First off let me say that I’m a WinMac LeicaNik guy. What does that mean? That means that, up to very recently, I used Nikon DSLRs and Windows computers running Photoshop exclusively. A few months ago I decided that I’d had enough of lugging two Nikon bodies, umpteen heavy lenses, a Windows 7 computer and a heavyweight Gitzo tripod around whenever I felt like a photographic foray.
So what was the solution? Well, for lots of reasons, and after weeks of research, I settled on realising a lifetime’s ambition and invested in a Leica M9 Rangefinder, a basic set of Leica and Zeiss lenses, a Hadley Pro bag and a monopod. This line-up’s small size and unobtrusiveness allows me to take images in situations where a larger and overtly ‘pro’ DSLR would be highly conspicuous and intrusive. I often need to take pictures in fairly sensitive business locations, where I don’t want to be standing out, and the Leica offers that freedom. The whole kit sits easily on one shoulder and I can walk around busy locations with it for hours without worrying about putting it down while I work. The weight reduction is wonderful; perhaps, at last, photography without fatigue!
Anyway, the next challenge was how to review and edit images on the go. Hence the quest to find the lightest, powerful enough laptop with a decent screen, quality graphics performance and five hour plus battery life. Hmmm – been here before. What adds to the complexity is that I travel extensively on business, with my photo gear, and need to connect to email and do collaborative work on presentations and proposals while on the road, so I often need to get back into the Windows world at the drop of a hat, even when I’m out and about making images.
Some months ago now, this same challenge lead me to explore using a relatively lightweight 17″ MacBook Pro running Boot Camp, Windows 7 and all my business apps in an attempt to save on the travelling weight of my usual ‘high-spec’ (read very, very heavy) Dell workhorse. Well, after successfully getting my head around the Mac OS and using the same Apple laptop under both operating systems and software, I would say that that configuration offers the very best of both worlds. Along the way, I also got comfortable with the idea that maybe I could ditch the 17″ MBP occasionally and just run with the new 11″ MacBook Air wonder machine as a ‘number two’, multi-role, featherweight all rounder. It’s only 17mm (just over half an inch) tall and weighs only two pounds! Here it is measuring up against an English twenty pence coin.
I should add that I noodled on the 13″ model to begin with, for it’s extra power, storage and screen size but I finally plumped for the 11″ version. Although I’d have preferred the larger screen, I chose the more compact model (because I fly a great deal), mainly for the reason that when the passenger in front of you puts their seat back fully on a cramped ten hour flight, the extra 1.5 inch height of the 13″ Air’s screen does not allow you to open the lid far enough to work comfortably. So, the 11″ it was, and £1,159 (including tax) later, I had one in my hands. I chose the 11″ 1.6 GHz CPU, 4Gb RAM, 128Gb Solid State Disk model.
After I got back from the Apple store, I compared the 11″ Air to a Sony Vaio Z series laptop, in ‘ready position’. The Sony was half an inch wider and deeper and crucially, the top of the screen / lid was over an inch higher when raised; so the 11″ Air easily wins when it comes to comfortable working in ‘cattle class’ on long haul flights!
There is a useful review of the 11″ Air versus various alternatives, including the Sony, with some very interesting benchmark results here, including a discussion on using Windows 7 on it. I briefly considered the Sony Z series as an option this time but given their high price, extra size and these performance / weight / size findings, I ruled it out. In value terms, according to the Ubergizmo review, the 11″ Air comes out as a very creditable alternative to the ‘power netbook / laptop’ if size and travelling weight is important to you. If using Windows with Boot Camp is an issue for you then go to YouTube and do a search on MacBook Air and Windows 7. There are plenty of reviewers running evaluation videos where you can see Win7 working surprisingly well. As the Ubergizmo and other reviewers conclude, the Air’s overall performance is far better than you might expect from the specifications alone, despite the rather staid Dual Core CPU and modest memory. What boosts its overall performance is the fast memory and solid state hard drive, which, in practice, combine to render the Air a very solid performer.
