Traveling With the MacBook Air (James nails it)

Traveling With the MacBook Air:

On my way home from the UK last month, I posted about my dream to travel light. As it turns out, I didn’t wait too long to start implementing it. I haven’t picked up an X100—though I have been frequently checking the various camera stores. I have, however, acquired a 13″ MacBook Air and have been using it as my only computer for the last week while on a trip to New York.

My 13″ MacBook Air in flight on CO 1585 from Newark NJ to Portland OR.

As a general-purpose laptop, the new MacBook Air is as awesome as everyone says it is. Lightweight, surprisingly speedy, and gifted with impressive battery life, Apple’s marketing is dead on. It is the perfect everyday laptop for most users. But what about for using it for something more demanding? More to the point, the question you probably have for me is: How well does it work as a laptop for a photographer?

The answer is that as long as you can live with its limitations, it’s a surprisingly decent travel photography laptop. I’ve totally enjoyed it while working on planes and trains and in cafés. It’s done everything I’ve asked it to since I bought it, including working through my photos and posting a few along the way. I even used it for light client work while in New York where I needed to quickly shoot a few dozen images and then deliver a finished photo on the spot.

So what are the limitations of the Air? One is the lack of a discrete GPU. This affects applications that can take advantage of it, like Aperture. In my experience so far, it’s most noticeable when importing a big set of photographs and waiting for the initial churn of preview generation to finish. Also, judicious use of Preview mode is called for when browsing photos. If you’re using Lightroom or other applications which only hit the CPU, however, you won’t miss out on the acceleration you didn’t have to begin with.

Another limitation is the speed at which you can get data on and off the MacBook Air. Without using a Thunderbolt display or a huge Promise Pegasus disk array, the current choices are USB 2.0 or WiFi. This means a bit of patience is required whenever you’re making big data transfers, such as to push a big set of photos from the laptop to desktop once you get home after a trip. This limitation should ease as more Thunderbolt options arrive—I really would like a Thunderbolt port expander with Gigabit Ethernet and FireWire on it—but that will take time. For now, it’s a bottleneck that has to be dealt with.

The bottom line is that if you need a single computer for your photography and it has to be a laptop, you really should be looking at the 15″ MacBook Pro. The quad-core CPU, the discrete and fast GPU, the ability to use 8GB of RAM, and the external port options are all extremely useful on a primary photography workstation. On the other hand, if you have an iMac or Mac Pro where you do the bulk of your photo processing, the MacBook Air serves as a great lightweight companion to take on the road. And for all those non-photographic things you do while traveling—email, web browsing, writing—the Air is a shining star that’s a joy to use.

Posted by
James Duncan Davidson.

[I have nothing to add. He’s right on the money. Photography is not a main use, but if you insert almost any other processor intensive task, it applies. The Air is a great general purpose machine that is good enough to squeak by on “Pro” tasks, but you’ll need a MBP for day in day out work… at least until companies start churning out Thunderbolt based extenders.]
Source: James Duncan Davidson

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