New MacBook New Life

Well, I finally did it. After ruminating for possibly years on getting an iMac and then realising that I needed a primary machine in two locations, I’ve now sprung for a MacBook. Not, in the end, a MacBook Air; more on that later.

The buying periods for seasoned Mac fans deserves some words. While most people will just up and buy a new computer whenever they need one, following a computer company as obsessively as some of us follow Apple (well, we need some way to fill the void) attunes one to the ebbs and flows of product releases.

For many months, I was going to buy “the first iMac released after Leopard”; not only do I get the new operating system gratis, as it were, I’d also be buying the latest and greatest — obviously to maximise the performance/cost ratio as well as the advantages gained from subsequent generations of hardware. (While some will advise never to buy first-generation products, I’m not so leery about exercising warranty options; if you’re the unlucky type, then the hardware will break on you no matter what. And vice versa.)

But as time went by I realised that I was slowly starting to detest my working environment at uni. Windows PC and all that. The new McAfee anti-virus that literally slowed everything down by minutes to load was the last straw. And I thought how nice it would be to work on my PhD on a computer I actually enjoyed using. Loving your tools, and all that. With the Core 2 Duo, any Mac I bought would improve the speed of multitasking and at at worst remain about the same for simulation time in numerical software like Mathematica and Matlab. Buying a notebook would allow me to work on my PhD — which should be my primary purpose right about now — in comfort and even on weekends.

With a desktop at home, the chance of me doing real work on it would be essentially zero. With a notebook for my uni work, I could bring it home out of hours. Now, I’m not necessarily saying that I’m going to be enjoying doing some number crunching on Saturday mornings; the sort of time I shall save will be the workflow improvements that I’d otherwise be doing during the weekday. It’s not good time management to spend a few days making sure that the figures and diagrams I’m producing match the fonts of my thesis. But I can’t ignore those sorts of details, so I’d have the spend the time somewhere.

In the end, a MacBook just made sense. So, then the waiting game became “wait for Leopard and then see how we go”. By the time Leopard was released I was waiting for my tax return and the MacBook was due for an update; but by the time the latest of the MacBooks was released, there were rumours of Apple’s then-secret MacBook Air. After waiting so long on the MacBook, another couple of months wasn’t going to make much difference. And I had deadlines that I didn’t want to push back for accommodating a radically new computer in my life.

Finally (and I do mean finally — the wait had been interminable by this stage) Apple released their MacBook Air and I almost bought one within hours of watching the announcement. What’s not to like? With 60% of the weight of a standard MacBook, it falls into the category of light enough not to worry about. And I love the idea of soldered RAM. Seriously. I just added 4GB of RAM to my MacBook, the maximum possible, for AU$160; that’s less that 10% of the price of the machine. And that’s a huge amount of RAM. The days of swappable RAM in consumer machines are numbered. The upside is cleaner design and cheaper computers.

But the MacBook Air didn’t quite cut it for me as a main machine right now. On top of the $400 excess for the design, I’d likely need an external DVD drive which made the thing even more expensive, and the compromises for that price point just didn’t add up for me right now (probably with the CPU being the biggest factor). But I’m gunning for the MacBook Air to become the MacBook as soon as possible and it’s definitely my “favourite” machine in Apple’s lineup. I hope in the future they release an even smaller machine that uses a widescreen display the width of the old 12 inch PowerBook. While I don’t mind the size of the 13 inch MacBooks, I am more taken by the more diminutive PowerBooks of yore. The slightly smaller screen totally justifies the rather dramatic reduction in size of the notebook, in my opinion. I’d like to think that the reason the MacBook Air isn’t that size is that Apple’s engineers simply couldn’t shrink things that much. That’s a rather self-serving opinion, however.

(By the way, guess what? Even my Dad knew about the MacBook Air shortly after its announcement. Now that’s something for Apple marketing, I’d say.)

So here I am with a fancy new computer with all my music, my typesetting, my code, my data. I’ve got a new-found respect for software like OmniWeb that just didn’t cut it any more on older hardware. iCal is now useable and I can organise my life in it. Mail.app has a convenient ToDo list that might get me to finish all of my unfinished projects. I’ve got large displays at home and at work so Mac OS X has room to breathe; something it totally deserves.

There’s a feeling of association that you have with a computer that fits your needs and responds to your commands that really shouldn’t be lacking from any computing experience. When web apps start being faster than desktop apps, you know there’s a problem. When you sigh when sitting down in front of Windows every day to have to deal with all of its idiosyncrasies, that’s not a positive environment for work.

It sounds silly, but when I sit down in front of my new MacBook, I start to feel at one with this extension of my brain that is before me. There’s a long way to go in getting computing just right, but I feel that we’re starting to home in on what that is.