With a screen resolution of just 1366 x 768 pixels, there isn’t a lot of screen real estate for editing images, but the display itself is excellent. Anandtech’s review of the 11″ Air’s screen is very positive, describing it as ‘the best 11″ display they’ve ever tested’. They rate it as very good, with contrast, white and black levels among the best and with creditable quality in colour accuracy and a relatively high percentage of Adobe colour gamut displayable. If you review their test charts, the Air’s 11″ display comes out mostly at the top of their tests, only trailing the very best Apple displays by a little. A remarkable achievement in a wafer thin design.
So, the question was, along with meeting my ‘ultralight, on the road’ business needs, could the Air be used as a field ‘image review’ laptop with the possibility of occasional image editing when necessary? To add to the challenge, I didn’t want to spend a huge sum on yet another copy of Lightroom or Photoshop, even if the processor could handle it. I had already decided to try the well respected RAW Developer application from Iridient Digital, since I’d read that it produces very high quality images. Another reason was that RD was developed solely for the Mac OS and has been optimised to use multi-core processors, so it would make the most of the Air’s modest processing power. At $125 (£70 or so), it’s also a bargain, so this was my opportunity to evaluate it. Carl Rytterfalk has created a fascinating video tutorial comparing four RAW Developers converting the same image to monochrome, including RAW Developer, which acquits itself very well.
To check it out, I installed RAW Developer and was working happily with it on a number of images in no time at all. It’s easy to get to grips with and produces beautiful colours and very detailed RAW conversions. The monochrome conversion features render quite film-like images which are very attractive and require little more than fine tuning and sharpening to taste. I think it would be a worthy challenger to Lightroom, ACR and Capture One for it’s RAW conversions alone.
I found the Air perfect for creating and reviewing business documents ‘on the go’; for email, creating and editing blog posts, surfing the web, reviewing flash based galleries (once flash was installed) and for playing HD movies. As a secondary business and travel laptop, it’s a winner. Some people have decided that it isn’t powerful enough as a main laptop for all business use, but I think that depends on what you have to do. I would happily use it for doing the tasks I’ve just successfully tested it on, as above. As a more useful alternative for actually getting things done, it’s a better bet than the iPad, which I still use at home as an ‘instant-on’, round the house email and browser tool. You can do more work, review more sites and entertain yourself just as well or better on the Air than using the iPad. I even installed ScreenFlow on it and used it to create, edit and export some video presentations of the RAW Developer software in use, to add to my YouTube channel.
As a laptop for use on photographic field trips, it performs well enough and better than you might expect. I used it very successfully with RAW Developer for reviewing and editing color images and making mono conversions in-field without difficulty. Battery life is just about what Apple claims, five hours or maybe a little more, provided you are doing mixed tasks and you keep the screen brightness at about 60% to 75% of maximum. It meets my needs with performance to spare, and slides neatly into the back of the Hadley Pro bag, adding virtually nothing to its bulk and weight. I recommend it. Field Photography without Fatigue!
Rob Boyer at RB Design, the ‘Aperture Expert’, has also given the thumbs up to the 11″ MacBook Air in this article here.
On a recent EasyJet flight, the MBA was very comfortable to use on their typically cramped seat trays. I was able to open the screen fully and could use the laptop under the airplane’s modest lighting with the display brightness set at a surprisingly low level, which meant I had even better battery life. I’ve also successfully used it tethered to my iPhone 3G via Bluetooth and enjoyed very reasonable browsing performance in Firefox and Safari including viewing YouTube videos.
I’ve just found this Apple video which describes the design and technical achievements in the MacBook Air. It’s been extracted from Apple’s launch presentation and is worth a look.
I’ve been discussing this configuration on several forums over the past week or so and several people have been running Lightroom or CS5 on this machine with enough success for them to be happy with the performance. A couple of people have said that these applications work well in the field but the combination would not be fast enough for use as a main machine for all their work. That’s fair enough, I think. So, all in all, a pretty good bet. I may even install LR3 or Aperture 3 myself and see how I get on.