Back in August, I was doing some work in a hotel room on my laptop and things started going “weird”. The system would appear to freeze up a bit, or the colors would go all trippy, or windows wouldn’t refresh. After five or ten seconds, I would see the following error message: “Display driver has stopped responding and has recovered”
*Gulp* That’s not good I thought.
After doing some digging, I found that apparently there’s a known issue that the Lenovo T61p was commonly installed with a faulty video card when it was first manufactured. It turns out that up until January of 2011, Lenovo was offering free replacements. Isn’t it just like a piece of equipment to go on the fritz just after the warranty period ends?
After some more research, I realized that there’s no way to replace it because the video card is soldered onto the motherboard. To fix the laptop would require a new motherboard, which for a four year old laptop is probably not worth the trouble. As a long shot, I checked eBay and there are a bunch of them there… starting at $200+ each. I might be able to get one for a bit less, but it would have taken some time, which wasn’t something I had. The Lenovo could die at any moment and I need a working laptop while I’m on the road.
I’d been on the look out for a new laptop the past several months, so the fact that I needed to buy a new one wasn’t the worst news in the world, but the timing wasn’t exactly the greatest either. Most of the laptops on the market come up a bit short on my list of requirements, which are unfortunately quite lengthy. I’m looking for something that has the following specs:
- 15″ monitor
- 1920×1200 resolution
- Core i7 processor (quad-core would be nice)
- 8GB RAM
- SSD drive
- Is lightweight (under 4 lbs would be great)
- USB 3.0 ports
And the order of those “requests”? Hmmm… all of them are a top priority. Ugh. Basically I want it all in a really tight package and with laptops, you always need to make some tradeoffs. The underlying issue is that I travel a lot so I want something that’s super lightweight. On the other hand, it needs to have some power to it as well. I’m doing a lot of development using Visual Studio 2010, SQL Server, the Azure toolset, etc. So I need something with some oomph under the hood. That’s the technical term for it anyway.
I’ve looked at just about everything including Acer, Asus, Lenovo, Apple, Sony, Toshiba, Dell, HP, and even Gateway. The research I did showed me that the screen was going to be the biggest problem. As the screen size goes up, so does the resolution, but the weight does too. Most laptop manufacturers stopped making 15″ laptops with 1600×1200 resolution several years ago. My Lenovo T61p had 1920×1200 but these days, that screen resolution is typically reserved for 17″ laptops, which tend to be far too heavy for my tastes.
Laptops with 8GB of RAM are becoming more common, but aren’t so common that they are offered everywhere. Nearly every laptop can be retrofitted with an SSD drive, so that was the simplest challenge to overcome. But it seemed as though everywhere I looked for a new laptop, there were always too many things to give up for any laptop I looked at.
However when your laptop is about to die, you need to make a decision as to whether even having a working laptop is more important than not having one at all. I knew that the local Best Buy was probably my best bet for a decent laptop, but I also knew that they never carry anything really top of the line. If I bought something there, it was going to be something to throw away and I wasn’t terribly thrilled with that prospect. So I decided to hit the Apple store to see if the new MacBook Air’s lived up to what I thought it might be for me.
I hit the Apple store in Paramus, NJ and spoke with a business specialist named Bobby. I explained to him what I did, what I was generally looking for, and what my concerns were with the 13″ MacBook Air with the Core i7 processor. The screen resolution was only 1440×900, but after my laptop video card on the Lenovo started to go haywire, I set the screen resolution to 1440×900 to help reduce the stress on the video card. This seemed to work well enough that I could use the laptop. The video card would still reset the driver and hang the system for a short time on occasion, but it was far less frequent.
What I found was that the screen resolution of 1440×900 was surprisingly tolerable. Of course, I had to set some of the toolbars in Visual Studio to auto-hide (which I hate to do), but I could see all of the code that I really needed to see and it wasn’t nearly as bad as I remembered from 2006. Perhaps I’m just getting old and more tolerant of widescreen. Actually no. I still don’t like it, but I can live with it now.
With the screen resolution issues, the SSD, and the weight behind me, I knew that I’d be compromising on the USB 3.0 ports. But I also knew that USB 3.0 on laptops was surprisingly rare, so that was the most likely casualty in any laptop compromise. The last hurdles to overcome were the processor and RAM. These weren’t strict requirements, rather they were general guidelines that needed to be there to maintain the performance of the machine for the work I would be doing. This was especially concerning on a Mac if I wanted to use VMWare Fusion or Parallels. I could have chosen to use Bootcamp again, but in the past I had some driver issues which caused my Macbook Pro to overheat to the point that it would burn my lap. Not much of a laptop at that point.
I voiced my concerns to Bobby, but pointed out that my current laptop was nearly 4 years old, so it was possible that with a processor that was two generations newer than the old one, I might not even notice the slowdown. I already had an SSD, so that was a non-factor. He said “Well, I don’t know anyone who has used it to the level that you have, but you could give it a shot and if it doesn’t work, you can bring it back and you’re not out a dime.”
