Flying with the MacBook Air 11″

Posted by mitch on December 16, 2011
hardware, travel

I recently bought an 11″ MacBook Air for airplane use. In 2011, I did about 44 trips, which means I was on at least one plane about 88 days this year. Those 88 days yielded 140,000 miles of travel, which works out to 1600 miles on average per day of travel. At 500 mph, that’s 3 hrs in the air on 88 days on average, or 264 hours in the air during the whole year.

During that time I concluded that the 13″ MacBook Air is just too big on most coach tray tables, and even some first class tables as well. I don’t always want to work on a plane, but when I do, not having a good laptop solution was reducing my productivity and increasing the number of tasks I would have to do after or before landing.

I don’t view the 11″ as a replacement laptop, but rather a secondary laptop. While it probably is ridiculous to carry two laptops, they have gotten a lot lighter and so far, I feel it’s worth the weight increase–the 11″ is about a pound heavier than the iPad and about the same size. I might change my mind in 100,000 miles, though.

The 11″ MacBook Air fits surprisingly well on the newer A321 first class tray tables (the ones that are about 6″ deep). I think it might have been designed for this table, in fact–the fit is just that good. I also did a leg today in 9E in coach (exit row with no right seat on a A319 aircraft) and it’s a fine fit there as well. Row 8 didn’t recline, but I still had a good inch behind the screen and could 2″ to spare with a little less comfort.

I was worried about the 1280×800 resolution. When I moved from the 2008 MacBook Air 13″ to the 2010 model, I thought the 1440×900 vs the old 1280×800 made a huge difference. But looking at the two 11″ and 13″ side-by-side, I don’t think I care about the loss of pixels, especially given the upside of reduced size.

There is a hidden cost of using two laptops if you have a desktop as well–applications like Photoshop and Office are often licensed for use on two computers, not three. So I have to buy another copy of Office, but I plan to forgo the Adobe applications.

The upside of two laptops is very handy, though. It’s nice to have two screens on the road. I was at a coffee shop Thursday morning preparing some notes for a meeting. I had a slide deck open on one screen that I was reading and creating summary slides on the other. DropBox syncing makes moving files between laptops easy, and with my MiFi, a WiFi LAN is easy to enable (DropBox will sync over a local LAN if peers are found on the LAN). Of course, there’s other ways to setup a WiFi LAN with two machines without a MiFi.

I wrote this post and some other things while on a flight from SFO to PHX. During the 400 miles from SFO down to southern California before hanging a left to Phoenix, I wrote over 1,200 words and was comfortable doing it. Even though I was sitting in first class, I would not have been nearly as comfortable doing this with the 13″ model. On my later leg, I wrote some code I had been meaning to work on for months but hadn’t had the time. I don’t think I’ve written code on a plane in years. I ended up creating perhaps 15-20 pages of content while in the air today, even though 70% of that time was in coach. Pretty good! Battery life was pretty decent too; if I had worked straight though I might have run out of gas by the end of flying, and I started around 85% on my first flight. I’d say the 11″ can barely make it across the US at the lowest screen setting with one or two small low-CPU apps open.

Is the MacBook Air 11″ a good buy? I think so. With my 6% corporate discount and CA sales tax, the laptop ended up being $1226 (I bought the middle $1199 model). It’s a heck of a lot of computer for $1226. Going back to the earlier math, I only need a billable rate of $4/hr to break even on the $1226 purchase. Fortunately, my billable rate is a little higher, so I should be in the black pretty quickly.

Tags: ,