The Mac Air as a Tool For Writing

The “Office Desk: 2012” post precipitated a rash of e-mails from writers wondering how I like the Mac Air as a writing tool. Well, I’ve had the thing now for about five months, which is a sufficiently long time to live with a computer, and I’ve also written quite a lot on it by this point. So here are my thoughts on it as a machine for creativity.

First, I think in a general sense the Mac Air is probably the best single computer that I’ve ever owned. This not the same as the “most powerful” or “best featured” — in either case it’s not, although for writing and for most of the things I do with a computer, it does perfectly well. It’s the best computer I’ve owned because everything works both extremely well, and largely intuitively. What this means is that the computer itself gets out of my way so I can do the things I want to do with the computer.

I realize that for some (not all) Apple fans this is almost anathema — part of the reason to have a Mac Air is to be seen having the Mac Air — but honestly, I could not give the first shit about that. I want the thing to work for me, because I have work I need to do. The Mac Air, simply put, lets me do that.

A very good example of this is the computer’s trackpad. One of the two major reasons that I have been resistant to having a laptop be a primary computer is that I generally don’t consider trackpads to be an adequate replacement for a mouse; they’re clunky and obnoxious and even the later generations of multitouch trackpads were just a pain in the ass. Every time I use a trackpad I am aware I’m using a trackpad — which means that I’m thrown out of the creative flow I’m in to deal with the machine I’m using.

I don’t have that problem with the Mac trackpad, and indeed I’ve found it so functional that for the large majority of tasks, I find it easier to use than a mouse. I was fully expecting to use one my USB mice with the Mac Air when I got it; after a day of using the trackpad I never thought of attaching a mouse again. When I use a laptop other than the Mac Air now I am reminded how aggravating trackpads generally are. It shouldn’t be that difficult for every other computer maker in the world to make a good trackpad. I’m not sure why there’s still a problem.

Beyond that other aspects of the form factor work for me. The screen (I have the 13-inch version) is sufficiently large/high enough resolution that I don’t feel visually cramped, but at the same time the whole package is sufficiently small and light that I don’t have to think about whether or not I should take it into another room (or house, or country) with me. Both of these things also encourage work. The keyboard is fine; not my absolute favorite of all time, but fine, and more to the point not distracting. I do love that it is backlit. Also, I do recommend remembering to take frequent breaks to let your wrists rest. Its battery lasts sufficiently long that when I’m at the airport I don’t feel I have to embark on a Quest for Outlets.

Software-wise the Mac has a plethora of writing options which range from extremely simple (including TextEdit) to insanely complicated (Microsoft Word and, in a different way, current writer darling Scrivener). For me, the vast majority of my writing gets done on three word processors: Word (I use almost none of the bells and whistles), Google Docs and WordPress. To be honest my favorite is WordPress, when I have it on the tool on full screen, on a browser that is also on full screen; I get a white screen with a perfectly proportioned column of text down the middle, and it’s easy to write and not get distracted. Google Docs offers a similar option. Both of these do have a problem in that if you’re offline, you’re kind of screwed when it comes to saving work. Word for Mac offers a full screen option but I find it esthetically unpleasing, which is unfortunate because I otherwise like it just fine. Other writers swear by their own particular favorites (as noted, Scrivener has a particularly fervent fan base; I find the software thoroughly perplexing myself) but the point is you have options.

My Mac Air has the current iteration of the Mac OS (OSX Lion) and one thing I very much like about it is the ability to expand programs into full screen in their own space, so you can focus on that one program, and then “swipe” to get other programs or back to the main desktop. This option helps me from being distracted, which is key because I am easily distracted. There are other things I like less about Lion, but this may be more about me being used to Windows than anything else.

One major issue for writers is that the Mac Air is not cheap, especially relative to other laptops you can get, many of which have more power and features, if in a slightly chunkier package. You’ll have to ask yourself whether the form factor, et cetera is worth the price premium. And it may not be — it wasn’t an issue for me until recently. My previous laptops were from Toshiba and Asus, and I found them to be perfectly fine in a general sense. I don’t advise putting yourself into a financial vise to pay for a laptop. That’s silly.

That said, in the “ultrabook” category (i.e., thin, light computers with solid state hard drives), the Mac Airs are not outrageously priced relative to other computers in the category. If you’re going to look at ultrabooks, I’m going to go ahead and say that the Mac Air is probably where you should establish your baseline before you look at other models.

