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Not a MacBook Air Review

I travel a lot. On average I'm on the road every other day, usually on the cheap, using mostly public transport, carrying everything on my back. On a typical trip, I take thousands of photos and write thousands of words of occasionally technical prose.

In short, I have a need for a laptop that is very light, small but with a high-quality screen, powerful enough to run serious image editing software and IDEs. When the original MacBook Air came out in early 2008, it seemed quite close to an ideal machine for me, so I bought one. It was quite good, but had a few glaring defects: although thinner than nearly all other laptops at the time, it was still relatively big in the two other dimensions; a single USB port is not nearly enough when you use external hard drives and card readers; battery life was unimpressive, and charging took forever.

In late 2010, Apple revamped its Macbook Air line and came up with a whole-new 11" model. Again I bought one, customized with all available options (1.6GHz processor, 4GB RAM, 128GB storage; 1329€ or $1399.) I think it's fair to say that I've used it extensively: in the few months I've owned it, I carried it to France, Thailand, Indonesia, Nepal and the United States. I relied on it to write research papers on transatlantic flights, edit photos of Javan volcanoes in the very 4WD carrying me away from said volcano, and blog from a tent on the slopes of the Earth's 8th highest mountain. I'm using it right now to write this post, in a very nice pub in Greenwich Village.

My verdict? It has all the qualities of the original Air, which I liked very much, and fixes everything I didn't like. It is at last small enough to fit in places where a conventional laptop would not; it has two USB ports; a full charge takes about an hour, even while doing resource-intensive jobs like editing photos in Aperture. In short, while it's not quite a perfect tool for the job, it is much closer to perfection than any other computer I have ever used.

So, you'd probably guess I've been recommending the 11" MacBook Air to everyone who asked or didn't ask that question known to geeks everywhere: "What computer should I buy?"

You'd be wrong.

As good as the Air is for what I do, it does sacrifice quite a bit in the name of portability, and for many users these trade-offs are probably not the right ones. Someone looking for a computer that lives in his briefcase and follows him to work might be better off with a full-sized laptop. While I suspect the optical drive is pretty much at end-of-life in consumer laptops, as of today many people use it very much. If you only need one computer and like to watch DVDs on it, well, the Air doesn't do that. It's also expensive. Someone who wants a travel computer just for emails and blogging might be better off with a conventional netbook, if only because traveling with a $300 no-name netbook is much less stressful than with a $1500 shiny thing that screams "steal me".

Which brings me to the main points of this post: if you're a geek who's regularly asked for gear recommendation by — for lack of a better word — laypeople, don't ever forget that what may be the perfect tool for you might also be a terrible choice for most other people. On the flip side, if you're usually the one asking the question "What computer/camera/cellphone should I buy?", pay attention to the very first thing your geek friend says in response. If it's anything other than "Well, what do you want to use it for?", you'll be better off ignoring everything he says and looking for someone a little less self-centered.

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