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.