So, in sum: the Mac Air is a fine and useful computer, which is easy and mostly pleasurable to write on. I highly recommend it for writers.

73 thoughts on “The Mac Air as a Tool For Writing

  1. It’s the best computer I’ve ever owned, as well. Funny you mention the trackpad—I’ve been using the desktop version almost exclusively for about a year, and really dig it. It’s replaced my mouse entirely (the other IO device I use is a Wacom tablet, but that’s a completely separate use case. certainly not for general computing).

  2. “What this means is that the computer itself gets out of my way so I can do the things I want to do with the computer.” Which is why I’ve bought Apple products since 1982 with my first IIe.

  3. I’ve been lusting after one for a while now. However I’m trying to use an iPad for production work, and I’m having the opposite effect (that is, I notice I’m working on an iPad). I was going to get a MacAir because of the iPad’s limitations, but have decided to use that money in another venue (which will save me money in the long run). So I’ll be giving the iPad another shot at it (I still have my decade+ old 17″ Powerbook, the battery is shot, and I don’t trust it to travel like I used to, but it’s still a serviceable machine to write with).

    Also, I’m one of those Apple people who doesn’t give a damn what I “look like” using their products, but love them because of what you described. They get out of my way and let me work.

  4. I fully agree with everything you said. I’m teacher not a not a writer, but it is the most trouble free machine I’ve ever used. It just plan works and does the things I need it to do.

  5. I am so glad you explained about the track pad. It is one of my biggest complaints with laptops. I am always having to attach a mouse. Now, I am going to look again at the Mac Air. Thanks.

  6. I love my 17″ MBP, but if I coudl rationalize it, I’d have a 13″ Air as well. And the trackpads are fantastic on late model Macbooks.

  7. Not a writer in the traditional sense, but i wont let that slow me down My next machine will likely be an Air, but I’ve only just finished year one of my self-imposed three year cycle with the MBP 15″. Last time I had to think seriously about the choice, but I’m a programmer, and having 8G RAM won out over the SSD and weight. I have used the DVD drive precisely twice, and it does annoy me that I’ve probably taken it for a combined 400 or so mile walk – city boy, no car, and it ends up going nearly everywhere with me.

    My main issue with Lion is that the full screen mode makes dual monitors useless. I’m probably odd here, in that I know the appeal is supposed to be being distraction free, but I would love to have XCode full-screen on my big monitor and unix shells and utilities on the built in. It is a minor thing, really. I also dislike the new scroll bars – in some apps, it makes selecting things close to the right edge of a window annoying and doesn’t provide feedback on where you are without scrolling. (I expected the scroll-reversal thing to kill me, but surprisingly, it really didn’t after a few days. It is really only a problem when I have to use 10.6, which isn’t often.)

    When not coding, I now use an iPad more than anything else. Like now for instance.

  8. What’s so different about the Mac Air trackpad? I’ve used a laptop as my primary computer since 2001, always with a trackpad, and they’ve never bothered me, so I’m curious what you find bothersome about most of them and what the Mac Air’s does differently.

  9. Oh, sweet, a touchpad that works. So awesome.

    “later generations of multitouch trackpads were just a pain…I don’t
    have that problem with the Mac trackpad…It shouldn’t be that
    difficult for every other computer maker….”
    ;p I would guess that Apple has patented making a device that
    leads to comments of “[isn't a pain in th....]”
    This snarky remark needs an explain: So far as I can tell Apple has
    patented making a rectangular item with rounded corners.
    To be equally snarky about Microsoft they have patented using
    a device to select items on a screen–As I understood that read, MS
    has a patent for poking something with a stick.

    I really hope that there is more to those patents.

  10. I’ve looked at Mac Airs each of the last two times I’ve bought laptops, and both times ended up going with Sony instead. I’m neither an Apple lover nor a hater (I’m on my second iPhone), but I don’t like the tradeoffs Apple makes with the Mac Airs. Everybody makes tradeoffs with ultralights, but I’ve ended up with Sony because they pack the most into an ultralight of anybody. They’re not cheap, either, and heaven help you should you ever need tech support from Sony, but their ultralights are impressive.

  11. Laura:

    One, it’s multi-finger gesture management and use is fantastic, and on other computers I’ve used, it sucks (if it has it at all).

    Two, everything else-wise, it’s not that it does anything differently, it’s that it does it much better.

