The MacBook Air and the Mobile Lab

When does minimalism go too far? Maybe as a response to how much I travel, or maybe just because I’ve started loosing stuff in my old age, I have been reducing and getting more organized for years. I have endeavored to get rid of all that isn’t necessary and been welcomed by the fact that less truly is more. I buy less clothes, own less crap, I travel with fewer keys, I am less of a gear-head (outside of my lab of course), I ditched racks of systems in my old lab for 2 stacks of Mac Minis and I oddly end up throwing out less as well.

And that minimalism now extends to my computers. I travel with a mobile lab of two MacBook Airs. They are my client-server six guns. And I’m stingy about what I allow to go on them. When I made the switch to solid state, I had to shed almost 800 gigs of data off my machines, and ever since I’ve been certain that data weighs in at about a pound a gig. I can still scp any data I really need from my SAN at home or store things in the cloud, but it just so happens that I don’t really need any of it. I have over half the free space on my solid state drives and am more organized with my data than I have been for years. And without the 800 pound gorilla following me around all the time, I’m actually happier.

My mobile lab has had many incarnations. At one point it consisted of a pair of IBM Thinkpads, then as I became more and more Apple-centric, a Mac and a Lenovo. I went through a number of combinations, from iBooks to MacBooks, from IBM to Lenovo, but it was always a Mac and a Windows machine. With virtual machines and boot camp, I eventually moved to carrying a pair of MacBooks and then a MacBook and a MacBook Pro. Then I moved to a MacBook Pro and a MacBook Air. I had switched to a Dell Latitude D430 temporarily for awhile but found it pretty slow and ended up running back to the 2nd MacBook. I was concerned that the speed of Windows on the Air would leave me wanting compared to the larger laptops.  Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 R2 and even Exchange 2010 running on the Air kicked the crap out of the Lenovo and is just as good as on the MacBook Pro for the most part. I tried to keep a Windows system. I went to the Microsoft Store in the Mall of America, then went to each of the vendors that make typical wintel laptops and simply couldn’t find a system that competed with the Air. So my Windows box is now a Mac. My Linux and Windows VMs work great on the Air and when I need more ump, I just move the contents of the VM to my boot camp partition and I’m plenty fast enough. I don’t use boot camp otherwise though, except for special projects.

The MacBook Pro had a terabyte drive, full disk encrypted and running at about 80 percent of capacity. Eventually I began to consider using the Air full time. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get rid of all that data. I mean, isn’t that my life’s work? Notsomuch. When I started to look at what was actually on there, I started to get a bit more organized and once organized it was easy to move a lot of data that I really didn’t need to keep with me all the time.

What I realized was, I could move to the MacBook Air full time if I stopped hoarding. I stopped hoarding applications. You see, I’m not a graphic designer, I’m not a film maker and I’m not every going to get around to designing a house in AutoCAD. I stopped hoarding fonts because I am never going to make use of 8,000 fonts (I use 3). I am never going to listen to 60,000 songs. I’ve also managed to convince myself that just because I paid for something doesn’t mean I have to keep it forever (I mean, who watches Dexter any more anyway, much less episodes from the first season). Before you know it, I was down below 100 gigs of data, of which 10 gigs is the OS and applications, 30 gigs includes virtual machines and about 20 gigs is my iTunes library. I have over 150 gigs of free space?!?! I do keep a USB drive full of ISOs, installers and the such, but I rarely use it and have not once felt the speed to get to my data justified moving back to a MacBook or a MacBook Pro.

My first argument against the MacBook Air was that I couldn’t cram all my crap into its its bitsy hard drive, my second was that I needed FireWire, Ethernet, a microphone jack, removable battery, etc. Apple made this argument a little easier by going to the unibody design and antiquating my ideas about traveling with spare batteries (which I still do for my iPhone, but that’s another story). Then I noticed the FireWire cable in my computer bag and thought about it. When was the last time I’d pulled that thing out? Since I couldn’t remember the answer I figured that wasn’t much of an issue. Turns out any good microphone these days is USB, so who needs a 1/8th jack as another hole to get sand into in your computer. That left Ethernet, which Apple makes easy by selling me a dongle.

