If you were to cross a MacBook with an iPad, would the offspring provide the mobile musician with a powerful convenience or a crippled luxury?
When Apple first announced the MacBook Air in January 2008, it seemed that this new Mac was essentially the portable equivalent of the PowerMac Cube. For those who don't remember the Cube, it had a beautifully designed enclosure into which Apple's engineers had managed to shrink a PowerMac to about a quarter of its usual size. However, such miniaturisation came at a cost: features were omitted because of the machine's size, and Apple wanted to charge a premium for the design. This meant that the Cube was too expensive for customers who were content with such a specification, but not powerful enough for those who usually spent that much money on a computer — especially musicians and audio engineers. The Cube was discontinued in 2001, a year after its introduction.
Like the PowerMac Cube, the original MacBook Air was also aesthetically stunning and arguably suffered from the same problem of being too expensive for the features it offered. However, to judge the MacBook Air purely on its features was to miss the point. While having a smaller desktop computer is nice, it's essentially a luxury that can be lived without. But in the case of portability, size becomes rather more important and the MacBook Air became something of an executive symbol for those who wanted pulchritude rather than performance.
Given this compromise, the MacBook Air was never going to be a good choice for the mobile musician. The entry‑level model's hard drive was too slow to be useful; and even if you chose the more expensive SSD (Solid State Drive) version, which offered faster storage, you would have been crippled by the 2GB memory limit and slower processor. A few modifications and upgrades were made to the MacBook Air over the last two‑and‑a‑half years, but nothing that significantly altered its usefulness for music and audio applications — until now.
On October 20th, Apple's CEO Steve Jobs held a special event to reaffirm the company's commitment to the Mac. After a somewhat lacklustre sneak peek at the next major version of Mac OS X and the introduction of a new version of iLife — where Apple's Chief Architect of Audio Applications, Dr Gerhard Lengeling, helped demonstrate a new version of GarageBand — Jobs had "one more thing”. Answering the question of what would happen if a MacBook "hooked up” with an iPad, the CEO unveiled a brand new range of MacBook Air computers built from the ground up to use Flash memory for storage.
Unlike the previous generation of MacBook Airs, the new model is available in either an 11‑inch or a 13‑inch form factor. While the 11‑inch Air is incredibly cute and looks like an upmarket Netbook, it's better suited for general‑purpose applications rather than music or audio. Not that it couldn't run software such as Logic, of course; but with its smaller screen, slower processor, smaller cache, and fewer build‑to‑order options for processor and storage upgrades, it's definitely less suitable. So for this review, we'll be focusing on the 13‑inch model.
When you first see the new MacBook Air, it's hard not to admire what is basically a stunning feat of engineering. It's unbelievably thin — 17mm at the thickest point to 3mm at the thinnest — and in order to achieve such svelteness without sacrificing structural strength, Apple have employed the same Unibody process used in manufacturing the MacBook Pro. The Air has also inherited the MacBook Pro's multi‑touch glass trackpad, although the keyboard is no longer backlit. I can't say this is a big loss; this 'feature' always seemed like a gimmick and was usually the first thing I switched off on my previous MacBook Pros.
Moving past the Air's obvious beauty, the key question for musicians considering the MacBook Air is performance. (See the 'Testing, Testing' box for a guide to the relative merits of the MacBook Air using Logic.) One big change is that it's now possible to order the Air with 4GB (instead of the 2GB that's supplied as standard) for an additional £80$100. This is an absolute must, although you'll need to make the choice at the time of purchase, since the memory cannot be upgraded later.
In terms of processor, the 13‑inch Air comes with a 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor offering a 6MB L2 cache, with the option of upgrading to a 2.13GHz chip for an extra £80$100. Disappointingly, these are the same processors used in the previous MacBook Air. However, while performance would obviously be better if Apple had used Intel's latest generation of mobile processors (as with the 15‑ and 17‑inch MacBook Pros), it's not as though these are bad chips. The 13‑inch MacBook Pro also still uses Core 2 Duo chips, clocked slightly faster but with a smaller 3MB cache. The 13‑inch Pro and Air also share the same GPU: an Nvidia 320M with 256MB shared graphics memory.