  12. rickg, thanks. I have a bluetooth keyboard and a stand for it to do production work. When I went on a business trip earlier last month, I only took the iPad and the keyboard and did well enough (but I wasn’t doing much more than email and blogging).

    What I miss is the functionality of the hard drive (I’m hoping iCloud will help with that). I like to save files that are related together and not in the “default” software folder. And there’s other little things that I’m sure I could work around, but they’re just easier and faster to do on a full computer. For me it’s about 80% there, but that last 20% is really critical to me. For the next WIP, I’m going to be pushing to do it on the iPad. I think it’ll be more successful starting from scratch.

  13. I will say that I find the MacBook Pro to be better, but then it should be since 1) it costs twice as much and 2) weighs 3 times as much and 3) I’m a software developer, so a big, bad, Unix box in my lap is exactly what I want. For anyone other than a software developer (or other high-data-usage profession, like physicist, evolutionary biologist, or animator), I can quite imagine that the general Mac-ness + solid-state-drive (drool) is enough to make the Mac Air completely bad-ass.

  14. Laura? what I hate about my laptop’s touch pad is that if I haven’t used it for a few
    minutes it increases its sensitivity and starts responding to a sneeze or a breeze.
    Theodor Geisel give ups for poetry tries aside, the damn thing closes programs
    and Firefox tabs whenever my thumb muscles gets near it.
    Caveat emptor thing: Hey, I knew this was not a good laptop from the price.

  15. JS:

    You mention that you’re using Google Docs for some of your writing. Have they solved the problems with that that made you give up on writing a novel on your Cr-48? Have you found yourself coming back to the Cr-48 at all?

  16. If you want a full-screen experience without being on-line, there are some nice “distraction free” writing apps for the Mac; I’ve used Byword and WriteRoom in the past, and like each in different ways.

    This is minor but the notebook’s name is MacBook Air, not Mac Air. Yes I know the difference. You wrote The Lost Colony right?

  17. Kevin Williams:

    I have the CR-48 in my front room so that when I’m in there I can browse the web, so I still use it on a frequent basis.

    I haven’t tried writing anything long-form on Google Docs since Redshirts, but I write my weekly FilmCritic.com column with it. I haven’t had any real problems with it.

  18. I love my MacBook Pro, but I kinda wish I’d waited for the updated Airs. Still, the laptop I had before was REALLY heavy, so this is still a big step up. (And I’ll chime in with praise for the trackpad, too. I thought they were all awful until I used Apple’s.)

    I am loving Scrivener, but I still have a lot to learn! I like simpler programs for short stories, though, so I’m going to check out some of these other programs mentioned here. Thanks!

  19. JS – you don’t use OpenOffice anymore, I take it? I’ve found the user-created templates to be great for various formats (namely scripts), but I’m sure it’s not the prettiest of options available when one has the bucks to spend. Being broke, though, I quite like it myself. :P

  20. How much music do you carry on it at one time? I like to write with my music at hand, and the thought of depending on a phone battery for long chains of uninterrupted music (during cross-country flights, for example) gives me hives. I’m also worried about clouding/streaming too much music, as I live in the land of the bandwidth cap. Are these concerns legitimate? Do you need to travel with an external hard drive, or is there still room left to rock on that SSD?

  21. I got a 13″ Air over the summer to replace our ancient (read: six year old) Macbook Pro laptop, and since a week later my desktop PC hard drive died a filthy death, the Air became my main machine. I love it, and I, too, was never really of the Cult of Mac. I’ve written a book and a half on it at this point (on Word, which is, yes, hideously overcomplicated in its newest incarnation) and I’ve fully adjusted to not really having a particular workspace in my house anymore — I write on the couch, in the armchair, in the backyard… I’m a little bit worried that I’ll destroy the keyboard with too much typing, but it’s holding up okay so far. I love the trackpad. Two-finger scrolling is a wonderful thing.

    The Air is no good for desktop publishing, though — I really need a mouse for that kind of work, and like a nice big widescreen monitor. Luckily, I can plug in a mouse, and plug the Air into my big widescreen monitor, and all is well.

  22. I have the 11″ Macbook Air, and it is without doubt the best computer I’ve ever owned – for me, the slightly smaller size than the 13″, yet still with a full-sized keyboard, makes it the ultimate writing machine. I do a lot of travelling, so the smaller model makes more sense for me.

