A couple of weeks ago, I did something that doesn’t come naturally to me: I paid a fairly hefty wodge of money for an Apple computer. I’ve never owned a Mac before; while I’ve got nothing particular against Team Cupertino, I’ve always been a PC boy at heart, ever since I first laid eyes on my dad’s Amstrad 1512 many, many years ago.
More to the point, I’ve never seen myself as the sort of person who casually gets their MacBook out in a Starbucks to fire off a quick email to Tristan, and certainly not the sort of person who then writes a blog post braying to the world about how awesome their shiny new toy is. You know, one of those bloody people. And yet here we are.
I did it because I’d reached the point where I realised that my faithful four-year-old ThinkPad was finally giving up the ghost, and that my first generation EeePC (as much as I still love the adorable, plucky little thing) wasn’t even remotely capable of actually doing what I needed it to do. More pressingly, I was heading away on a trip in a little over a week for work, so I needed something that would, you know, work.
But still, I hadn’t planned on going full Jobs.[ref]In fact, my original plan was to go for a cheap but decent Windows or Linux netbook (an Acer Aspire One, or similar) and then maybe add in a Mac Mini as a desktop a little while later. I quite liked the idea of having access to more than one OS ecosystem; moreover, I was drawn to the notion of shifting away from the increasing ubiquity of the laptop-as-primary-computer. I’d been thinking about the ways computers fit into and shape your life for a while, mostly while trying to work out the point of the iPad. And having your main computer being something you casually schlepped around with between bedroom, living room and the outside world was (I reasoned) pushing your relationship to it into an awkward and unhelpful territory – a perpetually present but always peripheral screen. Relate to your computer in this way, and it becomes a distraction device; a no-strings-attached fling for your unfaithful attention span. Something you use to casually look up actors on IMDb while watching films, or to complain about Masterchef on Twitter. Not something you use to get things done. Sod convergence, I decided – what I needed was to compartmentalise my screens. A portable, utilitarian one for basic on-the-go productivity; a fixed one far away from other screens for hardcore, ignore-distractions doing stuff; and if I must use Twitter to bitch about how Gregg Wallace looks like a judgemental thumb, I can do that from my phone (Android, of course). And bollocks to tablets. Naturally, I then did the complete opposite of this.[/ref] And I’m not sure what it was that made me go back and take a second look at the MacBook Air, given my first reactions to its announcement had been the standard ones of “LOL I thought Steve said you’d never make a netbook” and “it costs HOW MUCH?”
Of course, I’d read loads of the major tech writers raving about it, but it didn’t really connect; they were those people, after all. Instead, I think it might have been James Cridland’s post on one month with his new Air – notably the suggestion that it was good enough as a primary computer that he was pondering eBaying his MacBook Pro. I asked around a bit more on Twitter, and the responses from various smart people made me even more intrigued. Two consecutive evenings spent playing around in the Regent Street Apple Store, and I’d somehow decided to spend about three times as much money as I’d originally planned, for a computer I’d been cheerfully mocking a few weeks earlier.
So how is it? Well, obviously, it’s love.
I’ve seen and used other parts of the MacBook range plenty over the years, of course – my brother has a now slightly ancient MacBook, my flatmate Chris has a number of MacBooks Pro, and you can’t really work as a journalist without absorbing Macs as a sort of background radiation (they are to the media industry what radon gas is to Cornwall). And they’re all excellent machines, but none of them has made me go “fuck, that’s good” like this one does. This is the first Mac that’s actually made sense to me, as a PC lover, of the endless cries of “but they’re just better” we’ve been filtering out for years. [ref]It also prompts this reaction in others, as Armand demonstrates nicely.[/ref]
First up: aaahhh, just look at it. Sod the iPhone, it’s far and away the prettiest product Apple currently puts out; a flawless ultra-thin wedge of pearlescent metal that, when shut, looks slender enough that you could plausibly use it to jemmy open windows. Now pick it up. It’s barely there. (My 11inch model weighs about 140g more than the original EeePC, for comparison, but size-for-size feels far lighter.) I’m taking it to work with me most days, and I barely notice it in my bag.
And it’s seriously quick. At almost everything. It’s usable from a cold start-up in a shade over 10 seconds (this is known as the “fuck you, Chrome OS” feature), powers down in two or three; it comes back from hibernation instantly. Web pages load likethat, programs open without a pause you could make a cup of tea in, and you can overload it with open apps and tabs without it creaking and groaning and belching smoke at all. The only thing I’ve found so far that it dawdles over is processing video files, but then most devices that aren’t dedicated video file processing machines get a little clunky over that. Given the fact that, on paper, its specs are a little underwhelming, I’m not sure how it’s actually doing all this. Maybe the performance will swan-dive off a cliff after six months, but for now, it rocks.
That the keyboard is great won’t surprise Mac users, but it’s the best on any computer I’ve ever owned; full-sized and well-spaced despite the Air’s small dimensions, with the keys just the right height, springiness, and responsiveness. Because I have tiny, childlike fingers, I’ve never had much of an issue with netbook-sized keyboards, but even Edward Sausagehands would be fine using this one. Only the keyboard on the slightly ridiculous Asus Bamboo (it’s a computer made of wood!) comes close in my recent experience, and it’s got such a similar chiclet design to the MacBook that you suspect they may have been copying.
The screen is gorgeous and impressively high resolution. The battery life is grand (four hours solid use, five or six if you whack the brightness down, turn off bluetooth and don’t watch loads of Flash videos). It makes you realise that you never used your optical drive any more. Oh, and unlike most previous computers I’ve owned, at no point has it got hot enough that you could lightly sear a sea bass on it.
But really, it’s the trackpad that makes it. Apple have pretty much nailed it on the gesture front, incorporating all the smart bits of iOS without the shitty not-really-multitasking and rage-inducing notifications. It’s the clever use of different finger numbers, which you think will be annoying but actually becomes second nature within a day or two: one finger to tap, two to scroll, three to swipe back and forward and (my personal favourite) the four-fingered flick that brings up all your open apps. [ref]Weird thing: for-some-reason, tap-to-click seems to be turned off by default on all demonstration models in Apple stores – something that nearly put me off entirely before I realised there was an option to turn it on. Given that worries of the “but there’s only one mouse button” type are still a big psychological barrier for many people switching from PC to Mac, it’s bizarre that they deliberately disable a feature which would make many potential new recruits feel instantly more at home.[/ref]
The Air does everything I love about netbooks – fast, lightweight in size and usability, ditching the unnecessary – without the compromises and brick walls you hit with netbooks. Unless you’re a serious power user in the picture or video field (or you really need a 300GB+ hard drive), it’s not a secondary computer, it’s your main one. And it makes the idea of owning an iPad as anything other than really expensive portable telly you can play Angry Birds on seem faintly ridiculous.