Macbook Air – My Brief Love Affair

I’ll admit it… I was weak.

Like a middle aged man suddenly forgetting all about his wife and fantasizing about spending time with the young, gorgeous 20-something girl that has shown an interest in him, I was tempted by the seductive thinness of the Macbook Air.

Sure, my Macbook Pro and I have been through a lot together, but still, there was something about that “thin” goodness that appealed to me. I tried to rationalize why I needed one, and for a while, I was able to resist.

But then, I wandered into an Apple store and touched one…

In all seriousness, if you’re a road warrior and are considering purchasing a “thin and light” notebook, you really owe to yourself to go to an Apple store and look at one. The pictures/videos on the internet simply don’t do it justice.

It’s simply an amazingly thin and surprisingly sturdy little machine, and it had to be mine…


So, after another week of rationalizing, I caved. The store didn’t have one, so I ordered one online, only to learn it would be 5-7 days before it would ship.

Not satisfied with that, I began playing “Apple Store Roulette” – calling my local stores to see if they had any in stock. After a couple of nights, I finally hit the jackpot.

I cancelled my online order, zipped over to the store, and a shiny new Macbook Air was in my hands.

Even with it in my hands, it was hard to believe that it’s a full blown mac. The screen is absolutely gorgeous. The mono speaker is actually pretty decent.

The first thing I learned was that remote install over wireless blows in a big way. Don’t even bother. Either cough up the $29 for the ethernet adapter or $99 for the superdrive.

Another solution, provided you have an external drive and a 2nd computer, would be to create ISOs of your installer discs, copy them to the external drive, and then mount them on the MBA. I found this to be much much faster (including ripping the ISOs) than attempting a single wireless remote install. Remote install using the ethernet adapter works fine as well.

I took it to work for a couple of days. Co-workers ooohed and aaahed over the machine. I had to hide the machine in a drawer when I went to lunch because the form factor is so small there’s no security slot, but, I had told myself previously, I could live with that.

I did notice one odd thing. At work, I have to use the ethernet adapter to connect to the internet, and that little adapter loves power like nobody’s business. Just plugging it in cranks up the fan of the MBA up to 6200 rpm, and even the heat in the box goes up a couple of degrees. But, I didn’t see any issues with performance, so I believed it was fine.

It wasn’t until this weekend that I started putting the MBA through its paces. It was, after all, going to replace a Macbook Pro as my primary laptop, and I wanted to make sure it could handle a decent workload.

And, it did, for a while…

One thing I noticed was that the MBA can get a bit warm. The only place it gets slightly uncomfortable is under the left palm rest. But, it was tolerable, and I thought, not much different than the Macbook Pro.

But, then, I saw something else odd. I had a few apps running, browsing, chatting, etc, and was running an installer. I also had Activity Monitor up and was watching the CPUs, when suddenly, the 2nd core stopped.

I looked at the temps with iStatPro, saw that the fan was going but the CPU didn’t look like it was that hot.

So, I closed out some of the apps I was running, and let it cool down to the point where the fans kicked off. Once the temp dropped a bit, the 2nd core came back online. Hmmm…

I vaguely remembered seeing someone complaining on one of the forums about the 2nd core shutting off, but I had dismissed it. I simply assumed that the person had gotten a “bad” machine.

So, I started digging around on the net. I found several posts on macrumors and apple’s support site. Other people had seen the issue as well, and they had different steps for recreating it. Some could do it while watching YouTube videos for more than 15-20 minutes. Another, sadly, mentioned that he could do the same thing by playing World of Warcraft for 15-20 minutes.

I briefly tested the MBA with World of Warcraft, and I thought it was fine. It performed about as well as a standard macbook, and I told myself that I could live with that.

But, apparently I had not hit the 15-20 minute threshold when I did my first test. So, after letting the MBA cool down for a bit, I booted up World of Warcraft. And, as before, it seemed to be fine, for about 15 minutes.

After that, I noticed the a distinct slowdown in the game and in the framerates. I immediately switched into windowed mode, and sure enough, the 2nd core was off.

The most disturbing thing I found in all of this was the response in the Apple forums that this was “as designed.” To prevent the machine from overheating, the MBA is designed to shut down the 2nd core and throttle back the built-in graphics once the temp hits a certain point (which I found to be around 62-64 degrees celsius).

And that, my friends, was one compromise too many for me. I could work around not having the cd/dvd drive. I could live with having to use an ethernet adapter at work and live without the security slot. I could live with the heat (It does get a bit toasty, but not more than an Macbook Pro). I could live with a single USB port.

But, I like to get my game on once in a while, and I certainly don’t like the idea of the MBA shutting down one of the dual cores just when I need it the most.

So, the sleek temptress that is the MBA is going back to the Apple store.

The moral of the story? The Macbook Air is an amazing machine. It is incredibly thin and very solid. If you are a road warrior who does little more than surf, read email and work on Office documents, then this is a perfect machine. Some programmers are using it as well. The machine can handle a couple of basic tasks just fine.

BUT, it cannot play games, and it will have issues if you put it under any kind of serious “load.” And what a “load” is can vary. Basically, if you run anything that cranks the fan up and the CPU gets up to 62-64 degrees celsius, it’s going to shut off the 2nd core. I would highly recommend you install the iStatPro widget to help with monitoring things, and use Activity Monitor to watch the cores if you choose to do some testing.

In a way, there are some things I would love to see from the Macbook Air migrate to the Macbook Pro. The bigger trackpad (although keep the button bigger, that sliver of a button on the MBA is annoying) would be nice. I would really like the magnetic latch, and I could go either way on the keyboard.

If they can find a way to make the Macbook Pro a bit thinner and lighter, that would be nice too. But, if the form factor is going to compromise the power of the processor, it’s simply not worth it.

The Macbook Air is a great machine, and I hate to give it up. In the end though, it turned out to have one compromise too many for my taste.

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