  23. Hi John!
    You might want to do your back and your future self a favor and put something under the laptop so that the screen is higher up and you don’t have a caveman posture when sitting in front of it. Or attach an external monitor.
    Of course then you might also have to use an external keyboard…

  24. I’m just 2 weeks into my new 11″ Air, and I’ve noticed a few things:

    1. It amazes me how quickly I’ve taken to that trackpad. Swiping stuff here and there, it’s _nice_.
    2. Loads of people immediately assume I’m now “A Mac fanatic too”.

    No I’m not. It’s just a computer. A nice one, granted, but not something to get religious about as it’s far from flawless. It would need a Thinkpad keyboard before I’d consider it flawless, for one. ;-)

  25. Regarding touchpads, from my limited experience (2010 MBP and Lenovo X200/X201) the Apple touchpad is smoother and it physically moves when you click on it, giving nice haptic feedback.

  26. I’m amongst the Mac and Scrivener crowds because they both just work for me. I like Scrivener because of the way it let’s me organize things and include research and sources right in the project, and now that I’ve found the compose option that, like what John mentioned above, blocks out most of the screen and brings up the text in white I like it even more.

    Currently I’m running on an iMac. If I end up getting into Clarion or Clarion West this year I’ll need to get a laptop. I was already thinking about a Mac Air, and this just adds to the good things I’ve heard about it.

  27. @JK Yoon: The pricing argument may have been valid at one time, but it’s just not true any longer. Other manufacturers can’t produce better-spec laptops at the same price point as Apple.

    A Mac laptop may be thinner than you need, or have better battery life, or a nicer display, or a big, fabulous trackpad, but if you like those things, you really do get a fantastic deal when you buy a MacBook Air.

  28. Also an Apple Trackpad fan here. Enough that I bought the wireless one to use with my computer hooked to the TV, easier to manage from the couch than a mouse. I like that I can scroll from anywhere and gestures were just easy to pick up. My husband’s thinkpad (or something like that) is a nice computer, works great, but the trackpad leaves a lot to be desired. Especially frustrating to use it right after using the Mac.

  29. I’m somewhat envious but that will stop when the new MacBook Pro arrives tomorrow. I like the idea of the air but found the processor’s a bit slow. Also there’s something about it that makes me think I’d break it too easily.

    They are beautiful, well designed machines though. To echo Attercop’s words, this is why I’ve been using Macs since 1987. They are the shizz.

  30. I got a MacBook air six weeks ago because I wanted a lightweight machine with better battery life than the ToshibaSatellite I have. I LOVE IT. The battery lasts for hours unless you try to run games which I rarely do – I have a Xbox and a desktop machine for that – which means I don’t have to get up and plug in in the middle of a writing session.

    The lightweight means I can easily take it in the car or wherever and write and be comfortable. The learning curve to OSX Lion was not bad and the trackpad is the best I have ever used. Having used an iPad for almost a year, the swiping and gestures are so easy.

    I use Scrivener for writing and while it is a little feature bloated, I don’t bother with all the bells and whistles and the full screen mode is excellent for writing.

    The only negative on the MBA is the price but if you can get past that, it is a great machine.

  31. Laura, it’s one of those things that once you use it and then go back to an old trackpack you will completely understand. Does anyone know if Apple has some sort of patent on their trackpad design? That might explain why no other laptop’s trackpad comes close to it.

  32. For anyone that doesn’t have the budget for the Air, or just prefers a PC, I really, really like my Toshiba Portege. I bought it after a disastrous experiment with a very lightweight HP. It was a horrible computer in every way, and didn’t work properly when I brought it home. I exchanged it for another HP that was broken in the same way. At that point, a friend told me how much she liked her Portege, so I took the HP back for a refund and bought it, and I’m really happy. I don’t use any multitouch features on the track pad. I turned off a whole bunch of trackpad features and tweaked the defaults so it only does what I want it to do. (For some reason, the trackpad buttons click really hard, so you pretty much have to leave the tap to click option on, but I’ve gotten used to it.) It’s super lightweight, so it doesn’t kill my back when I travel with it or take it to a coffee shop or something.

    Like Tim Pratt, I’ve been pretty nomadic in my work habits over the past few years, but I recently decided that working from the couch, recliner, or kitchen table were all causing back and neck strain, so I finally set up an ergonomic workstation for myself. I am short, but not tiny, and yet it’s a nightmare to find furniture that adjusts for my height. I had to sit in a lot of chairs to find one that adjusted low enough for me, and I still might have to take the casters off. *sigh*

  33. It’s not just the size of the trackpad. It’s the underlying firmware AND the integration into the OS/GUI that makes it intuitive and fluid. I have little doubt apple has patents relating to all of the work they’ve done around the trackpad. Apple works the details and it shows in the all their hardware of the last few years.