Hmmm, that sounds interesting… wait. What? Isn’t there a restocking fee or something like that?
“Nope. We got rid of that a little while ago. Apple is so confident that you’ll like it and decide to keep it that if you don’t, you get a full refund. Just take it back to any Apple store.”
Bobby: “Yep. You’ve got two full weeks and if you don’t like it, no harm no foul. Just bring it back.”
I excused myself to go get dinner at the California Pizza Kitchen to think it over, then returned and bought it. Including the Applecare, it was just over $2,000, which all things considered isn’t a terrible price to pay for a top of the line, super lightweight laptop. That evening, I downloaded the VMWare Fusion trial to the MacBook Air. I used another VMWare tool to do a physical to virtual migration of my Windows 7 x64 laptop to a virtual machine on a USB drive, and then copied the entire Windows computer onto the laptop. It took a couple of hours to finish. Then I ran into a few minor problems with the VMWare image because it had six network cards for some reason. SIX!
One was the gigabit card on the T61p. Two were from VMWare Workstation that I had installed. The other three, I can’t be certain, but I think they were the two wireless cards and maybe the Bluetooth card. I ended up deleting all of the network devices from the VMWare machine and then adding one back in. After that, it worked fine but seemed sluggish. I thought it might be the RAM, so I dropped the amount of RAM allocated to Windows from 3GB to 2.5GB and that seemed to help quite a bit. I think that maybe OSX was choking on being able to effectively run VMWare with only 1GB left for OSX.
It took a few hours to get used to some of the key remappings. I ended up disabling the built-in Mac function keys so that on the Windows side, I don’t need to hold down the Fn key to hit F5. This means that Ctrl+Shift+B will do a full build for me, and Ctrl+F5 will launch the application so I can do some testing. I don’t use the Mac preset functions nearly as often, so I prefer simply using the Fn key instead. As for Windows, I have a second desktop set up that I can switch to by swiping three fingers across the trackpad. It’s kind of amazing to get that kind of flexibility that quickly. People I show it to are usually quite jealous of the power, flexibility, and speed at which it all runs.
And the performance? Well, so far my suspicions have been largely correct. The faster processor really makes a difference in that it has two cores and four pipelines, which is twice as many as my old laptop. The clock speed is slightly slower, but the processor architecture seems to make up for that. In VMWare, I have two CPU’s allocated to Windows 7, so it holds up pretty well. There’s a bit of a delay when opening Visual Studio, but it’s difficult to tell if anything is really wrong. It takes a lot longer than I think it should to open on my desktop too so I don’t think that’s a Macbook Air problem. A full rebuild takes under 10 seconds so I really can’t complain about it. Starting all the Azure related stuff doesn’t seem to perform any better, but I don’t think it’s any worse either.
The one major issue I ran into was when I first took the laptop home from the store. I booted it up and… nothing. I got a grey screen, some music, and a bunch of horizontal and vertical lines through the middle of the screen. I took it back to the Apple store and they immediately replaced it. The new one has worked just fine, so it was discomforting at first, but the ease at which they simply gave me a new one is something I never would have gotten with Dell or any other manufacturer. I know they would have been a real pain in the neck about it. For some reason, you have to be Dell Certified to know anything about how to troubleshoot a computer. In a word… LAME.
With all that said, what’s my final conclusion?
The Macbook Air is a winner, even for hardcore Windows development which needs a lot of system resources. I’m very happy with the performance of the machine, both on the Mac and on the Windows side. The battery life is pretty lengthy, even given the amount of work that I’m throwing at it. I’m just finishing up this article and I’ve been running the laptop for nearly six hours. The battery is close to the end of it’s rope, but given that I have Windows 7 x64 running at the same time, that’s not too shabby. The power adapter is rated for 45 Watts, which is about half of what my T61p was. This means that when I got on overseas flights, my power adapter will actually work to charge the battery, as opposed to simply preventing it from losing battery life. The Lenovo used a 90W power supply and most airplane power ports are only rated for 75 Watts. Somehow, tripping circuit breakers on a plane seems like a bad idea.
The light weight of the machine absolutely rocks. Coming from the Lenovo T61p which weighs close to 10 lbs with the power adapter to a laptop that barely breaks 3 lbs with the adapter, it’s a world of difference. Especially for someone like me who has a bad back.
The other thing that I really like is the screen itself. It’s very bright and crisp. Adjusting the brightness on the Macbook Air seems a lot better than on my T61p, not to mention the backlit keyboard, which is nice when you’re hunting for a key that’s in a different place on a Mac than on a PC, or in a slightly darkened room.
So far, the second best part of this setup is that it’s extremely light weight, has a great looking screen, adequate screen resolution, and runs Visual Studio 2010 with as much oomph as I need it to. And yes, that’s the technical term. Oomph.
Some other awesome stuff?
- Three finger swipe moves me between operating systems as fast as all heck.
