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Saturday, June 22, 2013

MacBook Air review (13", mid-2013 model), and the "Write Anywhere, Anywhen"™ concept.

When last we were talking, I'd posted several blogs about the capabilities of being an author in the CloudAge, using the capabilities of the Cloud and the power of tablets and smart phones (and specifically, the iPad) to empower writers to "Write Anywhere, Anywhen."™ ... well, those things still remain high on my list of things to think about, blog about, and concern myself. What I have noted in the meantime is that the fundamental bedrock of my writing, the amazing software program Scrivener, does not run on a iPad. I also found all of the existing ways to use various iPad Apps to write on the iPad, and then later pull changes into Scrivener, to be not just less than ideal but really quite a pain in my butt. So I pulled a few favors, collected some spending approval, and dropped the hammer on a new laptop.

A new laptop has been on my WishListOfThingsToHave for a long time, since the last laptop I'd owned (a white dual-USB iBook) was laid to rest many years ago. Since that time, I've been kind of limping along with (at first) a refurbished eMac, and then later a shared iMac with a family member, neither of which was ideal for my needs but was better than nothing. After recently needing to lower my amount of time shared on the iMac, and reverting back to the eMac proved to be a BadIdea, my needs have become much more emergent. The purchase of the iPad about this time last year alleviated some of the most acute of those needs, permitting me to take care of certain aspects without spending the money a full laptop would have required, but even that has proven to be a stop-gap for specific needs (like, Scrivener, office productivity software, my software programming work, and etc.).

After some considerable research, review-reading, personal experience, and much wringing of hands, I was lucky enough to have the time to watch this year's WWDC Keynote, where they announced the immediate availability of upgraded MacBook Air laptops, taking advantage of a new battery-saving CPU from Intel (the Haswell), and some upgraded components. The timing was perfect, and I was able to snag for myself a new MacBook Air 13" (full specs after a bit, and the rationale for the 13" instead of the 11" as well).

I've had this machine for only a few days now, but I am really, truly, happy with my laptop. Crazy happy. Super-duper over-the-moon happy. Yes, I've spoiled the ending, but let me explain why I like this machine.

First, let me say that at first glance, the changes looked like modest upgrades. The new MacBook Air line is not to the 2012 model as the MacBook Air was to the iBook: a radical change in perspective, or hardware, or utility. Generally, the changes amount to a minor change of bus, an upgrade in CPU (though, technically, a downgrade in clock speed), a change in SSD provider, adding a microphone, a change of battery, and an upgrade in WiFi. What these individually minor updates do, however, is make up in the gestalt and synergy what they seem to lack in their individual impressiveness.

In fact, what they combine to create is a true road warrior's dream of a laptop: a fully-capable, very fast laptop computer capable of being used pretty much all day long without recharging. When I say "all day long," that's really just what I mean: I've gotten up early in the morning, headed down to my local coffee shop, and started at 6 am with a full charge, worked there for several hours then headed home and worked until almost 5 pm before I got the warning message that my laptop was on reserve power.

Yes, you read that right. Right about eleven hours of use on a single charge, with a 13" laptop. And that's not eleven hours of open it up, type one email, sleep it, lather rinse repeat. No, that's sitting with iTunes playing, headphones in, writing in Scrivener with three web browsers open (RockMeIt, Chrome, and Safari), with multiple tabs in each, mail open, writing and doing online research for several hours, then going home and doing some more of the same. In other words, working.

Since I can't compare my laptop to prior models myself, I will point you to several other reviews by people who can do direct comparisons. What I can tell you is my experience with this one in particular.

As for my machine specifically, I opted for the 13" MacBook Air with a 1.3 GHz CPU, 8 GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. Now that Apple laptops no longer come with optical drives, I opted to purchase the USB SuperDrive ($79; I still have backup disks of previous computers with data I need to access, on DVD or CD, as well as a small number of applications that came only on CD/DVD originally). I also added a $29 cable to connect my 19" VGA CRT monitor at home to my MacBook Air's thunderbolt port (to use the larger screen at home when I needed to). All told, with tax my configuration came to just over $1,500. I originally had a crisis deciding about the screen size, 11" vs. 13", and realized that the 11" monitor would only just be larger than the display on my iPad, which is a retina display to boot. In addition, I have an external USB hard drive at home that I use for development, backup, and storage for things that I don't need to carry with me, including VMWare Fusion and several virtual machines (Windows, Kubuntu, and HaikuOS). These would definitely benefit from a larger screen, as well, and so I decided to snag the larger of the two.

Here are a few of the things that I've noticed about this laptop. It's lightning-quick. Waking it from sleep is nearly instantaneous; my experience with PC and previous Apple laptops is that waking from sleep is time-consuming (and in the case of most Windows laptops, a dicey proposition ... over the course of my life I've had several PC laptops, mostly from work and top-of-the-line, which would never recover from sleep. Windows does sleep/hibernate very poorly, in my experience). Launching most applications, including all of the ones I use for work, takes no time at all. Wall-clock time for Scrivener to launch† is 4 seconds with two projects open. Wall-clock time for Chrome is 2 seconds. Browsers, email, Word, Pages (I'm a writer ... I have nearly all of the word processors! Oh, and I prefer Scrivener for most things), "normal" applications launch in two or three seconds, only bounce once on the dock, and it's off to work. With the combination of crazy-awesome battery life, and lickety split reactions, the only thing getting in my way for work is my own motivation.

I also game. Naturally, this eats more battery than the work that I do, but it's still wicked fast. Wall-clock times: launching Neverwinter Night 2 on my laptop takes about ten seconds (from clicking "Full Screen" in the Aspyr launcher window, and skipping all the load screens, to the screen from which to resume the game). Launching Diablo III, from "Play" on the Blizzard Launcher screen to typing in my password, takes about fifteen seconds. Steam takes only a few seconds to load Civ V, and Civ V itself only takes about fifteen seconds to load completely.

I can work all day long without needing to plug in. This alone makes it an excellent choice for me, since what I like to do is to go from one place to another place, sit, write, think, work, and then get up and go somewhere else, and I don't necessarily want to have to be someplace with electricity "just in case" ... and now, I don't have to. I can take my laptop to the trailheads of Saguaro National Monument, watch the sunrise while working on one of my novels, or poetry anthologies, and then swing down for some coffee, work for a few hours, then pack up and hang at a park with some friends (or just people-watch) while working on my characters, and then go home, and still have battery life to spare. It helps that this laptop weighs less than three pounds; I can toss it with my iPad and the 2013 Writer's Market into my Ogio Newt II Mono and carry them all around all day long.

Overall, I have only one regret about this purchase, and that's my own shortsightedness: I wish I'd gotten the 512 GB SSD instead of the 256! I really enjoy the freedom of location that I have with this laptop, and the battery life on it is amazing. All in all, this has proven to be an outstanding purchase, and one I would heartily recommend to anyone looking into a laptop for all-day-long work.

: For me, "time to launch" means from the time I click the icon in the Dock, or double-click in the finder, until I can do something useful in the application.

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