    I stopped using an external monitor when I got a 17in MBP (SSD), and gave up my desk at the office and at the house. If apple pops out a hi-dpi 15in air I am going to be very tempted. The SSD makes all the difference for software dev. work, much more than processor speed these days. But the 17in is just a tad to big to carry around a lot.

  34. John,

    I am one of those to whom Apple products are anathema, but i know that is very much a matter of taste. I do not think the way that Apple products do, and am very happy running Xubuntu for my computing needs. For writing I use pyroom which is a simple full screen program that generates text files. I use Celtx to organize them, and I do my final edits in Open Office. My best investment for writing has been an old school mechanical keyboard from freegeek, a local computer recycling place here in Portland.

    Thanks for sharing!

    All the best,
    Paul

  35. I used to write on a PowerBook G4, and yeah, you definitely need to take breaks or you get all hunched and crunched. I think that’s true of any laptop, honestly. Even the Dell Latitude 5520 I use for work (which even has a 10-key on it) makes my back ache after a while. When it got to where my PowerBook couldn’t get any further OS upgrades, just ’cause it continued to live beyond the normal “useful life” of a laptop, I upgraded to an iMac. And yeah, it annoys me when people assume it’s a status thing. I’m so far from wealthy, it’s not even funny. I just saved up for it because it’s the one I wanted. NOT buying a thing because of worrying what people will think of me is just as obnoxious as buying that thing because of worrying what people will think of me.

    Most people get over that sort of thing in high school.

  36. I just took leave from work to write a book and got a MacBook Air to have a non-corporate machine to write on. It really is a remarkable machine in that, as you say, John, it doesn’t feel like a machine. It is my first Mac, and I found that transition a bit disconcerting at first, but now I see it simply as my writing environment. The only thing that messes me up is that my fingers are used to using Ctrl-X or V for cutting, copying and pasting, instead of Cmd-X. And the position of that Ctrl key under my left pinky on a PC keyboard is pretty deeply programmed. The other keyboard issue is I use the Delete key on the PC keyboard more often than I would have thought to delete the character in front of the cursor. The Air doesn’t have that key, which I’ve had to adjust to.

    I do have to admit I spend a significant amount of time in Starbucks writing, which is slightly embarrassing to admit in this forum, but I’ve found the trickiest thing about not going to an office is adjusting to not going to an office. I don’t feel like I’m actually working unless I leave the house.

  37. A couple of notes, though this should be old news to most people:

    Macs are, per computer sold, more expensive. However, apples-to-apples (comparing similar specs and equipment levels) they’re now equivalently priced or even cheaper, due to Apple’s supply-chain wizardry. TheVerge.com has a good review of the current HP Folio 13, which is a $900 ultrabook, and how it stacks up, or doesn’t, to the MacBook Air 13.

    Macs also, historically, last a long time. My 2008 vintage 13″ white MacBook runs OS X Lion just fine, and will likely be perfectly useable with it for another year or two, until 10.8 or whatever follows it comes along. I’m planning on selling it come spring when the 2012 MBA line comes out, and expect to make enough on it to seriously defray the cost of a new MBA. Similarly I’ll either sell or donate my 2.5 year old iMac 24″, and get a new one if I decide I want another desktop computer.

    If you buy a MacBook Air today, you can expect to get 4-6 years of use out of it, with the caveat that you’ll likely have to replace the hard drive/SSD at least once due to failure. (Time Machine Backups are good, yes.) The only limiting factor is really the 4 GB of RAM. I expect they’ll move to 8GB or more on the spring models, and none of the other ultrabooks, to my knowledge, have expandable RAM.

  38. Just in case this post is spurring people to look at Airs, a couple of notes:

    1) You CANNOT upgrade RAM in an Air. It’s soldered to the board due to form factor considerations. If you want 4Gb, buy it with that. If you need more than 4Gig, wait to see if they offer it in the 2012 models since there’s no way to upgrade.

    2) You can upgrade the SSD. Don’t overbuy by too much because you’re worried about that.