- Two finger scrolling works in Windows. Honestly, what’s not to love there? It makes me hate working with other laptops now.
Ok, now for the bad stuff. You knew it was coming.
- You have to be careful what your power settings are in VMWare Fusion. If Windows and OSX are ever fighting over who gets to use a screensaver or shut down the system when it’s on batteries, you might get the Grey Screen of Death. Basically, the computer will light up when you turn it on, but neither OS is in control. You have to do a hard reset to fix it. I was able to get around this by telling Windows to go to sleep after 10 minutes, but OSX will wait 15 minutes. Also, I always manually suspend Windows when I am using batteries and close the lid. If it’s plugged in and I shut the lid, I get no problems. But if I then open it, then close it, it will go weird on me.
- The laptop is so thin that it can be slightly difficult to lift the lid. This is for three reasons. First, the lid is really thin and the depth of the indent to lift the lid is really shallow. Second, the laptop has some sort of a magnet mechanism in place that helps hold it shut when you close the lid. It’s not very strong, but it’s strong enough. And finally, the laptop itself is so light that it is just barely heavy enough to counter the mechanism on the lid. Usually, you have to open it a little bit and then pry it open. Now granted, this is minor but some might find it very irritating. However, it’s the tradeoff that needs to be made to make a laptop that’s this light.
- To run Windows, you have to buy a license for VMWare Fusion (or Parallels, if you prefer). It’s not terribly expensive, but you will need to budget another $50-$100 or so for it, depending on where you buy it from. I would advise against waiting until the lat minute to buy a license. I had a really hard time ordering a license from VMWare’s website around the time my trial expired. It took me a few days to get it resolved. Personally I spent around $110. Then VMWare started running sales and I’ve seen it as low as $50.
- With all the heavy lifting that I do during my Windows development using Visual Studio, the system does seem to get just a bit bogged down at times. I wish it had USB 3, so I could put my Windows OS onto a USB hard drive and separate the disk I/O from the SSD in the machine to see if that helps at all. I’m not convinced that it would fix the issue, but I’d like to try it to find out and right now, it’s not really an option.
Overall, I’d highly recommend a MacBook Air to anyone, even for Windows developers. I can’t begin to describe how jealous Windows users are when I show them that I get the best of both worlds in a package that’s usually half as heavy as anything they’ve got.
Mike – I’ve been developing on the latest MBA for about 3 months now and love it. Though I chose to dual boot giving OSX 30GB of the hard drive. I’ll probably use OSX for testing only.
The biggest problem I have is getting used to the keyboard. The function key is where the ctr key should be and you need to hit function + arrow to simulate home, end, page up, page down.
Also the “Delete” button is really backspace unless you press function, then it really is delete.
For such a small machine it screams and rarely uses the fan, though it stays cool.
There’s an awful lot to be said for the service and treatment you get at an Apple Store when you rely on your laptop for business.
Me and my consultant friends all rely on our laptops to varying degrees – mine’s a Mac, they have Sonys and Dells.
Mine’s been fine so far but I know if I have a problem I can go to the Apple Store (10 mins walk from where I work) and get it seen to right away.
When my friend’s Sony played up he had to visit the Sony shop on the one day a week their technician was in then leave it with them for two weeks. Not good.
Now my other friend’s Dell is playing up – I don’t even want to think about what he’s going to have to go through.
I like to use OSX for all of the applications I use which are cloud based, like email, Evernote, instant messenger, etc. The calendar is pretty nice too, although that’s iCal.
The service at an Apple store is top notch, assuming you have an appointment. If not, you’re likely going to be waiting a while for technical assistance. That place is usually just mobbed. If you need sales assistance, they always have enough people on hand for that.
I work with a lot of customers who go through Dell for their PC’s, and it’s just awful. Chances are good I’ll never buy another machine from a major manufacturer other than Apple ever again. My only complaints about the Macbook Air are that it doesn’t support 8GB or 16GB of RAM and it doesn’t have a USB 3.0 connector. And even then, everything else just rocks so much that I feel bad complaining about those two things.
Thanks for the post! Was looking for something exactly like this.
Mostly I develop on a MacBook Pro (Old beast) but still need to fire up Windows. Need to get a new laptop and was on the Macbook Pro/Air debate for a while, so great to see that it’s a good idea to get the Air. But, will wait couple more months and see what new comes out and then make a purchase.
Hopefully at that point there will be some thunderbolt HD enclosures that will hook up nicely to a Mac display, and then, pure nirvana 🙂
There’s only one external Thunderbolt enclosure that I know of and it’s pretty expensive because it’s a 4 or 5 drive RAID enclosure. Which kind of makes sense, since to get the I/O needed to saturate the Thunderbolt bus, you need either SSD’s or RAID. I’m still waiting for a Thunderbolt flash drive, which would just be awesome for being able to carry around some mini-drives and source VMWare images through those instead of through the SSD on the Macbook Air. Just splitting up the disk I/O is all.