MacBook Air Review For Underwater Photographers
April 27, 2008 @ 02:00 AM (EST)
I recently bought the highly controversial, much criticized but equally drooled over MacBook Air as a complement to my MacBook Pro. As a student, I carry around my computer everywhere, as I need to take legible notes. My Macbook Pro is also my desktop computer so I have it plugged into my 23 inch Apple Cinema HD Display and have usb cords to connect to my external hard drives, mouse and iPhone (if you are getting the sense that I am bit of a Mac addict, you are right on). However, the inconvenience of lugging around my MacBook Pro, coupled with notebooks and heavy text books was starting to become straining to the point that I had given up carrying my laptop around and my grades were a clear indication that this was not a good idea. The strain of lugging around copious amounts of gear is not foreign to underwater photographers either. After the glut of neoprene, rubber, sillicon, plastic and metal that make up our dive gear-we also have the very precious body of our DSLR, our expensive housing, huge dome ports, a superfluous amount of lenses, at least two strobes and, of course, our trusty computer. That is, if your only traveling with one rig. I don't know about you, but if a opportunity to shed a few pounds off my gear bag comes up, I am going to take it! However, at a hefty $1799 is it really worth it? To normal people who don't do a lot of traveling or don't carry their computer around everywhere, probably not... but for underwater photographers it may just be. That said, the size of the Air required Apple to cut down on many features (without cutting the cost on prices), while still including many impressive ones. The goal of this review is to hone in on the omissions and inclusions that are pertinent for underwater photographers.
The oh so thin MacBook Air (Photo courtesy of Apple)
The MacBook Air is still very much a "real" laptop with an impressive custom made Intel Core 2 Dou processor, a 13.3 inch backlit LED screen, a massive 5 inch trackpad and a full sized backlit keyboard. All these features make using an Air a very similar experience as using any other Mac. Apple reduced weight without reducing size. This is no doubt important to underwater photographers who value screen size and resolution and efficient workflow which the shrunken features of many other lightweight laptops (like the Vaio) often hinder. Though they were not able to include everything, in my opinion that picked the best features to refuse to settle on. The Air has an unupgradable 2GB of 667 MHz SDRAM. This is very sufficient for most computer tasks and the 2 gigs of ram can even handle most imaging editing efficiently. There was little difference in editing my raw files in Lightroom on an Air than with my MacBook Pro, upgraded to its 4GB maximum. If your doing a ton of post-production, especially in RAW, the limited amount of RAM, and the fact that it only has a 4,200-rpm parallel ATA 80GB hard drive (as opposed to the faster 5,400-rpm serial ATA drives in other Apple notebooks) would be a serious problem. However, I find that doing a lot of hardcore editing on hi-res images is a little tedious on any laptop and professionals tend use the ultra powerful Mac Pro . When I travel, I try and do a minimal amount of post production to spend the most amount of time taking pictures and enjoying the area. Doing a few quick level or curves tweaks, maybe simple color correction to photographs is very manageable on the Air, and certainly shouldn't be a deal breaker. If however, you need to do professional post production (or underwater video for that matter), the less powerful Air may not be a great choice for you.
Full size screen is a plus for underwater photographers (Photo courtesy of Apple)
A common complaint about the Air is the lack of an optical drive, however, for underwater photographers, I rarely use the optical drive while on the road. Obviously, we need to install applications like image editors and printer drivers, but this can be done at home using another computer (Mac or PC) via Apple's Remote Disk feature which lets you wirelessly download applications from another computer's optical drive on to your Air. If, however, you like to backup all your images on to CD's while traveling, you will need to find another solution. The easiest way is to purchase the optional external SuperDrive which is highly portable (and yes, Apple was able to make an external SuperDrive look sexy!) but also an extra $99 dollars. The optical drive is about the same size as a small portable external hard drive and you wont have to carry around blank CDs anymore, so perhaps portable hard-drives are the better option. This is especially true since the Air only comes with 80 GB of hard drive space. After Leopard is done preying on some of that space, it comes to about 64 GBs. However, unless your going on an extended trip, that may be sufficient room to store your photos on until you get home and can put them on another hard drive if you don't want to carry around an external. Don't expect to carry your whole collection of photos, or be able to burn photos to CDs from your Air though.
If you do go with the external hard drive option, make sure its USB and not firewire. Another one of Air's omissions is a firewire port so any sort of data transfer must be done with the slower USB cables. Furthermore, the Air only has one USB cable so dont expect to have your hard drive plugged in while editing photos with a mouse unless your using a wireless mouse or a USB hub. When I travel, my gear bag is usually full of other stuff that I settle for not bringing along the mouse, and the nice sized trackpad lessons the blow tremendously. I simply refuse to use tiny trackpads of those insanely tiny "trackballs" found on some ultraportable laptops. Because my iphone also uses the USB slot to charge, the only time i need to unplug my external HD is when my phone is low batt.
I usually reserve the adjective sexy for people, but just look at it! (Photo courtesy of Apple)
Lastly, the complaint that it lacks a wired Internet connectivity is also not a big deal because most places that have internet at all now-a-days, have Wi-Fi available. If you absolutly need internet on your laptop and the place you are staying at offers wired internet but not Wi-Fi, there is a optional USB-to-Ethernet adapter available for 29 dollars. That said, its clear that the Air has a lot of shortcomings. It's high price tag does not help to make you forget about these problems. Then Apple asks you to buy an external optical drive and USB-to-Ethernet adapter for another 130 bucks? Hard to swallow. Thus, the Air becomes a high priced luxury, and auxiliary computer to your main computer. Is it a must buy for underwater photographers who could spend the money on a new dome port? Probably not. Is it a great thing to have if your going to be on the road for an extended period of time with all your gear? Absolutely. I am not at all disappointed with Air, despite feeling slightly nickeled and dimed. If you are an underwater photographer looking to decrease your overall gear weight, check it out.
This could possibly be the most controvesial computer of all time. I understand my workflow and needs are different from other underwater photographers, and I am eager to hear what you have to say about the Air. Please post comments that might be helpful to others considering the Air!
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Jett Britnell, is a self-taught Canadian underwater photographer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He became a certified scuba diver in 1980 and embraced underwater photography in 1983 where he learned how to adjust camera...