    3) As to the cost issue, a) the Airs are less expensive than competitive ultrabooks and b)mMake sure you check things like battery and drive specs on competing models. Two of the biggest advantages of the Airs are the fast drives and the long battery lives. Some ultrabooks seem to be

    3a) Don’t forget, Macs tend to hold resale value much better than PCs because, well, if you want a Mac you only have one choice… new or used. I sold a 5 year old black Macbook for $450. Try that with a 5 year old PC laptop…

    4) To Chang’s point on durability, the Airs, like the Macbook Pros, are machined aluminum. For what they are, they’re very durable. No, you can’t drop them, toss them around,etc… but if you do that sort of thing it’s not the laptop’s fault when it breaks.

  39. Come on Scalzi, it’s a MacBook Air, not a Mac Air! :)

    I’m just jealous because I bought the previous iteration that doesn’t have the backlit keyboard.

  40. @rickg

    Very good point about the lack of expandable RAM. If you need more than 4GB of it, the MBA is not for you. If you’re using it as a writing tool (as opposed to a gaming system, serious photo/video manipulation, programming or heavy data crunching) 4GB should be plenty. One of the ‘benefits’ of OS X Lion is Apple’s new emphasis on memory reclamation and auto-save/auto-startup. This means the system can reclaim applications more easily and restart them back to where they were, if it gets low on memory. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s based on what they do in iOS, and that works quite well. So unless you’re using close to or more than 4GB of memory now, you should be fine for a while.

    (Full disclosure: PhysMem: 666M wired, 3428M active, 2919M inactive, 7013M used, 1179M free. That’s on an iMac where I have to use Outlook and have a 30,000 message inbox, have two open browsers, Word, and iTunes, among others. The biggest ‘live’ app is actually an IRC client at 566MB. With an SSD this would all run just fine on a 4GB machine. The extra 4GB is mostly gravy/making up for a spinning metal HD. Outlook with the 30K inbox uses 135MB of RAM, which is pretty impressive. It’s also all under Snow Leopard, not Lion, so it isn’t using the newer memory management tricks.)

    Apple will still sell you a 2GB RAM machine (the current low-end MBA 11”), so obviously they think you can get by with a small RAM environment for low end machines. I wouldn’t personally get anything smaller than 4GB, but, again, personal taste. Scrivener, to use a writing application mentioned above, takes a tiny amount of RAM, less than 1/10th that of my IRC client, as does BBEdit. Pull in a ton of research into Scrivener and it will obviously get larger, but not that large. Word is only using about 120 MB of RAM. You could run all three, the operating system, a browser, and iTunes and comfortably fit within 2GB of RAM. You’d probably run out of SSD storage space first.

  41. K. W. Ramsey: We also have a refurbished iMac and it’s great. It’s the latest 27″ (base model) and the savings off a new one amounted to $280, with the same warranty; the only difference was that it was shipped in a plain white box. The only downside was that it came with a wireless keyboard that couldn’t be switched out for the wired one with the full key set, for which I had to pay an extra $49, but I expect that when we get an iPad 3 (this year?), we’ll use the wireless one with that. I never use a laptop unless I really have to.

  42. @m Ellis – yeah, 4g is fine for most people. I know people who’ve thought “Oh, the bump from 2 to 4 is pricey, I’ll get the 2gig now and upgrade later” and, well, you can’t on the MBA. Me, I want the 11″ with 8g for some perverse reason.

  43. Zvaavtre hit the nail on the head re: firmware and integration w/ the OS. And that’s indicative of what I love about macs: the advantage of an OS and software developed specifically for the hardware.

  44. @ jjsutherland,

    you can do the delete by pressing the fn-key in the bottom left corner while using the backspace-key. Took me an embarrassingly long time to figure that out.

    It also switches some other functions (fn=function).

    You can see them if you turn on the on-screen keyboard on the mac.
    For that, you go to the system panel and choose the keyboard menu. At the bottom of the menu (the one where you can also set reaction time etc.) you can check a box for a keyboard-overview or something like that (I don’t know the exact name; my MBP is set up in German). That adds a little box with a star in the menu bar. If you click that, a keyboard shows up on your screen that shows which keys you are currently pressing and how their function changes depending on the combination. It helps finding the hidden characters that you sometimes need but that are not part of the regular set. It’s also very useful for someone who does on-screen teaching or webinars and needs to demonstrate key-combinations.

  45. MBP. MBA.
    Sigh.
    After I found out that “MBP” didn’t mean “Most Baluable Player” I realized
    that MBA wouldn’t mean “Master of Business Administration.”
    Perhaps I missed somebody saying “Mac Belorussian Pretty (MBP.)”
    (If “Belorussian” has some relevant context than, hey, yeah, that’s what I
    meant.)

