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MacBook Air + Windows 7, Part One: The Best of Both Worlds?

There's a cute little trend in tech circles where a Windows blogger will try to justify his recent and otherwise embarrassing Mac purchase by writing about his walk on the dark side and offering up years-late observations about how Windows and Mac OS X differ. No offense, but ... boring. That's been done before, and probably better, by others.

And for the record, I purchased my first Mac, a 2001 iBook, before Apple released Mac OS X, and I've used every single version of Apple's flagship OS on one or more Macs ever since. In fact, I've probably bought more Apple computers and devices, and thrown more money at Apple, than most Apple enthusiasts. So please understand that what I'm about to write isn't a silly little blogger trick but instead comes after over a decade of daily experience with Apple's products:

I just bought a MacBook Air. And I'm going to run Windows 7 on it.

Now, why would I do such a thing? After all, depending on your perspective, I'm sullying a perfect Apple product by putting Windows on there. Or, I've just spent way too much money on a thin and light laptop with a processor that is not one but two generations old.

Those are both valid opinions, I guess. I prefer to think of it like this: The MacBook Air represents the state of the art in design, of course--it is an Apple product after all--but more important, it represents the state of the art in mobility and portability. And ultimately, when it comes to traveling with technology, we all need to decide what's most important. Because any portable computing device you buy is going to come with some tradeoffs and compromises.

For example, I'm a long-time ThinkPad fan and always will be. And that's because there are ThinkPad keyboards and then there is everything else. Actually, I'd further separate this market. There are real ThinkPad keyboards, like the ones you see on Lenovo's bigger and higher-end machines. Then there are the more recent island-style ThinkPad keyboards, which unlike most laptop keyboards of that ilk actually fit nicely under a finger and provide decent feedback. And then there are all other keyboards, including the island-style keyboards Apple uses but (contrary to some opinions) did not invent.

I love ThinkPads because I write for a living, and there simply isn't another laptop type out there that provides this tier-1 keyboard experience. But it's not just that. ThinkPads (well, most ThinkPads) also come with the superior "nubbin" (or "eraser head") pointing device (typically in tandem with a trackpad) that provides such accuracy that I don't bother brining an external mouse when I travel. This nubbin is important to me because of the graphics I create regularly for SuperSite articles. Finally, I'd point to Lenovo's tendency to make non-glassy (or "matte") screens available as an option. Most laptops today ship with glossy screens that are better for movies and photo viewing, but these screens are less desirable for getting real work done.

So I've purchased a MacBook Air. And it comes with a middle-of-the-road (but full-sized, at least) island-style keyboard. It has a huge glass trackpad instead of a decent pointing device. And it has a glossy screen. Sounds like a non-starter, right?

The thing is, I don't use my laptop as my primary machine. I use it only when I'm traveling, or around the house when I want to catch up on email or the news while watching TV or otherwise relaxing. And with the possible exception of our yearly home swap, which is usually about three weeks long, most of my trips are a week or less, often much less. (And this year's home swap is going to be much shorter, so it may be mid-2012 before I'm gone from home again for more than a week.)

For these more representative trips of a few days or so, keyboard quality takes a back seat to portability. That is, when you have to lug around a machine all day, keyboard quality isn't the deciding factor. And even for a big guy like me, carrying what seems like a light laptop--4 or 5 pounds--gets pretty darned tiring.

I've spent many years looking longingly at small, light machines. Netbooks and even most ultraportables--like a 11.6-inch Lenovo ThinkPad X120E I purchased just a few months ago and quickly returned--don't cut it because the small keyboards and wrist rests strain my hand and bring on a carpal tunnel feeling I've been able to otherwise stave off through my daily use of ergonomic keyboards and large mice at home. I'm especially envious of the tiny, tiny machines I often see used by the Japanese press at trade shows. I could fit some of those things in a pocket. But I can't use them, not with my gorilla hands.

Resigned to using a "real" laptop, the decent choices are few. But the release of Apple's second-generation MacBook Air last winter got me thinking. Here's a machine, in its 13-inch variant, that offers a full-sized keyboard but weighs just 2.9 pounds, or about twice the weight of an iPad, or about half the weight of my ThinkPad SL410. For the way I really use a laptop, this could be an ideal solution.

There are, again, trade-offs, and no machine is perfect. Aside from the aforementioned glossy screen (which, to be fair, is very high-res for its size at 1440 x 900), the unwelcome trackpad, and the lackluster (but full-sized) keyboard, the MacBook Air also features a non-standard keyboard layout (thanks to its Mac-ness) though the end result is that the Windows key and ALT key are swapped; again, having used Macs for years, I'm used to this and have already adapted. It's got limited expandability (only two USB ports) and no Ethernet port, so I'll need to purchase an external doo-dad just in case. (At some hotels and conferences, wired networking is the only viable option.)

There are some limitations I don't care much about. I never need or use an optical drive, except on my DVD-burning home PC, so the lack of a SuperDrive is no problem. The MacBook Air lacks keyboard backlighting, but I rarely need such a thing.

And then there's the price. Because Apple configures these things with just 2 GB of RAM and doesn't provide a way for its retail locations to upgrade that, I had to order mine online and upgrade to 4 GB of RAM for additional $100. The total cost of this machine, with taxes, was almost exactly $1500. That's a lot of money, for me, at least, and for anyone shopping for a Windows PC, it's about three times the average selling price of a laptop today. More realistically, it's at least $500 more than what I'd spend on anything other than a very high-end ThinkPad. Too, anyone attempting to copy what I've done here would need to buy a full, retail version of Windows 7 to run on this machine as well. So Windows 7 Home Premium Full adds an additional $200 to the cost. (It's interesting to me how often this gets left out of the equation. You can't just run Windows on a Mac. You need to acquire Windows legally too. It's expensive. And then there's Office, another added cost.)

I will say this: I was shopping for a very high-end ThinkPad. And while I won't claim to have "saved" money by buying the Air, I was considering pulling the trigger on an $1800+ ThinkPad T420S. There are all kinds of ways to spend a lot of money, I guess.

But my price justification comes down to this. I travel a lot and portability is important to me. And I can afford it: I didn't charge this to a credit card or whatever, I paid for it upfront. (This is how we purchase everything, aside from cars and houses, and even in those cases we strive to pay them off early. If you can't afford something like this, please, don't do it.)

So again, portability trumps my other concerns. And, yes, again, what I arrived with at the end of this transaction was a compromise. But then it would have been a compromise no matter what I purchased: That T420S weighs 3.9 pounds or more, for example. And the weight really does add up when you have to carry it around. Anyone who travels can tell you this.

One final note about the MacBook Air before moving on. There's a lot of silliness out there about how Macs are "better" than PCs and how Mac OS X, in particular, is "simpler" or whatever than Windows. I disagree with that latter assertion very strongly, and even if I didn't do what I do for a living, I'd prefer Windows 7 over Mac OS X by a wide margin. I get the Mac hardware experience, though. Apple does make lust-worthy machines.

With regards to the whole Mac experience, Apple does a decidedly nice job on the presentation, as you can see in the following out of box photo gallery. But what gets left unsaid so often is how the actual process of turning on the machine and installing updates is just as awful on the Mac as it is on Windows. It may be worse: On my brand new Air, it took over an hour to get from out of box to a fully-updated install. And the total size of the software update packages I had to install was a whopping 1.6 GB (!!!), a process that required two reboots. That's crazy.

Next up, I'll discuss how I configured the MacBook Air for Windows.

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