Another argument was screen real estate. My MacBook Airs run at 1440 x 900. You can run them at other resolutions, but everything else looks like crap. Either you can live with 1440 x 900 or ya’ can’t. I can (who knew when I had glasses in the 2nd grade that my vision would end up better than perfect in my old age – and speaking of better than perfect, how’s better than perfect possible exactly?!?!). I have a cinema display (or 4) sitting on my desk at home. They have never once been connected to a MacBook Air of any kind. The screen on the Air is in my opinion better than a MacBook, although nothing in any other laptop really rivals a MacBook Pro.

I used to want to see live statistics of system performance, network throughput, etc. Not any more. All of my default Apple menu items have been disabled except network and wireless. Because the real estate required for the Apple battery menu item is a bit much.  and the only reason is that you can’t just see the time remaining but instead must look at the battery icon itself. I don’t actually care to look at the battery graphic. To replace the standard battery menu item, I chose SlimBatteryMonitor, available at http://www.orange-carb.org/SBM/downloads.html.

I do keep a 3rd party tool up in the menu bar: Xmenu, http://www.devon-technologies.com/products/freeware. This let’s me browse the file system from the apple menu. But with Spotlight it’s almost faster to search for something than to browse so who knows if Xmenu will last. This lets me keep less crap on my desktop and Dock. My Dock now has less than 10 items in it and my desktop is completely empty.

Beyond screen real estate, my final issue with the Air was durability. I travel a lot and that makes me a bit hard on things. But if you hold an Air, you don’t feel like you’re holding a flimsy, plastic machine, as you do with most of the Netbooks on the market. The reason is that the Air isn’t necessarily a Netbook; it’s a laptop. While the Air costs more than a $300 Netbook, you get what you pay for. Many  can use an Air as a full-time computer.

I’ve also found that the Air has some really nice features. Having a USB port on each side of the machine means oddly shaped peripherals, such as my Sprint card doesn’t block the port next to it. The battery lets me work for well over 7 hours, which further lightens my load by freeing me from a second battery. The speed of the internal drives allows a number of common tools I use run way faster. The speakers are nice enough to occasionally play audio over without the need for headphones or external speakers. Having the installation media on a tiny thumb drive is cool (I sure would like to use those drives as regular old jump drives, btw). I even find myself using the SD Card Reader at times. Overall, my workflow has melded with that of the Air.

As you can likely tell by now, I’ve become a strong proponent of the MacBook Air. The challenges I thought I would face moving to featherweight laptops ended up getting me more organized and ultimately more efficient with my time. Where I thought I would travel with even more little do-hickeys sticking out of the laptop, I travel with less. I am more aware of what I use, which has led to me looking around the house at what else I can toss out. But my favorite thing about the Air has to be traveling with it. Light as a feather, my shoulder doesn’t ache when I’m in and out of airports and security checkpoints. In case you haven’t figured out how I feel about my MacBooks: they are amongst the finest computers ever made!

2 Comments

  • Andrei
    June 18, 2012 - 6:26 pm | Permalink

    Hi Charles, I’m considering a 11″ or 13″ MacBook Air – 2Ghz w/ 2 cores, 8GB RAM, 500GB SSD to run about 3 VMs: a Windows Server 2012 DC, a WinSvr 2008 w/ SQL 2008 and Sharepoint 2010, and a Windows 7 development (or another WinServer server 2008). From your experience, would this be a bit too much for the Air to handle? The environment would be mostly for demos, so fairly light use. Since I’m not demoing 24/7 I don’t want to carry around a 15″ MacBook Pro… it’s too big in terms of physical size. Do you think I can pull it off? Which model would you recommend, 11″ or 13″?

    • June 18, 2012 - 7:11 pm | Permalink

      I have found that anything more than 2 VMs is a bit much concurrently. Having said that, I’ve also found that according to how resource intensive the systems I’m running are, 2 can work just fine. I regularly run a VM for a 2012 DC and another for Exchange, although these days I’m trying to run everything in one VM and just have more VMs that sit idle. For the 11 vs 13, if you only have one you’re probably better off with the 13. I travel with 3 systems, so 2 11s and a 13 make for a mobile lab capable of doing pretty much anything I can think of throwing at it…

      Hope this helps!

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