  46. (warning: serious UX nerdery ahead!)

    Quoth Keith Chenoweth:

    That touchpad is GIGANTIC. I wonder if it’s just that simple.

    It’s not just that, though. When I’ve used touchpads on Windows laptops and I want to scroll, I have these options:

    • move the mouse pointer over to the scrollbar on the right, and either click repeatedly on the arrows or in the gutter, neither of which are easy targets to hit
    • Use the scrollbar overlay on the touchpad, which moves the document in 20-pixel jumps up and down, just as if I were clicking the up/down arrows on the scrollbar…which usually misfires
    • give up on the mouse and use the pgup/pgdn keys, or space/shift+space in a browser

    For all of these cases, it’s fairly clear that I’m sending a command to the program in question that I want the main document scrolled by a fixed, discrete amount for each button press. Gratingly so, inasmuch as you can almost •see• the “fancy” scrollbar overlay driver software send WM_VSCROLL messages to the app in question. By contrast, two-finger scrolling in OS X convincingly gives the illusion of direct manipulation. Here’s how:

    • The touchpad doesn’t move things in chunks — it moves them smoothly and continuously, as if you were moving a sheet of paper around on a desk.
    • If you flick a webpage up, it’ll scroll down, and the text and everything on it will whizzzzzzzz by before it slows to a stop. This is what you’d expect a real object to do, even if most of us don’t fling 6′ banners across waxed floors with two fingers on a regular basis.
    • If you flick hard enough that you’d go past the bottom, you’ll go past the bottom a bit and then get bounced back to the end, instead of having the page scrolling come to a dead stop. This subtly communicates (1) you’re at the end (2) the app didn’t freeze (in case you can’t tell from context that you’re at the end).

    …and that’s just scrolling. Now consider the ‘Back’ action that your web browser does. On Windows, there are a few ways to go back:

    • move mouse to back button, click
    • right-click, choose “back” from the menu
    • press alt-left
    • press MOUSE4 (usually a thumb button on a 4-, 5-, 6-, or 7-button mouse)

    The first two of these require •aiming•, which is annoying. The keyboard shortcut requires that you have your left hand somewhere over the right control key, which is awkward unless your keyboard is way over on your left. Finally, laptop touchpads don’t have a MOUSE4 button.

    Using a touchpad on a Mac? Flick the page with two fingers toward the right. You don’t have to move the cursor into position, and your hand is over the touchpad anyway.

    Because of all the things that a Mac touchpad does (click, scroll, back/forward, desktop switching, Exposé activation), it’s on par IMO with a 7-button mouse, not a dinky 2- or 3-button-equivalent touchpad.

    (administrivia: this is a better-formatted version of the same comment I just submitted. At least I hope it’s better-formatted — there’s no preview functionality.)

  47. My desktop rig right now is a 11″ Macbook Air driving a 24″ Apple Cinema Display. During next month’s marathon 4 week trip, it’s coming with me (minus the display). And next on the upgrade list (for when a book advance falls on my head) is the monitor … to a 27″ Thunderbolt display.

    The damn thing is just about the perfect writer’s machine. Only caveat is, max out the memory and SSD capacity if you buy one. The SSD is just about upgradable afterwards (OWC sell upgrades for Macbook Air SSDs) but the RAM is soldered onto the motherboard.

  48. I’m with you. I bought one a few months ago and like it very much. My first Mac. I use Pages because Word for Mac was acting buggy and I lost some work.
    I like Google Docs as well, but got tired of saving my work to local disk so I could work on it offline- There is an Offline Docs app now for Chrome, but it only syncs so many Documents.
    The Air does everything I need, is comfortable to use, and the light-up keyboard makes for easy typing. Expensive, but a worthwhile tool.

  49. Loved your article, and you have articulated what I have been thinking (feeling) ever since I got my MacBook Air – it’s amazing! I almost don’t want to use another computer, even my 17″ MacBook Pro!

    Regarding your love for WordPress as a text editor – consider installing MAMP, and a local copy of WordPress so you are not reliant on an internet connection. You can then copy/paste your posts when you are back online, and it’s always “zippy”

  50. One thing I keenly miss is a laptop with the keyboard that’s flush up against the front edge. I HATE reaching over the track-pad area in order to type.

