Tag Archives: MacBook Air

The Upgrade Urge—Apple’s October Event

I’m really not in a position to be buying new technology now.* I’m in the middle of a job hunt and I ought to be saving every penny while the employment market remains a fickle, teasing wretch. Why, then, did Apple run an event yesterday designed to remind me that my existing array of gadgetry is but a dusty heap of aluminium and silicon, no more than one careless step from the technological grave?

Yes, all of Apple’s announcement events are supposed to do this. But this one was personal. They specifically announced updates to (almost) every Apple product that I own, and if I find out that Tim Cook did this just to annoy me, I’m going to be … well, I’m going to be impressed. Impressed, but also annoyed.

I wish I was exaggerating. My mostly superannuated selection of Apple technology consists of my elderly Mac Mini, my much-used MacBook Air, and my relatively youthful iPad Pro (which, with accompanying Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard case, has taken on many laptop-style duties over the past year). Everything mentioned in the last sentence saw an update at Apple’s October 30th event, and none of those updates were small ones.

Mac Mini

The oldest of my Macs is my Mac Mini, which has been sitting beside my TV since 2010. It’s done solid service over the years, and I’ve kept it youthful by feeding it as much RAM as it will take and performing some mild surgery to replace its hard drive guts with a solid-state alternative. Yet it’s been slow and clunky for some time now, its major services taken over by an Apple TV (along with my iPhone, the one Apple item I use so much that I often forget it exists), with only the lack of a viable upgrade from Apple keeping me from considering a replacement.

Well, yesterday Apple answered the prayers of us Mac Mini devotees and delivered unto us a new machine, sleek in its smallness, patterned in gunmetal grey, and pulsing with barely contained potency. In other words, it’s been so long since the Mac Mini had an upgrade that Apple was able to claim that the new one is five times faster than its predecessor. Which was a good bit faster than my much older version, so this one would blow the doors clean off if I were to opt for it.

Which I won’t. Not yet anyway. Not because I don’t want to—it’s a desirable little chunk of metal and silicon—nor because I can’t afford to—I can, I just know I shouldn’t—but because, as mentioned above, most of its main duties have now been shifted onto the much more suitable (and cheaper) shoulders of the Apple TV. While not a perfect machine in and of itself, the Apple TV is designed to work through a television and does so nicely. To the point where I’ve ditched cable TV in favour of broadband services. In the meantime, my Mac Mini remains as it is, quietly acting as a media server. It’s happy, I’m happy, and one day we shall part, but that is not this day.

I’m sure the new Mac Mini will sell well anyhow. Just not to me right now.

MacBook Air

My MacBook Air is a little younger than my Mac Mini, being of 2012 vintage. For all that, it’s still running well and speedily, courtesy of having an SSD from the start. I don’t ask too much of it these days, as the battery has long since left behind the days of offering multiple hours’ service, but when I just need to type something, it’s the go-to machine. It’s also survived an unfortunate encounter with a glass of breakfast orange juice, courtesy of a replacement keyboard and some repair guides from iFixit.com—living to suffer another day.

The MacBook Air has seen more regular updates than the Mac Mini, but in comparison to the Retina screen-enabled rest of the Mac laptop lineup, it’s been something of a red-headed stepchild for a while. Minor processor tweaks have bumped up its speed, but the budget Mac laptop was looking a little dated and cheap before yesterday. Now, though, it has been given the Retina screen users have been crying out for, as well as substantial processor and graphics speed bumps and the new butterfly keyboard that Apple is much enamoured of (though its users are more ambivalent). Available in multiple colour options and with a Touch ID fingerprint sensor, the MacBook Air finally feels like a modern laptop again.

