Until recently I’ve never owned an Apple computer. I used the Apple IIe at school, but that’s all. I’ve never bought one because I’ve never had the need to own one. Everything I’ve done has been PC-based because PCs have never substantially let me down or left me wanting. That is, up until a few months ago.
I started to look around for a portable computer, something to travel with, work on the go and use on location for tethered photography. My aim was to find a very compact 13in laptop with good battery life, reasonable processing power and a screen that was capable of running my photography editing software. It seemed that my first point of selection, the 13in screen, was already a seriously limiting factor in my choices. There really aren’t that many 13in laptops around. Sony seemed to be the company offering the best choices in that size range so I had a closer look at what they had to offer. I wasn’t too impressed. Internal specs are all much of a muchness these days and certainly for my use, a super high-spec machine wasn’t called for. However, hands on a Sony Vaio SA series I was seriously underwhelmed by the construction, the keyboard sagged a lot when typed on and the screen bezel really did have a lot of flex in it. The Sony Z series seemed more like what I was looking for slimmer, lighter and generally a better build quality. The price though! €1800odd was a little shocking.
Rather disillusioned, I left the Sony Center and walked past an Apple reseller. I peered in the window and saw the MacBooks sitting there, then dismissed the thought.
Later that evening I started searching again and still drew pretty much a blank on finding anything to fit my criteria. So I had a look at the Apple site. Those MacBook Pro laptops certainly look sleek and well thought-out. Damnit though, all my software is PC-based. The Macbook Air then caught my eye: 13in, super compact, nice resolution screen, powerful enough and a good battery life. €1279,00 all-in and delivered. Ok, not quite the full spec of the Sony Z series but I didn’t want that anyway.
This was getting tempting. I knew there was some clever way of running Windows software on the Mac so I’d be fine wouldn’t I?
In walked Adobe.
I don’t know any photographer that doesn’t use Photoshop and many use Lightroom to process images. ‘Dual boot’ setup on the MacBook Air and I’ll be all set. Oh no.. Adobe in their infinite wisdom informed me that although my Photoshop license is for 2 installations of the software, both of those installations must be on the same operating system. So, 2 x Windows and not 1 x Windows and 1 x Mac OS. Lightroom, on the other hand, can be installed on 2 operating systems. Go figure! I won’t go into the 2 week long battle and numerous telephone calls with Adobe to find a solution but in the end I was offered (for a remarkable price) a full retail boxed version of Photoshop to run on the Mac OS. The choice was made, I was to own a MacBook Air.
Opening the MacBook Air, or as I will from now on refer to it as MBA, revealed a slick design and very robust looking machine. It powered up in silence and was set up, registered and running in a very short space of time. Biggest initial reaction? Wow, no s**t trial software or help utilities that I always spend ages un-installing on Windows laptops.
We sat there, MBA looking at me, me looking at the MBA. I had no idea what did what or how anything did what it did. A four-leaf clover key on the keyboard?..
Using the trackpad on the MBA was a delight, no laptop track pad has felt better. The gestures and controls were not unfamiliar to my iPad or iPhone, very comfortable and slick. Actually USING the MBA though? You know the feeling you have when trying to use scissors in the wrong hand? Lots of tongue chewing and crooked lines? That was me on the MBA.
Luckily I know plenty of MacOS users so I have been able to yell when I need to figure something out. I’m still not 100% up to speed but I’m slowly finding my way around and either being pleased at how easy some things are, or frustrated that other things are hard to do.
What I have heard though, is that a lot of established MacOS users are really not liking the way the new OS (Lion) is going. To me, it’s obvious where Apple are going. They’re turning the OS into a consumer-oriented system that will eventually merge the whole touchy-feely interface of all their products into one streamlined experience. ‘Think Different’ was once used as a slogan by Apple. I have to say that so far, I’m very much urged to ‘Think As We Want’ Anyway, that’s verging on a political discussion in the computer world. My requirements of the MBA are simple. Capture photos from a camera via a tethered connection, process photos and print photos. It seems to do it all remarkably well too. The processor seems nippy enough, the RAM keeps up and the SSD stores all the photos quickly. Photoshop runs very slick and very usable although I’d not want to push it to a hugely complex and multi layered file. Lightroom opens and processes RAW files with ease and setting up printers on the MBA is a breeze. I can even use the MBA to process the 360° panoramas that I make: I’d not do the full edit on there but all the software runs and it works very well. I’ve done a fair bit of writing lately and being able to do that on the move is very handy. I can do that on the iPad too but having a proper keyboard attached to the screen is a big bonus. Travelling with the MBA is easy too, I did buy a soft-sided protective case that does add bulk, but it’s still very light and still more ‘pocketable’ than any laptop I’ve seen.
My requirements are met, with just two noticeable downsides. When the MBA gets busy, the fan will kick in and it’s not a quiet one. Ducted well, I’m sure the draft from the fan would hover the computer off the desk. That is, until the battery is drained, which is pretty quickly when using processor-hungry software. An obvious down-side but nonetheless a bit of a drag if you’re not near a power socket.
Since my quest for a super-compact 13in laptop started, it has become common knowledge that Intel are very actively pushing the development of the so-called ‘Ultrabooks’ Laptops that will undoubtedly chase the Apple MBA and fight for a slice of the new market that Apple opened up with their slim machines. The days of the bulky and brick-shaped laptop are numbered, I hope. I’m looking forward to seeing what the Windows-based PC manufacturers will offer to compete in the segment. Will Apple pull me in any further? Not yet: I’m more than happy to continue working on dual platforms. My workhorse computer is a Windows PC that does all I ask it to do, and does it well. For portable work, the MBA covers it well. Getting used to the MacOS way of things is a slow process but having the luxury of not having to rely on it for pressured work does help. I really don’t mind having a foot in each camp. After all, when it boils down to it, they are only tools.
Oh, and that four-leaf clover key? I found out it’s called a Command key. Don’t ask me what it does. Ok?