    In no other activity in the entire history of mankind has that particular gesture ever been necessary — and I believe it is the source for all computer sore wrist issues, because few people ever showed up with those complaints when working on typewriters.

    Writers mainly type — and less often have need of the track-pad.

    It’s an industry-wide design flaw, sadly.

  51. I have had a Macbook Air for a month. I use it everyday, I have to say that it is a real let down, in fact if I could swap it for something better like a Sony or Samsung, I would, but having just spent a grand I am skint. I do a lot of writing (I am a writer) and I wanted a lightweight note book, my old Lenovo note book was heavy and so I changed to the Mac.
    What is so awful about the Mac?
    I have also have other different sized laptops: a Samsung, a Toshiba and my old Lenovo so I can compare and contrast.

    1. The touchpad does not do what it is meant to do. I was unimpressed by the Toshiba one, but the Mac one is like the Toshiba but 100 times worse. In Pages it highlights and drags and drops without warning, so much for swiping between apps. Never managed that no matter what settings its on.
    2. Battery – terrible I only run email, Pages and Thoughts and so a bit of browsing. It continually lets me down in meetings and so I have to play hunt the socket where ever I go. Average life when I am mobile is about 2 hours.
    3. Wifi – this has a mind of its own, and regularly tells me that that my router is at fault, when it is the Mac – I can tell because i run various other laptops.
    4. Its madly fiddly: this is not because I am also a PC user as I have an iPad and a smart phone, but you can always spot someone with a Macbook Air they are hunched over their screen trying to drag things into bigger sizes and then having to hunt around documents to find tiny icons to click on.
    5. The keyboard lacks a delete key – I don’t appreciate having to hold down three keys at once to do this, and it makes editing quite annoying when you have to back space all the time.
    6. Functionality: I went for this because these Apple products are meant to be so good and everyone hates Microsoft etc, however, I am still waiting to see what is so good about this thing. I miss many features from my PC, it is much easier to use.

    My verdict: thumbs down, it does not do what I expected and it is overpriced, perhaps apple products are great if you are playing with photoshop but if you want a practical tool for writing and editing web content, go for a different brand with a decent battery life and running windows.

  52. The WordPress text editor, TinyMCE, is the spawn of Satan. It is easily the most retarded piece of web software I have ever used. It’s always assuming things – and it’s almost always wrong. If you modify text a lot, it generates invalid or overly complex markup. It’s very difficult to work with and be in control of the output at the same time.

  53. Just got the 13″ as a replacement for my long-in-the-tooth 12″ powerbook. I’ll keep the PB, even though it will be nine years old in February, I DID consider it the best computer I ever owned because of the form factor… until the Air. Just… wow. It’s amazing how quickly you realize that your willingness to get work done is connected to WHERE you’re able to do it. Also, how comfortable it is getting it done. With the Air, you can do serious work pretty much anywhere. Even though it weights more than an iPad it FEELS like less because of the weight distribution and the fact that it’s a fully capable machine.

  54. Thank you for this most helpful blog! I’m a professor and writer and have always used Dell PCs. At 60+ I’m going to grow up and purchase an 11 inch MacBook Air. I’ll probably upgrade to 8GB and 256. Basically using it for email, , Internet research, writing, and powerpoints. My issue with the trackpad on my pcs is that my hand must be touching keys which cause text to be deleted or wander about the page. My work Dell can disable the trackpad which helps the problem but I’m concerned I’ll encounter this issue with the Mac. Any thoughts on that or if I need to uupgrade as stated? Also, which is the easiest word program to use that is compatible with MS Word which I have my current docs on. I did consider Samsung but the 11.6 inch doesn’t seem worth the price… I’ve been told the MAC has less problems.

  55. A google search found that it is possible (if you are technically challenged like me with wayward touchpads) to disablen the device when using a regular mouse. Oh joy!

  56. the macbook air was perfect for What I needed it to do. Light, fast , and handy.
    You shouldn’t even have an opinion on something you haven’t experienced. Buy one try it.

  57. Interesting text and discussion, esp. for me now considering to buy MacBook Air 11 mostly for writing. I have a strong preference for the OLD Word (2003) Full Screen view: It used actually the WHOLE screen area for text input, not just a middle part of the screen (with to columns on each side). Anyone who knows whether Word 2011 offers this option? And what about the Ribbon, which IMO is really hideous and “grabs” far too much of the screen’s real etate. Can it be removed, all the way?

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