Not that I’ll be upgrading though. For a start, all the upgrades have seen its price jump to €1,379 for the base model. Less than the ultralight MacBook or the MacBook Pro but no small beans. The price may well come down in time, but for the moment it’s not really a budget option. Second, my iPad Pro has usurped most of my MacBook Air’s functions in daily life. And that’s what I’ll get to below.

iPad Pro

Having saved up my pennies, I splashed out on an iPad Pro just over a year ago. This was very deliberately meant to be a laptop replacement—I added a Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil to the purchase, and I made sure the device itself had plenty of storage onboard. In the year since, I’ve been more than happy with it. It’s light enough to tote anywhere, powerful enough to handle anything I care to throw at it, has a good enough battery to last for days at a time, and is a serviceable enough typing machine for me to write a NaNoWriMo novel on it last year. All in all, I like it a lot.

This love wasn’t ended by Apple’s announcement of a new iPad Pro yesterday, but maybe it was dented a bit. The new machine is both an upgrade and a refinement: faster and better looking, with the physical Home/Touch ID button removed in favour of a Face ID camera system. The gadget ecosystem has been upgraded too, with a new Smart Keyboard case that provides a better typing experience and better protection and a new Apple Pencil that locks magnetically to the iPad for safekeeping and charging. As is not unusual for an Apple upgrade, everything just feels a little better, a little fresher.

And I won’t be buying one. Of course I won’t—my iPad Pro is only a year old. I’m not crazy! Much though I may envy the improved gubbins that my newly aged device will never provide me with, it does everything I need to it to with aplomb, and nothing other than an excess of cash and a sudden break with reality could persuade me to spend that much on such (ultimately) minor improvements.

Technological envy is a real thing, but patience works as an antidote. The tech you’ve got will serve you well, and the longer you wait, the better the reward when you finally do decide to splash out. Whether it’s for one, six, or eight years, the upgrade urge can be resisted, no matter how well Apple targets its events at you.

*This hasn’t stopped me. I broke open my piggy bank** to add an Apple Watch to my Apple menagerie just three days ago. A review will be forthcoming once I’ve been using it for a while.

**Actually a real thing, but also actually a cow bank. It was a present from a friend. Don’t judge me.

A History of Laptops

A laptop sandwich: From bottom left, iBook, MacBook, MacBook Air.

To date, I have owned four Mac laptops, more or less. The first, back in my college days, was a Powerbook 145, which came with a black-and-white screen, a floppy drive and 2MB of RAM. From the privileged vantage point of the present day, it would seem unbearably clunky, heavy and underpowered, but at the time it was a revelation. I’d been using Macs for a few years, but to own one that I could throw into a bag and carry over one shoulder? Genius. (Mind you, my un-ergonomic habits with this laptop probably contributed significantly to a tendency to stoop and lean to one side that persisted for years.)

The one major drawback of the 145 was one that plagued most laptops of the time and would continue to do so for years: reliability. It didn’t last me more than a few years before it broke down to the point where repairing cost as much as replacement. Since I didn’t have the coin to do either, I passed out of the realm of Mac laptop-dom for several years, reverting to a desktop iMac when I finally got a job and could afford a machine of my own.

When I finally got my hands on a Mac laptop again, about ten years ago, it was in the form of a 12-inch white iBook. (The bottom layer of the laptop sandwich above.) With a PowerPC G3 CPU, an unheard of 128MB of RAM and a combo CD/DVD drive, it was a major step up in every way. The 12-inch form factor made it all the more appealing, as it was far easier to carry than the by-then lost in the mists of time 145. It was a lot more robust too, and it suffered its fair share of battering as it accompanied me for several years. However, it had one fatal flaw: a logic board issue that broke the connection between the computer and its screen. As before, the cost of repair rose too high, and the iBook was banished to a cupboard as I returned to the world of the desktop.

Five years ago, I took another shot at the Mac laptop scene, this time in the form of a 13-inch polycarbonate MacBook. (The middle machine above.) Like the iBook, it was white and plastic, but it raised the solidity factor a few notches, and despite the fact that it had a larger, 13-inch screen, it felt sleeker and lighter to carry. Despite the plastic shell’s tendency to fray at the edges (and the fact that the first iteration of this laptop was stolen by an absconding flatmate when only a couple of months old), it was by a long distance the most robust laptop I’d ever used. In five years, the only problems it suffered were a few hard drive glitches that eventually ironed themselves out.

