My review of the Macbook Air 2013

I am on a short break from Ubuntu, here’s my review of an 11″ MacBook Air (2013 model)

I love Ubuntu. I have been a convinced and curious Linux user since about 2010, and I do not regret it for a second. It is remarkable how this operating system has evolved (for better or worse) from one of many sluggish and unusable distros to a mass-ready, super convenient and compatible operating system that is absolutely on par with everything else on the market (and a lot better in many ways).

Up until recently I have been running the latest Ubuntu 14.04 on my Lenovo X1 Carbon (first generation) that I have put to the test in a previous blog post. But its display gave up, the gravest of the few little problems that machine has, for which I hate it, because otherwise it would have been a great machine, and it works like a charm with Ubuntu.

Pissed off at Lenovo for their shitty quality hardware, I decided to switch back to a Mac for a while. I bought an 11 inch MacBook Air and even decided to go with OSX Mavericks for a while. I had used a first generation MacBook Air before, for quite some time, back in 2011. Back then in loved the hardware, and hated OSX. I found it to be complicated, buggy and frustratingly restrictive. Hardly anything of that has changed.

So now I am back on a Mac and I can now compare the latest OSX (Mavericks as well as Yosemite) to the latest Ubuntu. While I have had a personal introduction to Microsoft’s Surface Pro, which seems like a great concept, Windows I think is still out of the question as a serious operating system.

I am a power user, any laptop I use has to report for duty in the morning and will only be able to take a break late at night. In between I am in one or several offices, in cafes, outside, inside, at events, meetings, working from a desk, a couch, a bed, a garden chair. In short: I need a workhorse. So after about a year on the new little MacBook, I want to hand out a report card.

Pros

  • Really convincing battery life. Sometimes I even forget to recharge it, because it can really go a long time without needing plugging in.
  • Heat and noise. On MacOS, the MacBook Air is quiet and hardly warms up. I am curious to see how this might change when it is running Ubuntu.
  • Size and weight. Well, I think it is still rather heavy for its size, but it is a lot of tech in a bunch of aluminum. I think it is nice and compact.
  • General high reliablity in MacOS. The hardware and software are tuned to work along quite perfectly. Performance is well and there aren’t many things that will keep you from working.

Cons

  • Sharp edges. My wrists don’t like the sharp edges around the keyboard, and below the touchpad there are even two really sharp spikes. I don’t think this is particularly well designed.
  • Corrosive material. Even though it is aluminum, drop it and you will have dents and cracks.
  • Keyboard. It is easy to write on it, but I think the chiclets are too wiggly and make unnecessary noise. For some reason I also mistype a lot, it might have something to do with the proportions.
  • WiFi. In the same places, I had far worse wi-fi reception than with the Thinkpad. In fact, it got to a point where I was highly annoyed at the MacBook’s ability to connect. It takes longer, connection is slower, and less reliable. This might be a subjective impression, but well. Some Yosemite updates have mitigated it a bit, but I think the antenna on the MacBook are just weak in general.
  • Display. The display goes back to only a certain angle. The Thinkpad folds down to 180 degrees. This might help minimize some wear/tear, but also takes away flexibility. The main problem with the MacBook though is, that it almost always folds down to the max. angle, because the hinges are not tight enough to allow me to leave it at an angle somewhere in the middle, let’s say if you’re sitting somewhere improvised, or working on the go somewhere. The MacBook isn’t workhorse enough in this aspect.
  • The display #2. Yes the glossiness makes colors look nice, but dammit I want to be able to work on the thing, not play games.
  • The MacBook does not have a card reader. I highly appreciated the Thinkpad’s SD card reader, it eliminated one more thing (digital camera) that I needed a cord for…

How does OSX Yosemite stack up to Ubuntu 14.10? Let me look a bit into the operating system comparison aspect.

Pros

  • OSX is fine tuned to work well with the hardware, so you will get a perfectly smooth experience out of it, aside from minor glitches. Battery life is long, the fan hardly ever jumps on (unless you are gaming) and the machine develops only very minor heat. Performance is pretty great, even though it’s not the most cutting edge hardware.
  • The average user might find most of what he or she needs with Yosemite, and the new features like accepting calls or texts from the OS if paired with an iPhone is a pretty slick move – if you’re all into the Apple prison

Cons

  • The system is extremely restrictive, from needing an Apple ID to update software to having to disable all kinds of security features in order to install software that came from elsewhere
  • Installing software is just weird, this whole unpackaging .dmg files and the copying them over…  I wonder why they never made that a 1-step process
  • The system is quite bloated I think, and a lot of things are useless, does anyone ever use the „Dashboard“ (or know it exits)? How about the „Launchpad“ (which look like they copied it from Ubuntu)?
  • OSX , despite the Yosemite improvements, is extremely complicated, inconsistent and carries lots of old things along. I think it could use a rather radical redesign in its UI.

Ubuntu 14.10

  • the entire Unity/Mir etc split from Gnome Shell etc. is something for a different discussion. However, the 14.10 upgrade is a rather minimal affair, and is by far not a major release.
  • the UI is still far from super-smooth and thought through, it could use some more polish. However, even Gnome Shell which seems to carry lots more consistency, looks dated and with all the simplicity, is not the power user’s best friend.
  • many essential core apps could use professionalization and better ease of use, from automated backups (think „time machine“) to the software center, which is just a terrible terrible peace of software (slow, buggy)
  • Upgrading Ubuntu is a snap. No other operating system lets you do major upgrades while you’re working and then be ready after a quick restart. Ubuntu is just super smooth in its software services, it is a joy to experience these seamless upgrades from release to release, including the problem-free hardware detection and out of the box stability
  • What’s still super bad is energy management, head and noise control, the less tested the hardware, the worse (MacBook is bad, Thinkpad is better)
  • I basically love all the flexibility, freedoms and stability that comes with Ubuntu. I have enjoyed flawless minidisplayport movie watching on external screens, I have enjoyed the awesome networking capability, the great perfomance (Phoronix did benchmarks where Ubuntu on Mac is better than MacOS on Mac), and I have enjoyed a bunch of gaming, as Steam and lots of games are now available on Ubuntu

Verdict

If you’re looking for a highly portable and capable laptop, and you’re not doing any heavy duty work (compiling, video editing, gaming), then the MacBook Air is still one of the best so-called ultrabooks around. Some of the drawbacks sound harsher than they probably are, especially if you’re used to Macs. In one of the next blog posts I will describe how I got Ubuntu to work on the MacBook…

Sebastian

Thanks for reading my personal blog. Click "About Me" in the navigation bar for more information. I welcome your comments!

2 Responses

  1. Tor sagt:

    I have a macbook air 2013 and have been thinking about putting ubuntu 14.10 on it. I’ve heard it’s much harder to make it work properly compared to other laptops, so I’m looking forward to your next post.