The screen on the MacBook Air is gorgeously clear and bright. It seems a little glossier than the optional anti‑glare displays used in the MacBook Pros, but nowhere near as reflective as the glass‑covered alternatives. Best of all, though, is the resolution. Where the previous 13‑inch Air had the same resolution as the 13‑inch MacBook Pro — 1280 x 800 — the new Air has the same resolution as the standard 15‑inch MacBook Pro — 1440 x 900. Not only can you see more on the screen, but everything appears smoother and, just, well, nicer with such high pixel density.
I should mention that many MacBook Air users have been reporting issues concerning the display. Apparently, there are problems with flickering lines and fading colours when plugging in external displays or waking the computer from sleep. I say 'apparently' because the review model has so far been unaffected. A software fix should be forthcoming, but you might want to check the online coverage before buying if this is a concern.
A key area that gives the MacBook Air a significant boost in terms of performance is the use of Flash storage — just like the iPad — rather than a traditional hard drive. Although the MacBook Air was previously available with an SSD as an option, the new Air uses Toshiba's new Blade X‑gale modules. Offering a maximum sequential read speed of 180MB/s, these modules are basically thin, detachable circuit boards that help the Air maintain its trim figure. The standard 13‑inch MacBook Air comes with 128GB of storage, but a second model is available for an additional £250$300 that doubles this capacity to 256GB. If you plan on working with a large amount of audio (whether tracks or sample libraries), it goes without saying that the 256GB model is the one to investigate.
The use of Flash memory makes the MacBook Air incredibly snappy. For example, the machine boots to the log‑in screen in around 12 seconds and gets to the desktop in less than two after you've logged in. For audio work, this kind of performance is a dream. My only concern is that if my MacBook Air were to prematurely die, I couldn't just dismantle it and plug the internal drive into another computer (as I've done before). Maybe Apple would be able to transfer the data for me in such an event, but I suspect regular back‑ups are probably going to be the safest option.
One of the Air's key areas of compromise is evident in terms of its connectivity. There are only two USB 2 ports, a headphone socket, and a Mini Display Port for attaching an external display. A new addition is the SD slot, presumably aimed at those using digital cameras, although this could be useful if you have a portable audio recorder that uses SD cards. And while there's no dedicated microphone port, the headphone jack apparently supports the use of Apple's Earphones with Remote and Mic. This means that it may be possible to use attachments like IK Multimedia's iRig, which is designed to plug into the iPhone's headphone jack, but I wasn't able to confirm or test this theory. Still, there's no shortage of USB audio interfaces that should work fine, such as Apogee's One or RME's Babyface.
It seems almost pointless to criticise the Air for not having a Firewire port, although a mini Firewire 400 connection (as seen on ultra‑portable machines from other manufacturers) would have been welcome.
When it comes to networking, the Air has AirPort Extreme 802.11n support (which is 802.11a/b/g compatible) and also Bluetooth 2.1+EDR (Enhanced Data Rate). And although it's possible to connect the Air to a wired network with Apple's USB Ethernet adaptor (available separately for £25$29), this offers a maximum bandwidth of only 100Mbits/s.
Another issue worth noting when considering a MacBook Air is the lack of optical drive. This is not so important for me; I rarely used the optical drive on my previous MacBook Pros, and Apple offer a number of ways for the Air to access CDs and DVDs. Firstly, you can simply attach a USB optical drive — Apple's own external SuperDrive can be purchased separately for £65$79. Secondly, assuming you have another Mac with an optical drive, you can share this optical drive with the Air. However, given the relatively slow speeds of USB or wireless networking compared to an optical drive connected via SATA, disc access is slightly slower than on a computer with a built‑in optical drive.
The only time the lack of an optical drive is really noticeable is when installing software. This is particularly relevant for those using music and audio software, since applications and plug‑ins are often supplied with vast amounts of content spread across many DVDs. As I mentioned when reviewing Logic Pro 9 (where the complete installation is spread across nine DVDs), I find it useful to make disc images of such products using Disk Utility. This way, especially given the speedy nature of the MacBook Air's solid‑state storage, installations can be performed in a trice once the images have been copied from an external USB drive to the Air and mounted.
