Passing a round fruit through a square hole

I recently was in the market for a new laptop. Android cellphones were starting to outpace my old laptop, and I was finding myself spending too much time waiting for the machine and money keeping the batteries replaced.

I had in mind pretty much what I wanted: a lightweight, about 12" laptop with decent specs. It should run 64-bit Windows with 64-bit VMs, have at least 4GB of RAM, a video camera, gigabit LAN, and an SSD. I searched online and browsed the stores when I went by, but nothing stood out at me... except the Macbook Air.

I had heard good things about the multi-touch trackpad. I'd seen the space-age MagSafe power connector. I could use my iPhone headset directly in the headphone jack as a headset. And the profile just looked right. I was worried that the no-button touchpad might be a problem, but according to reviews, the Bootcamp drivers gave multitouch support in Windows, and the consensus seemed to say it was a suitable, though expensive, platform for Windows.

I looked seriously at the Asus laptops, but they were lacking the gigabit LAN and I couldn't find one with an SSD. Everywhere else I looked, it seemed like the vendors (Dell, for example) were failing in their sales of ultraportables, in large part because they couldn't compete with the Macbook Air.

So I caved. I decided I could do without gigabit LAN and I bought a Macbook Air 13" to replace my Dell Latitude X1. It's a little bigger than I would have liked, but the 256GB over 128GB storage and an SD slot made it an easy choice.

When I got it, the first thing I did was shrink the MacOS partition to 20GB and install Bootcamp and Windows. It worked fairly well at a basic level. It was super fast. The Bootcamp 3.2 drivers supported all of the hardware. I was up and running in just a few hours. Almost immediately, though, I started to run into problems.

Right off the bat, the space bar was intermittent. I thought at first I was just not used to hitting the space bar in the right place, but when I went to the store, I found other Macbooks did not have this problem. So I exchanged it for another.

The replacement had a nice solid spacebar, but the up key scrapes against the metal keyboard frame. It's irritating, but bearable.

keys to the kingdom

Another surprising thing is the laptop doesn't have any indicators other than capslock. There's no power light, no hard drive light, no number lock (in fact no number pad). And speaking of missing buttons, the macbook is missing a whole lot of keys. There's no button for "page up", or "end", "backspace". The bootcamp drivers substitute "delete" for backspace an then expose Fn+delete as delete, but it's a clumsy hack. Many of the buttons are available as combinations with the Fn key, but there are some keys (Pause/Break, number pad) which aren't available at all.

I know the laptop wasn't manufactured for running Windows, but if you are used to running Windows on a PC, the Alt and Windows keys are switched (and in my opinion, the Fn and Ctrl keys could be switched too). Sure, there are programs to switch the keys in software, but these programs affect all hardware, so I can't easily alternate between an external keyboard and the internal keyboard.

This is the same complaint I've had about the mobile devices - they don't expose enough user interface for a professional developer to really excel.

how are you with keyboard shortcuts?

As if the problems with the keyboard weren't bad enough, there appears to be a bug in the trackpad driver that causes it to fail occasionally when coming out of standby. I contacted their customer care about it, but they insist it's a Microsoft problem and refuse to support it. So I just have to randomly restart my computer about once out of every 10 uses.

pocket rocket

There also appears to be an issue with charging the laptop. I'll have the laptop in standby (with the lid closed) and then plug it in to charge. After a minute of two of charging, the laptop will come out of standby, even if it's zipped up in its insulated bag. It'll then sit there and cook inside the bag, even if the power is subsequently disconnected. It's done this several times and gotten the temp to be untouchably hot. I've learned not to plug the laptop in unless I have it on a suitable surface for running and to double-check that it's suspended before packing it up. Of course, without any indicators, it's all but impossible to know for sure.

premium hardware

One of the major reasons I selected the Macbook was because I could see the superior manufacturing quality. Or at least, I convinced myself of such. The devices are beautiful and elegantly engineered, but when it comes to durability, it's another story.

Only a couple of months into owning the laptop, the screen died. If you divide the screen into 6 even vertical segments, the second of these segments stopped functioning. This happened while I was using the device while sitting in bed. I had the laptop on a smooth surface, so it was running cool. It was stable and had taken no abuse. Then spontaneously, the screen failed.

I do give kudos to Apple for a rapid replacement. I took the screen to the store on Saturday afternoon and it was repaired with a new screen by Sunday morning.

Still, I feel the Apple quality is mostly superficial and doesn't go deep to the underlying hardware.

Overall, I'm pleased with the device. It serves its purpose (as a secondary, portable workstation). I acknowledge that some of these shortcomings are because I want to run Windows on the device, but many of these would apply even if I were running MacOS.

As a professional, I feel the Mac platform just doesn't cut it. It hides and abstracts too much of the system, sacrificing functionality for simplicity. I was not aware I was making this compromise when I purchased the Macbook Air... and I'll think long and hard next time I have this choice to make.
Written on July 18, 2011