11
Mar
2008
 

MacBook Air: Thoughts and Issues

by Marcus Zarra

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First Impressions

While I was at Mac World 2008, I was very tempted to purchase a MacBook Air immediately. Every day that I was there, I would stop by the table full of MBAs and play with them. I tried desperately to find something that I didn’t like about the MBA that was strong enough to stop me from buying one. By the end of the week I decided that after 30 days, if the impulse was still there, I would buy one.

Two weeks ago, I purchased the 1.6Ghz HDD model.

For the past two weeks I have been using the MBA exclusively as my primary machine. Fortunately I do not have a large video collection or music collection that I carry around with me so that space was not an issue. I do not work with iMovie, Garage Band or any of the other applications that make hard drives cry. I moved my entire development space over to the MBA with close to 30GB to spare.

My impressions? This is a great machine. I think at the very least it is a perfect second machine for when you are not sitting in your office coding away. For me, I like to be mobile. I have a hard time working in the same physical space for more than a couple of days at a time so ultra portable sings a very persuading song to me. As a development machine I have almost no complaints. My only complaint is discussed in detail below. When it is working correctly it is more than fast enough to develop on and the screen size is plenty.

MBA_Thin.png

So what is wrong?

There is one issue with the MBA that might be a manufacturing defect, might be a firmware issue or may very well be something else entirely.

In some situations, the second core of the CPU goes away. I don’t mean slows down, becomes dumb, I mean completely goes away to the point that iPulse shows all of its stats as ‘nan’ i.e. Not A Number — GONE.

Sometimes this happens when it gets very hot (over 70c); sometimes this happens when I am doing huge file transfers over USB (initial Time Machine backups); but mostly it happens when I am dealing with video or trying to play a video game (I love Reaction). When I first discovered the problem, I immediately went to the Apple Discussion Forums to see if anyone else had run into the issue.

After reading a few posts I discovered that this is indeed a known problem and most of the posters thought it was a manufacturing defect. Since this is the first version of a totally new product, that made complete sense to me and I breathed a sigh of relief. A quick trip to Denver would cure the issue.

So, I backed up the machine via Time Machine (which took forever due to the above mentioned problem), and headed to Denver. After a rather long wait and an interesting time convincing the head genius that I was not an idiot, a hardware diagnostic confirmed that there was an issue and my MBA was promptly replaced.

Upon returning home and starting the Time Machine restore, the problem immediately returned. The backup started with an estimated 55 minutes and ended up taking close to 4 hours due to the second core intermittently shutting down. Another trip to Apple was required.

Since my experience at one store was less than stellar, I decided to hit another store (Denver is fortunate enough to have 4 stores), to get a different Genius and hopefully get an MBA from a different lot. After a shorter period of time the MBA was replaced a second time. This time I was smart though — I went to lunch in Denver and tested the machine while I was still close to the store. This third machine performed perfectly, no issues at all even while playing WoW, watching two quicktime videos and copying 8 gigs off a backup drive. Definitely appeared to be a manufacturing defect.

Alas, when I returned home and plugged the machine, the issue returned. My guess is that the CPU automatically steps down when on battery and never hits the “crash point” of shutting down a CPU. This really makes me think that the issue is in the firmware. At that point I decided that three MBAs was enough and decided to keep this third one for the present.

So that is my one issue with the MBA. An issue that I am confident will be resolved either via firmware or by another swap with a revision B model later this year.

MBA_Thin.png

Conclusion

Knowing what I know now, would I still have purchased it? Without a doubt. Once they get this issue resolved the machine is going to be very close to perfect for my needs. Even with the issue I am loving this little machine. The weight and form factor make it a joy to work with.

Am I saying this is the perfect machine for everyone? No. I am an early adopter. I like to play with technology that is so new that it has a high chance of not working perfectly right away.

Marcus Zarra

Marcus S. Zarra is a founding partner of MartianCraft, LLC. He has been developing Cocoa software since 2003, Java software since 1996, and has been in the industry since 1985. Currently Marcus is producing software for iOS and OS X. In addition to writing software, he assists other developers by blogging about development and supplying code samples on Cocoa Is My Girlfriend. Marcus is also the author of Core Data (2nd edition): Data Storage and Management for iOS, OS X, and iCloud and Co-Author of Core Animation: Simplified Animation Techniques for Mac and iPhone Development. You can find Marcus on Twitter, on App.net and on StackOverflow.

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Comments

volker says:

Hi,

I fully agree with it being a very good secondary machine. For me, it even does work on most primary tasks. Easy with an iMac sitting on the desk at the office in case I need more.

I seem to be one of the lucky buyers who has until now not encountered a single core shutdown. I more and more wonder what that really causes. Working on mine since Feb. 20th with different loads.