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The perfect laptop: MacBook Air 11” vs 13”

When I was a kid, I remember using big desktop computers and awkward dial up modems to get online. You had to fiddle with a ton of settings, swap floppy disks, add peripheral cards, and there wasn’t much you could do online.

Today, we live in a world connected by the Internet. At work, we rely less and less on specialized programs installed on a hard drive, and more on web applications we access through a web browser. And as a result, work is now much more collaborative. This was the vision I had when starting FMYI in 2004 – to provide a complete online social collaboration solution to make it easier for people to connect, share, store, and get work done. Thanks to so much information being stored remotely in the cloud like on FMYI, the hardware devices we use are getting smaller, simpler, and sexier.

But what is the one perfect device to be your main machine to handle a variety of business tasks day in and day out? Smartphones are out because of screen size and power. Tablets like iPads are getting a ton of attention lately because of the ease of use and wow factor (check out one of my reviews). But when it comes to work they remain a secondary device because of the lack of file directories, needing to carry around a keyboard for writing anything longer than short email replies, and the challenges of simple things like copy and pasting URLs into blog posts or documents. Most people still need a desktop or laptop at work in addition to a tablet.

With the rising popularity of working out of the office (business travel, visiting clients, conferences) and telecommuting (“Your Commute is Killing You“), laptops are preferable over desktops. Ultra portable netbooks are easy to bring anywhere, but have quite a few compromises when it comes to power. And you can feel the extra weight of regular notebooks when traveling. The perfect laptop would combine the portable form factor of netbooks with the power of a regular laptop. And Apple has done this with the latest generation of the MacBook Air.

These laptops are light (2.38-2.96 pounds), thin (0.11-0.68 inches thick), powerful (dual-core Intel Core i5 or i7 with shared L3 cache), and fast (flash storage SSD hard drive). The MacBook Air can handle a wide range of tasks from email, web browsing, document editing, managing a photo library, video editing, and more. In many normal work situations they’re faster than the MacBook Pro laptops. And they’re environmentally friendly, achieving an EPEAT Gold rating and the EPA’s ENERGY STAR qualification.

But with the two main size options of 11” and 13”which one should you choose? Lost in the buzz of Apple’s speed update to the MacBook Air line in July was the fact that you can now special order either the 11” or 13” with the same processor/memory/hard drive specs at Apple’s online store (up to a 1.8GHz Intel Core i7 with 4GB memory and a 256GB flash storage SSD hard drive). So the big decision is to go for the 11” or 13” size. Here’s the main differences between the two models:

The MacBook Air 13” has these features that the 11” lacks:
• Bigger screen with a traditional screen size ratio (1440 x 900 resolution which is the same as the MacBook Pro 15”)
• Longer battery life (around 7 hours vs 5 hours with the 11”)
• SD card slot (to import photos from a camera)

The MacBook Air 11” has these features that the 13” lacks:
• Screen size ratio that minimizes letterboxing for watching HD videos (1366 x 768 resolution)
• Greater pixel density that makes text look a little sharper and crisper
• Smaller form factor and lower weight for convenience (the width is one inch smaller, the depth is 1.38” shorter, and it’s .58 pounds lighter than the 13”)
• TSA friendly (you don’t need to take it out of your bag at security in U.S. airports)
• $50 cheaper at the maximum configuration (Core i7 processor, 4GB memory, 256GB hard drive)

So which one to chose? To me, the 13” is ideal if you’re primarily using the laptop in the office, while working at home, and for the occasional out of office meeting. The battery life is longer for shuttling around town, the bigger screen is nice for doing presentations when meeting with people, and you have an SD slot to import photos at your desk or while out and about.

The 11” is ideal if you travel longer distances frequently because you don’t need to take it out when going through security, the size of the laptop makes it easy to use on seatback trays on the airplane, and you’ll enjoy watching movies in the hotel without letterboxing. The weight and size difference over the 13” feels greater than the specs show. It’s just that much more portable. And if you have an external monitor at work, it definitely can be a desktop replacement. If you like to write blog posts, copy for marketing materials, short stories and other creative projects, this is the perfect writing machine to take to a coffee shop, the front porch, a park, or the baseball stadium when you’re frustrated that the Mets are losing (something for another blog post!).

For me, I prefer the 11” for the reasons I mentioned above. When I started FMYI, I used a PowerBook G4 12” because of its portability. Unfortunately, it was still heavy, the screen was tiny, and it wasn’t very fast. The new MacBook Air 11” solves all of those issues by being close to the size of an iPad with a high resolution screen and it starts up, wakes up, and opens applications very quickly. Now if only it can help with writer’s block…

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