Why the MBA 11 is now my sole computer
Friday, 30 September 11
(Since I received a few questions about how I feel writing code with the MBA I'm posting this blog post.)
I work from a number of different places. Mainly from home and from an office where I've a room for me, here in Catania, together with other friends of mine also writing code for another company.
This way I'm sure I'll not spend the whole day at home, and when I've an interesting problem I've a few friends to share ideas with in front of a coffee. So usually I work at home in the morning, then go to the office for lunch, and stay at the office till the end of the working day.
It is also common for me to work from the swimming pool waiting for my son, or from my parents home, and in many other places especially during weekends and holidays. Clearly I need a computer that is good for mobility, and guess what: the Macbook PRO 13" that I own is not the best fit. It is simply too big to both carry and take in your legs. It is not good for "couch browsing" when I need some info or to check if there are updates on some Redis matter that is particularly urgent.
The iPad is also not an option: I spent a life in front of a keyboard, I'm good at it, I can type fast without efforts. Any computing experience that makes me slow at typing is frustrating. Without to mention that the iPad is the worst computing device to write even a single line of code.
So... when Apple released the first version of the 11" Macbook Air (Late 2010) I purchased one within the first week of the announcement, and my computing experience changed.
The old MBA
The old MBA was almost exactly what I needed. A small full-featured computer with a good enough keyboard, good battery life, and readable screen.
I spend almost 90% of my time inside a Terminal or a web browser, and the 11" is not a problem for me in this contexts. I force myself to write code with an 80 column max line, so even using a bigger screen I tend to use small terminal apps. The 11" screen is enough to have a big font in the Terminal app to display 80 column x 37 rows. Web browsing is also ok, just a matter of tuning the font size to read comfortably.
The old MBA was so good from many points of view that I rapidly started using it to code, and every day I was using more MBA and less MBP. However it had a big problem: it was slow, very very slow.
Don't get me wrong, thanks to the SSD HD it is fast enough to do things like running the twitter client, browsing the web without waiting too much time, and even for watching videos (as long as you don't have other background stuff). But once you start using it to write C code and run unit tests... well it is entirely a different story. Compiling Redis after switching branch or running the test was too slow.
Not slow enough to stop using it given the advantages, but from time to time I found myself switching back to the MBP 13 in order to work more comfortably, especially during bug hunting or other tasks where there was a edit-compile-test fast loop.
I was asking myself the same question again and again: "Why Apple does small computers that are slow, and big computers that are fast?". An obvious reason was I guess the battery life concerns. If the computer is small the battery is small, and too much computing power costs more battery. However the tradeoff was still not very clear. I was in need of a small, but fast, computer, even with a not so great battery life.
The new MBA
At some point it happened: Apple released an 11" computer that was as portable as the older model but was almost four times faster. Obviously I ordered one the same day it was announced, making sure to get the one with the i7 processor for maximum performances.
My new MBA is actually two times faster than my old MBP 13 at running the Redis test.
Long story short I no longer use my MBA 13, that is now only used connected to the TV in order to watch stuff in streaming...
The new MBA is virtually identical to the old one, if not for the backlit keyboard that is also a pro for many people (but not for me as I think that if you can't see the keys you are harming your eyes, so I always use at least a dim light even when working at night. Btw I don't watch at the keyboard while typing as I guess most of you.).
My feeling is that the battery life of my new MBA is not as good as my old MBA, but actually I never verified this experimentally, I'll try it since I've also the old one that is now used by my wife.
In short if you want an MBA 11" and you are a programmer, concerned with screen size or speed, go for it, it is the best computer I ever owned for sure. Virtually all my Redis development is done with the MBA, but since it is so fast nothing prevents you from connecting it to a bigger screen when you are in the location where you usually work, turning it into a real desktop.
For instance I've a 22" Samsung monitor and an USB keyboard that I use with it when I'm at the office. I just plug the video cable and an USB hub with everything connected to switch from mobile to big-screen mode: a wireless mouse, an HD to do backups, a Dell keyboard, and so forth.
I hope this helped somebody with mixed feelings about purchasing it or not :)