Geekalicious – Going thin and fast with MacBook Air

When it came time to upgrade my six-year-old laptop, I realized that the way I use my computer has changed over the years — again.

When it came time to upgrade my six-year-old laptop, I realized that the way I use my computer has changed over the years — again. In 2005, laptop computers had become so powerful that it was an easy decision to dump my behemoth PC in favour of a machine that was decidedly more portable. I was still doing a lot of graphic design work in those days, so I went with the new Intel-powered 15″ MacBook Pro. That machine has served me well, but in my current incarnation I tend to spend more time writing and need a machine that is lighter, runs cooler, and has a longer battery life.

When Apple announced its new 13″ MacBook Air ($1,299 Cdn with 4GB RAM and 128GB flash storage; apple.ca), it was as if they were reading my mind. However, I was still concerned that while a machine that weighs less than three pounds may make for the perfect writing machine, I needed to know if it could handle the heavy lifting of some of the more intense graphic design projects that I still needed it for.

But, as with most of my experiences with Apple’s products, I needn’t have worried.

My first test of the new Air (which comes pre-loaded with Apple’s new Lion operating system that no longer supports older, non-Intel software) was to load up Microsoft Office 2011 ($249 Cdn; microsoft.ca). My main program in this essential cross-platform suite is Word (which I have been using since Word 4 came out in 1989), so I was particularly pleased when it opened all of my existing manuscripts without a hiccup — and the new full-screen mode is perfect for writing without distraction. The biggest surprise, however, came with its launch speed. The new Office applications launch with barely a bounce of their icons. I like to call this Click and Go. Microsoft is also hinting that it will implement some specific Lion upgrades to the suite in the near future.

I next installed Adobe Creative Suite 5.5 ($399 US upgrade for Design Premium; $1,899 US for full program; adobe.com). I use most of the programs in the Design Premium package on a day-to-day basis, including Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Acrobat, Dreamweaver and Bridge, so this was a great test to see if the Air could handle my graphic needs. The svelte laptop not only passed with flying colours in its ability to run every program, but the speed at which they launched and ran was notably impressive. The new version of InDesign, in particular, impressed me with its ability to create eBooks for the Kindle with impressive ease.

With Lion OS not able to run older programs, the one upgrade I had to nervously perform was porting my website from my favoured Adobe GoLive to Dreamweaver. Fortunately, Adobe makes this easy with a GoLive extension and a terrific series of online videos. It only took minutes to convert, launch and update my website. Phew! Nice work, Adobe.

One of the biggest challenges in Photoshop is running the multitude of cool extensions that are available. I loaded up a few of my favourites from Alien Skin (alienskin.com), including Snap Art 3 ($199 US) that has evolved into a must-have plug-in for artists who want to create natural looking art from photographs; Eye Candy 6 ($249 US) that adds pop and pizzazz to any website and can make type leap off the page; Exposure 3 ($249 US) that is loaded with one-click presets to make your photography come alive with a true film look; and Image Doctor 2 ($199 US) that can make warts and blemishes vanish with a simple click.

The result was these filters have never worked so quickly or flawlessly before. And with non-destructive editing, Alien Skin allows the user to play with the settings to their hearts content.

My last software test was Final Draft 8 ($79 US upgrade; $249 full version; finaldraft.com), my program of choice for writing screenplays. Final Draft easily opened and upgraded my existing screenplays without a hiccup — and like the other software I tested, everything opens faster and runs smoother. I especially like the new panels system that allows you to split your screen so that you can view another section of the script, index cards or scenes while working on the current scene. I’d be lost without it.

Satisfied that the Air could handle my needs, I then took a look at storage. With 128 GB of flash storage (256 GB in the $1,599 model) I knew I wouldn’t want to fill all my space with large graphics files. Fortunately, there’s a simple solution. For high-speed portability that can fit in your pocket, Lexar has several excellent solutions. I keep those files I need close at hand on a speedy 32GB Jumpdrive S70 ($90 US; lexar.com). With a retractable connector, it’s smaller than your thumb. Being paranoid about losing my data, I also carry a 64GB Echo MX ($199.99 US) that provides 128-bit AES encryption with built-in backup software. This tiny, high-speed drive is activated as soon as you plug it in to offer automatic, continuous backup of your files. And if that isn’t cool enough, it also boasts a capacity meter that continuously displays available space.

And speaking of protection, there are dozens of covers and sleeves out there, but my favourite is still the BookBook ($79.99 US; twelvesouth.com) from Twelve South that delivers a one-of-a-kind leather case that makes your laptop resemble a vintage book. Its creators say this delivers stealthy security, but I just think it looks cool.

Now, for those who want to bring a speed boost to their existing machines without splurging on a new laptop, there are a few options. After you’ve maxed out your RAM, I discovered that you can gain a huge speed jump on an old laptop by following the Air’s lead and swapping the hard drive for a new flash storage option. I tested this theory on my old MacBook Pro with a 120GB Vertex2 ($200 Cdn) from OCZ Technology (ocztechnology.com). Yowza! This drive is fast. It made my old laptop feel so invigorated, I thought it was going to kick its new lighter sibling to the curb. Fortunately for the Air, the old Pro has killed so many batteries that it’s permanently tethered to its power cord.

One last upgrade worth mentioning is the new n300SL MiMo ($59.95 US) long range wireless adapter from AfterTheMac.com. With an incredible range of 1.15 kilometres, this USB adapter allows you to put your old machine anywhere you like and still have fast and secure access to your wireless network. Perfect for those nights when you want to escape to the garden shed and catch up on a few online battles of Duke Nukem without annoying your spouse. M

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