However, five years is a long time in computing, and the MacBook has been struggling with newer software for a while. So the time came last month to put it out to pasture and move on. Where to? To a MacBook Air, leaving behind the world of polycarbonate in favour of an aluminium unibody. This leap shouldn’t be understated. The screen is a mere 11 inches yet bright and pin-sharp, and the laptop itself is so thin and light that the first time it was in my shoulder bag, I had to resist the urge to check whether it was there.

For all that, it feels amazingly robust. For someone who is used to thinking of computers as circuit boards wrapped in a plastic shell, this feels like a solid lump of computing ability. Apple gets a lot of grief for making machines that users are never supposed to delve into or alter, but the tradeoff is clear: this has been engineered to within an inch of its life, and picking out a flaw is very hard to do. The leading edges are so thin that the thought of attaching the Air to an axe-haft and using it to split wood isn’t completely ridiculous. The sound that the lid makes when it closes is redolent of solidity in much the same way as the sound of a high-end car door closing.

No doubt I’m still in the afterglow of an encounter with the new shiny. It’s happened before. There may yet be flaws that time will reveal. At the moment, all that occurs to me is the fact that my hands are a little large and come into contact with those sharp case edges when I type a little too often. A case may be needed, but for once it’ll be for my protection more than it will be for the machine’s.

My kingdom for a laptop, but which one?

The Retina Laptop: shiny takes a quantum leap.

So Apple revealed the long-awaited upgrades to their laptop line at their WWDC last week. As someone who’s been using their products for years, and for whom a new laptop is rapidly becoming more of a necessity than an option, I was keen to see what they might provide. And amidst all the glitz and sheen, I got plenty of information on what my next laptop might be, but also the one after that.

I’ve had my eye on the MacBook Air ever since its first revision made it a compelling option rather than an overpriced status symbol. The 11-inch version is eminently portable, and all it seems to lack over its 13-inch brother are an SD-card slot, a slightly faster processor, and better battery life. All things that are desirable but not must-haves. The new MacBook Airs are faster than before, now come with USB 3.0 ports and improved video cameras and are just as sleek as ever.

However, the MacBook Pros also got their due upgrades, also with faster processors. Shiny and sleek though they may be, they lack something in the portability department when compared with the MacBook Airs, but make up for it in terms of connectivity and storage. Hard drives are still streets ahead of solid-state storage in terms of capacity. The 15-inch Pro is out of my price range, but the 13-inch would be a very fitting replacement for my 5-year-old MacBook.

And just to delve into the future, Apple’s 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display is a sleek replacement for the 17-inch MacBook Pro as an Apple status symbol, ditching the DVD drive in favour of wireless connectivity and a gorgeous screen. It is, undoubtedly, the future of Apple’s laptop line, in the same way as the MacBook Airs were when they arrived. A few years down the line, this is the path that Apple and the rest of the industry are going to follow. However, if its non-Retina 15-inch brother is out of my price range, this slice of things to come isn’t every within view.

So which to go for? The 13-inch MacBook Pro seems the more professional option, with everything I might need to actually work on it and more screen real estate than my other preferred option, the 11-inch Air. Except that their screens are pretty much equal in terms of resolution, and the Air is far more convenient to carry around. Add a DVI connector to the purchase so I can use an external monitor and even that advantage slides away, leaving only speed and storage. Speed isn’t something I need to worry about much – I don’t play games on my laptop, and both machines use the same Intel graphics anyway. As for storage, I’ve been coping with a 130GB hard drive on my old laptop for years. A 256GB solid state drive would be a massive leap in terms of both capacity and speed.

So I guess I’m opting for the 11-inch Air, tempted though I was by other options. Dock it at home for professional work and take it on the move for whatever else I might use it for (including work). All the while, I’ll be casting eyes at the Retina display and dreaming of future machines…