2011 Macbook Air for iOS Developers

Posted: July 28, 2011 by Ash Mishra in Productivity, Programming, Review
Tags: ,
New MacBook Airs are here!

The reviews have started pouring in for the updated Core i5/i7 Macbook Airs released in July 2011, and they have been unanimously acclaiming the ultra-portable laptop / notebook. There’s no question they are a leap in performance from the prior models, and they are now powerful enough to be considered tools for more than the casual user.  I even think they are good enough to be considered by media professionals and developers.

I decided to pick up the 13″ Macbook Air to see if it could replace or be a secondary machine in use for iOS development.  I originally ordered the  top i7/256 model, but returned it in favour of the more affordable i5/128 which in my experience (so far) has been more than sufficient.  I have a 2007 17″ Macbook Pro (2.4 c2d / 4gb / 500gb HD / 1920 x 1200) that I have been using for my primary development. I have enjoyed using the 17″ screen for iPad development – particularly being able to use the simulator at full scale, while having XCode on the same screen.

As an independent developer, I need a computer for 2 reasons:

a) Working with clients – this usually consists of using OmniOutliner for defining estimates, Skype calls, Webex / Adobe Connect meetings, and Mail

b) Writing code – which usually involves Xcode IDE, the iOS simulator, Instruments, the occasional graphics tool such as PhotoShop and OmniGraffle, and Safari for Google

Using the Air for development

Like many present-day developers, my working environment varies from a small home office – to the kitchen table – to the occasional coffee shop visit. So portability is useful, and thus I can’t ever really consider getting an iMac for development (no matter how much great value they offer).

The 17″ Macbook Pro that I have been toting around is great for iPad development (because of the full-scale simulator), but as you can imagine it’s not exactly light at almost 7 pounds.

The 13″ Macbook Air weighs in at a scant 3 pounds in comparison. But what about that 17″ to 13″ screen difference, and more importantly the reduction in visible pixels from 1920 x 1200 to 1440 x 900?

XCode in full-screen

OS X Lion has new full-screen and improved multi-touch gestures – the full-screen feature being a very useful improvement allowing for light-to-medium coding duty.

When you make an application window full-screen in Lion, this automatically puts the window in its own space hiding the top menu bar and dock.  You can alternate between full-screen windows using either a multi-touch gesture (four fingers to left or right), or by a command key combination.

The reason I rate the Macbook Air for light-to-medium coding, is when you’re using the iOS Simulator – it can’t be in the same space as the full-screen XCode IDE, so there is a lot of switching between spaces back and forth. If you’re using the debugger, than switching back and forth could make you dizzy.

The alternative is that you don’t run XCode full-screen, but then you lose some of that extra vertical space. If you’re doing routine coding without needing the simulator often (ie. stuff that isn’t experimental) than the 13″ will fit most developers well.

Of course if you hook up an external screen through Thunderbolt, then the size issue is resolved.

XCode Organizer API Documentation in full-screen

You can also set the XCode organizer (useful for api documentation) to be full-screen as well; and this way it will occupy its own space as well.

The resolution of the 13″ screen at 1440 x 900 is about perfect for a small laptop like this. Much of my work involves using the iPad simulator in portrait mode. The current 4.2 release of XCode allows you to set the simulator at 75% scale, which fits the height of the Macbook Air screen perfectly and is still readable.

Performance & Productivity

In terms of performance, the key observation is that I haven’t noticed any reason to complain. Compiling code is quick and launching apps in the simulator is very fast. I haven’t noticed any slowdown or speed degradation while having multiple apps open at the same time. That’s the way performance should be – a non-event.

For my other routine tasks – answering emails, preparing quotes, etc, its business as usual. The high quality screen and 1440 x 900 resolution make the 13″ Macbook Air as good as the base 15″ Macbook Pro – even better because of the added portability, lower cost, and included SSD.

General Observations

Probably my favourite Macbook Air feature (other than the size) is something else that it doesn’t have: heat. The i5 ULV processors are quite amazing in terms of total-dissipated-power when compared to other Apple portables. It isn’t going to scald your legs when wearing shorts, nor is the fan going to become so loud as to disrupt from your concentration.

Lastly, using your iPhone headphones has been a feature on many of Apple’s more recent portable devices; and it’s a great option to be able to use Skype and the iPhone headphone mic.  On the Air it’s even better given the amazing portability of the device.

Rating: 4 / 5

Pros

  • Usable for light-to-medium development iOS work, without an external screen
  • Performance is excellent, as good as the 2010 Macbook Pros
  • Ultra-low-voltage processors mean less heat and less fan noise
  • SSD means faster disk performance, better reliability, and less noise
  • Sharp, bright, and productive 1440 x 900 resolution; enhanced by full-screen applications in Lion
  • Affordable value for such an attractive, functional, and light-weight notebook

Cons

  • Expensive to upgrade from 128gb to 256gb SSD
  • Can’t upgrade RAM from 4gb
  • Screen resolution and size a bit too small for heavy iOS development; though attaching a external display resolves this

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Comments
  1. Ben says:

    Interesting write up!

    I am currently developing on a 15″ hi res macbook pro but am interested in the new 13″ air as a primary development machine. I do a little iOS work but most of my stuff is in Eclipse.

    Are you still using the 17″ for your longer coding sessions? I am wondering how much I would miss the extra screen size, but the benefits in cost (selling the current for retail value) and portability seem very impressive.

    • Ash Mishra says:

      Hi Ben,

      I am continuing to use my 17″ for longer sessions. I also do .Net work, and use RDC – so this benefits from the larger screen and resolution.

      The Air is great for shorter periods and to take to client meetings, coffee shops, etc.

      I have an older 15″ MacBook pro which I no longer use for coding – because it’s 1400×900 doesn’t really have any advantage over the 17″ or the Air. However your 1680×1050 is considerably more real estate over the Air. I’d keep the 15!

  2. Ash Mishra says:

    Here’s another review of a 15″ MacBook Pro (with SSD) vs the 13″ MacBook Air
    http://blog.lolay.com/2011/07/2011-11-macbook-air-vs-2011-15-macbook.html

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