O.

I/O’s not really an issue. The Air has two USB ports, and a built-in SD reader. I travel with both SD and CF-equipped cameras, so USB card reader handles the CF cards, but I’m really enjoying the convenience of the built-in SD reader. Note that there’s no Ethernet port, so if you find yourself regularly needing to use Ethernet connections in hotel rooms, you’ll need to pick up the separate USB to Ethernet adapter.

At first, I was concerned about lack of an optical drive, so I sat and thought seriously about how often I use the optical drive on my 13" Macbook. Software installation is the most critical concern, of course, but I carry installers as disk images on an external hard drive, so lack of an optical drive isn’t a problem. The Air ships with an OS installer on a tiny USB thumb drive, so I don’t have to worry about needing an optical drive for OS re-installs.

As for burning, my experience with the burners in the last few Mac laptops that I’ve had is that they rarely burn consistently after about six months. Whether it’s the nature of a portable burning mechanism, bad engineering on Apple’s part, or bad luck on mine, I’ve long since given up on the idea of a reliable portable burner. And, for those rare occasions when I absolutely have to burn a disk while on the road, it’s not hard to find a place to knock one off.

Storage was my next concern. I had recently replaced the 250 GB drive in my 13" Macbook with a 500 GB drive. The extra space felt very luxurious, and so I was concerned about dropping back down to a 250. Sure, you can carry extra drives, but the point is to save weight. Then I realized that I’m already carrying extra drives with my 13" Macbook, so, ultimately, I’d still be saving weight by getting a smaller computer.

When I looked at the remaining space on my 13", I found that I had a little over 200 gb free. Since I was using just a little more than 250, I decided that dropping back down to a 250 GB internal probably wasn’t that big a deal. As for what wouldn’t fit, I assumed that a little bit of tidying up would probably allow me plenty of room on a 250 GB drive.

Most importantly, I was concerned about performance. My photo workflow is built around Photoshop, Bridge, and Camera Raw (here’s why) and I’d found the 2.4 GHz 13" Macbook to be speedy enough for typical post-production. But not so speedy that I was willing to take a huge performance hit.

I’d seen Macworld’s benchmarks, which showed an impressive composite score, but wasn’t sure how Photoshop would fare. Unfortunately, there was really nothing to do but give it a try, and trust that Best Buy’s return policy would allow me to take the thing back if I didn’t want it.

I bought the 2.1 GHz Air with a 250 GB SSD and 4 GB of RAM. Fortunately, at the time, I was teaching at a workshop where there was a new 1.8 GHz Air, so I benchmarked those two machines against my 2.4 GHz 13" Macbook. Photoshop was really my only concern, so I tried some panoramic stitching and some HDR merging figuring that these were both good combinations of disk performance and processing. The results were impressive:

For panoramic stitching, the 2.1 GHz Air finished just 6 seconds behind the 13" Macbook, and HDR merging only lagged by 3 seconds. By comparison, the 2.1 GHz machine finished the panoramic stitch 16 seconds sooner than the 1.8 GHz Air, and the HDR merge 15 seconds faster. So, plainly it’s worth spending the extra for the faster processor. More importantly, the slight processor downgrade doesn’t yield a machine that’s dramatically slower than what I was using. So far, I’ve found this performance difference to be completely acceptable, and unnoticeable in everyday use.

In fact, for everyday use, the Air feels faster than my 13" Macbook did, no doubt thanks to the SSD. If you’ve never used a computer with a solid state drive, then it’s difficult to appreciate just how fast it is. Microsoft Word 2011 launches in less than 2 seconds, boot times are astonisingly speedy, and opening large images off the internal drive is noticeably faster.

But I also tried to consider something else when thinking about performance: I’ve spent the majority of my career making a living on computers far slower than the Macbook Air. At this point, speed is a luxury, so even if I’m taking a performance hit, it’s not going to impact my work or feel especially burdensome, and the weight reduction is well worth the tiny bit of performance downgrade.

Finally, there’s the question of durability. I travel internationally, and I spend a lot of time in the backcountry, or having my computer bounced around the inside of a motorcycle bag. With its wafer-thin profile, the Air appears to be quite fragile, but once you get your hands on it, you realize it’s quite sturdy. The aluminum unibody has no discernible flex and the fact is, if I drop a rock on the Air, perhaps it’s so thin that it really would snap in half, while my 13" Macbook would only be horribly mangled. Either way, both computers are probably going to be rendered useless, just in different ways. So I’m not worried about durability at the moment.

Other observations about the Air:

* Lack of a hard drive makes for a very speedy, and cooler machine. No more burned thighs while wearing shorts.
* The screen is markedly better than what I was used to. Higher-resolution, for sure, but I hadn’t yet upgraded to a machine with LED backlighting. The screen alone makes for an improvement in my everyday work life.
* It’s more comfortable to use. For RSI reasons, I have to work with the Air in my lap. With its lighter weight and thinner size, it’s simply more comfortable and easier to manage than the 13" Macbook was.

So, if you’re considering an Air, and have been wondering if it’s up to the task of managing a photo workflow, I’d say don’t worry. So far, the Air is working great for me.

One final note: I used Apple’s Migration Assistant to move the data from my old machine, something I definitely would not do again. For some reason, after the transfer, Save dialog boxes were screwy – any extensions I typed in were lost, meaning I had to manually re-enter them into the Finder. More importantly, Migration Assistant moves everything. Every preference from any software you’ve ever installed, any associated files, and so on. Much of this software I’ve since stopped using, so these extra files are just wasted space.

I wiped the Air’s drive and started over, moving everything by hand. In addition to not getting the strange Finder bug, I had an extra 12 GB of space by the time I’d decided not to re-install things I wasn’t using. My recommendation is to skip the Migration Assistant. It’s still too unreliable.

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