Travel Review: 11 Inch MacBook Air

We love to travel light. Apart from the added flexibility, it affords an odd sense of independence. There’s something very ‘Alexander Supertramp‘ about having all of your belongings in a 30L pack and being able to carry it comfortably for many hours on end. If you need anything, it’s just back there, over your shoulder.

My laptop is by far the heaviest item in my pack. I’ve been okay with this until the Gobi Expedition. As I calculated my pack-weight and estimated the carrying capacity of my Bactrian camel, I realized my reliable workhorse (the laptop, not the camel) would have to make way for the lighter foe. And with that, the hunt was on for a new ultra-portable laptop.

On the Hunt

In Canada, we braved the sub-zero temps to get our frost-bitten fingers on the impossibly cool 11 inches MacBook Air. It looked like a normal Mac and felt just as solid, but when we closed it, ‘Wow, that’s small, too small perhaps’. Nonetheless, with one fell swoop, we became new owners of what seems a marvel of engineering.

We’ve used the 11 inch MacBook Air for about 3 months; it’s crossed oceans, circled sub-continents, and is now spending two months in one of the world’s largest deserts. Lucky MacBook hey?

But rather than give you a typical blow-by-blow technical review, I want to talk about the 11 inches MacBook Air in the context of travel. It was designed to be portable, so it’s only fair that we review it on the road.

The 11 Inch MacBook Air on the Road

It really is a small computer. It’s so small that when you look for a protective case, all you imagine is a padded envelope. You know the ones with built-in bubble wrap and an ensemble of tattered strings to secure it shut. Well, a third-party manufacturer has done just that and made a retro protective case to remind us of the days we worked in stuffy offices. It’s called the Macvelope, of course.

Macvelope
The Macvelope has a striking resemblance to the old interoffice memo envelope

Onto more serious business, the 11 inch MacBook Air is only slightly bigger than the iPad (v1.0) and a million times more functional. It can slip into a medium sized handbag and easily into the back of my pack, even if it’s full to the brim. It works well on tray tables too because it’s smaller, lighter and can easily fit into the seat pocket when you’re enjoying a meal.

It’s important to consider the entire package too. The AC charger is smaller; it’s only 45W compared to the 13 inch MacBook Pro’s 60W. You’ll be interested in this if you’ve recently read our article on Solar Power for Your MacBook. The Air doesn’t come with an optical drive, so you don’t have to lug around CDs either. To reformat, Apple provides a tiny USB drive with OS X and default programs. All of this adds up to serious space and weight savings. But what do you give up for this portability?

The 11 Inch MacBook Air in Action

The Keyboard

The keyboard is the same size and the keys have the same surface area, but they’re more shallow. It seems like the keys provide less feedback, but in a quick test, I could type just as quickly. I suspect that a controlled test would show that the shallow keys slightly hinder typing speed or at least reduce accuracy. But it’s really not enough to notice; it mostly feels like the same keyboard.

 

Macbook Air keyboard
The keyboard is the same size as a regular laptop or computer keyboard

Of far greater consequence is the lack of keyboard illumination. Most other reviews discount this as a nice-to-have feature. But as someone who regularly works at night, I miss this feature dearly.

The Screen

Being an 11-inch screen, it’s clearly smaller than the 13 inch MacBook Pro screen. It also has a grey border around it, which makes it less physically appealing than the edge-to-edge glass of its bulkier cousin. But that’s where the criticism ends.

Macbook Air screen
The MacBook Air screen has a high resolution, great for image editing

The MacBook Air sports a semi-matte screen, which makes it much nicer to look at when there’s glare. Keep in mind that glare exists even inside when light from a window or lampshade can make glossy screens unreadable. Also, despite the smaller dimensions of the 11-inch screen, its resolution is slightly higher at 1366 x 768. For people with especially poor eyesight, this could cause problems.

The Performance

Whether the 11 inch MacBook Air is powerful enough for you really depends on if you play games or edit high-definition video. On the rare occasion, Todd plays chess, and on the even rarer occasion, we’ll edit a video, but for the most part, we just write code, enhance photos and browse the web.

Macbook Air internal circuitry
A MacBook Air pulled apart into pieces

The 13 inch MacBook Pro handles these tasks with ease. Todd often uses Photoshop, Illustrator, MAMP, Coda, CSSEdit, Versions and Skype all at once. The 11 inch MacBook Air is a little more fickle but not nearly as much as we expected. I use Photoshop on it without a problem and do everything I want to do without thinking twice.

It feels a little slower with some tasks but much faster with others due to the solid state hard drive. For example, I just reformatted the laptop at the same time as Todd’s 13 inch MacBook Pro; my MBA took half the time. It also boots up and shuts down much quicker. But for tasks that don’t involve the hard drive, the bigger MacBook Pro is noticeably quicker.

The 11 Inch MacBook Air in Action by Numbers

I’ll compare the 13 inches MacBook Pro, 11 inch MacBook Air and iPad 1.

MacBook Pro (13 inches)

  • Screen 13 inch at 1280 x 800 = ~ 1.02 megapixels
  • Dimensions 2.41 x 32.5 x 22.7 cm = ~1,800 cm3
  • Weight 2.04kg

MacBook Air (11 inches)

  • Screen 11 inch at 1366 x 768 = ~1.05 megapixels
  • Dimensions 0.3-1.7 x 29.95 x 19.2 cm = ~600 cm3
  • Weight 1.06kg

iPad 1

  • Screen 9.7 inch at 1024 x 768 = ~0.79 megapixels
  • Dimensions 1.3 x 24.3 x 19 cm = ~600 cm3
  • Weight 0.60kg

As you can see, the 11 inch MacBook Air is about a third of the volume and half the weight of the bigger MacBook Pro. It really feels that much smaller in your hands too. The iPad version 1 is about two-thirds the weight of the MacBook Air, but about the same volume. Again, that’s what it feels like. In fact, the iPad feels a little bulky since it’s meant to bridge the gap between the iPhone and MacBook. The iPad version 2 is much smaller, but we don’t have one on hand to test.

The 11 Inch MacBook Air Verdict

What I like about the 11 inch MBA

  • Super small and sleek, while still having a full keyboard and high-res screen
  • Small AC charger, tiny USB restore drive and overall very small package
  • Fast boot-up, semi-matt screen, and very solid build

What I really miss from the 13 inch MacBook Pro

  • Illuminated keyboard (!!!) and more responsive trackpad
  • Longer battery life and louder speakers

If you plan to leave the laptop on a desk in an office, you’d certainly choose a larger MacBook Pro. But space and weight savings on the road provide real value. And it’s not just a little smaller; it really feels more like an iPad than a laptop, but with the full functionality of a laptop.

At this moment, I’m more than happy with the 11 inch MacBook Air. Todd has stuck with his 13 inch MacBook Pro because we work with more apps at a time and carries fewer clothes (so our packs are about equal). However, he said he’d buy the MacBook Air in a heartbeat if it had an illuminated keyboard.

For most people, I think the 11 inch MacBook Air is the best travel laptop on the market. If you’re a much heavier user, then it makes sense to go for the MacBook Pro, but once you hold the 11 inches in your hands, it’s hard to turn back.