One nice touch with the new Air is that Apple no longer supply the system restore software on optical discs. Instead, a neat little USB key is supplied. Should you need to reinstall your MacBook Air, simply insert the key and, as with any other Mac, boot the machine whilst holding down C.
Whether or not the MacBook Air appeals to you really depends on how much the form factor itself appeals to you. If you prefer your laptop Macs to be exceedingly portable, whether for aesthetics or application, the MacBook Air really is a superb machine. Unlike its predecessor, the performance of the new MacBook Air hasn't been vitiated to the point where it's useless for anything other than email. And if you feel the performance of a high‑end laptop from three years ago would be sufficient for your needs (and are willing to accept certain compromises, such as limited connectivity), you might find yourself very happy indeed with a new MacBook Air.
However, while the MacBook Air is more affordable now, its price can be misleading. Ordering one is a bit like a dining at a fine restaurant: yes, the tasting menu might seem reasonably priced, but you know the chef's special tasting menu would be better. And if you're going to spend that much on dinner, you might as well go for the truffle addition as well... And the wine pairing... So, by the time you're finished, a fully‑loaded 13‑inch MacBook Air with 256GB storage, a 2.13GHz processor, and 4GB memory will cost £1509$1799. This is just a little more than the entry level 15‑inch MacBook Pro, offering a faster processor, better graphics, more connectivity, and an optical drive — although you admittedly have to pay quite a bit more for a MacBook Pro with a solid‑state drive.
The reality, of course, is if you choose the MacBook Air, you want the MacBook Air. It's not strictly about the features; it's about the beautiful design. And the point I've been wandering towards over the last few pages is that if you really want the beautiful design, you can purchase a new MacBook Air with the confidence that it will be capable of running music and audio software with a decent level of performance.
In order to achieve some kind of performance benchmark for the MacBook Air, I ran an array of frisson‑inducing tests using Logic Pro 9.1.3. Since one of the key features of the MacBook Air is the use of solid‑state storage, I decided to start by looking at how many stereo, 24‑bit, 44.1kHz audio tracks could be played back simultaneously. The result was not so surprising given the technology, but still rather impressive, since I exceeded Logic's maximum of 255 audio tracks before the MacBook Air waved the white flag. This also happened when I tested the Mac Pro's RAID card with 15000rpm SAS drives back in 2008. So I think it's fair to say that when it comes to playing back audio tracks, the MacBook Air will do just fine.
Moving onto the processor tests, I was able to run 128 PlatinumVerb instances and 38 Space Designer instances. As a comparison, the 17‑inch MacBook Pro I tested three years ago, which had a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, managed 150 PlatinumVerbs and 54 Space Designers. Looking at software instances, the MacBook Air managed 144 Sculpture voices (18 instances each playing eight voices), 768 EXS24 voices (using 16‑bit samples) with the filter disabled, and 448 voices with the filter enabled. The 2007 17‑inch MacBook Pro was capable of 160 Sculpture voices, and 896 and 512 EXS24 voices with filter enabled and disabled respectively.
Running at 2.13GHz (instead of 2.4GHz) you wouldn't expect the MacBook Air to outperform the older 17‑inch MacBook Pro, although the Air's performance is clearly not terrible. It's also worth bearing in mind that the tests with the 17‑inch were carried out with Logic 7, while the Air tests used Logic 9. And although one would imagine the relative CPU overheads are quite similar, there was no easy way to verify this one way or the other.
One thing you'll notice when taxing the MacBook Air's CPU is that, like any other computer, it has a fan. This might sound like dumb observation, but the Air is mostly silent in normal operation and even with the CPU receiving a moderate thrashing. However, if you're running a demanding project with many plug‑in effects and instruments, be aware that your hitherto silent computer will begin to make its presence known.
- Incredibly thin and light.
- Solid‑state storage offers great performance for audio tracks and streaming samples.
- Uses the previous generation of Intel's mobile processors.
- Limited connectivity.
If you're looking for an ultra‑portable Mac to use for music and audio applications, the new MacBook Air offers surprisingly good performance at a not unreasonable price.
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- 13‑inch MacBook Air with a 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB RAM and 256GB hard drive.