Rethinking My Setup (Drooling Over the MacBook Air)

MacBook AirIn the latest episode of Mac Power Users, David Sparks and I discuss our recent adventures in Traveling with the iPad. We discuss whether the iPad is a viable replacement for a notebook Mac when on the road. The conclusion we come to is that while the iPad can’t completely replace a Mac in all circumstances, it gets darn close. At one point in the podcast, David joked that we should flip a coin and the looser has to take their MacBook Pro to Macworld as a backup device to share while the winner gets to travel iPad only. This all got me thinking about the way I use my Mac and if it isn’t time to start looking at a different strategy.

For the past 10 years, I have been a one Mac household and my Mac of choice has been a notebook, usually one of Apple’s top tier portables. Because much of that time has been spent either as a student or in a job that has required travel, I’ve opted for a smaller screen when possible. I loved the 12” PowerBook and currently carry a 2.56GHz 13” MacBook Pro while keeping a full size screen, mouse and keyboard back at my desk at home. Unfortunately, opting for smaller size screens usually means compromising with horsepower compared to the 15” and 17” models.

Why go with the one notebook model? It makes sense in the right situation:

  • I absolutely have to have a notebook for use on the road
  • Keeping multiple computers in sync can be frustrating and time consuming.
  • More Macs to maintain and regularly upgrade means more costs.
  • Having a larger monitor, keyboard and mouse is a fairly minimal expense that gives me a “desktop experience” while at home.

There are also some downsides to having a portable as a primary computer. Notebooks are slower and more expensive generally than desktop counterparts. They are more prone to damage from the bumps and jostles of everyday use. There are compromises with storage space, drive speeds and availability of expansion ports. There is also the issue that a notebook may also spend a good bit of time asleep, lid closed, or in a computer bag and be inaccessible. While it’s not necessarily the case, a traditional desktop computer is more likely to be “always on” and ready to serve files, share printers, or run automation. I’ve run into this issue quite a bit when working with the new AppleTV that has no onboard storage. I'll go to stream a movie or a podcast only to find that my Mac asleep or logged off. (As a security feature, I set my Mac to log off after a period of inactivity - I find that having enhanced security on a portable Mac is more important compared to desktop machines.)

A lot has changed in the last couple of years, in the last year especially with the release of the iPad. Both David and I have noticed that we’re using our notebook machines less and less and our iPads more. I’ll admit that there are days my MacBook Pro doesn’t even power up anymore, that never happened before the iPad. I would estimate that the combination of the iPhone and iPad has replaced my MacBook Pro for about 75-80% of my media and data consumption that was previously done on the Mac. On the other hand, media and data creation is still primarily done on a traditional Mac.

Especially with my podcasting work, while the MacBook Pro perfectly adequate, I’m starting to run up against some limitations. Hard drive space always seems to be at a premium and audio encoding is time consuming. The occasional video encoding work I do on my Mac could also use a boost.  Reading the reviews and benchmarks in Macworld, I see that I can expect a1.5 to 2x the real world performance increase by upgrading to one of the top of the line iMacs. Of course, there’s always the question of how much power is enough and how much is overkill. If 80% of my daily use doesn’t even come close to taxing the requirements of my Mac. Is it worth the additional cost to speed up that other 20%?

Then again, I still go back to the reality of life that I need a notebook computer. There are many times a year when I simply require a full fledged computer that is portable and an iPad just won’t do. I can never give-up my notebook computer.

For a while now, I’ve been considering adding a Mac Mini to my home setup to supplement my MacBook Pro. My MacBook Pro would remain my primary computer, but the Mini would function as a in home file server of sorts. The mini would be used as an iTunes library share point for my AppleTV, I would use it to run a Mail client that would filter email and other tasks that scripts that would benefit form having an always on machine. Still, a Mini doesn’t help me from a horsepower perspective, It’s about the same caliber Mac as my current MacBook Pro.

With the release of the MacBook Air I’ve started drooling over the sexiness and portability of the 11” beauty. Of course, it makes no sense to swap out my 13” 2.56 GHz MacBook Pro with a 320GB hard drive for an 11” 1.6 GHz 128GB MacBook Air. It’s a downgrade, and while the Air is tempting, it couldn’t function as my only computer.

What about the combination of a 27” iMac for the desk and an 11” MacBook Air? Gives me the extra power I need for a desktop, a gorgeous screen and the ability to travel with a ultra-compact notebook. Especially when using the 11” Air as a secondary computer, keeping data in sync shouldn’t be as much of a problem thanks to today’s technology. (See Mac Power Users Episode 004: Staying in Sync) My guess is if I sell my current MacBook Pro and my 24” Apple Cinema Display I would probably recoup enough money to buy the MacBook Air, which really just leaves me coming out of pocket $2000 or so for the iMac.

Then again, the practical side of me wonders whether this is a smart decision. My current setup is more than adequate for my needs. My iPad already satisfies much of my mobile computing demands, would I really use my 11’ MacBook Air enough to justify the purchase? I hardly use my current MacBook Pro as a portable that much as it is. Most of the time (and more now since getting the iPad) the MacBook Pro stays docked at my desk. Furthermore, there is always the additional expense of maintaing two systems. I’m on a very regularly 2.5 year upgrade cycle with my current equipment, throwing new equipment into the mix means that much more cost every upgrade cycle, slightly more software licensing costs, higher accessory and AppleCare cost and more upkeep.

It’s a lot to think about...fortunately I have some time. My current MacBook Pro is only 18 months old so I have another year before I’m ready to upgrade. A lot has changed in my computing life in the last year, and along with the release of 10.7 Lion I expect we’ll have another refresh of the iMac line, the MacBook Pro line and the MacBook Air line within the next year. So I expect even more changes and exciting things in the year to come. (A faster iMac, USB 3.0 and a MacBook Air with a faster processor, more storage and a backlight keyboard would be upgrades worth waiting a year for in my opinion.)

I can’t wait to see how it all plays out, and I’m keeping my eye on things. Would love to hear your comments and thoughts.