Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Consultant Tools Series: Macbook Air -- with Windows!

For the last 4 years, I've been using a Dell Latitude D620 laptop.  Back in 2007, it was a pretty respectable laptop, with a then fancy Core 2 Duo.

I had the internal 3G wireless card, 2GB of RAM, Bluetooth, and an 80GB hard drive.  Plenty adequate for running Windows XP and doing all of my work.

After a few years, it was time for an upgrade, so I bumped it up to 4GB of RAM and installed a fast solid state hard drive.  That made it usable with Windows 7, but the battery life was starting to fade.  So, I bought two extra batteries that used the CD/DVD slot, which gave me plenty of battery life.

After four years of dutiful use, the D620 was getting tired.  The three batteries were now providing less than 3 hours of runtime, and the laptop, the extra batteries, and the power supply totaled over 7 pounds!  While it doesn't sound like much, 7 pounds in a laptop bag is pretty heavy and quite bulky.

Well, last week Apple released a new version of their Macbook Air.  While I previously never imagined buying any type of Mac, the 2.9 pound 13" Air looked perfect for my needs.  Fast Intel i5 processor, solid state hard drive, small form factor, and a typically compact Apple power supply.  And did I mention 2.9 pounds?

The slim wedge virtually swims in my old laptop bag, and my bag is now 4 pounds lighter, which is a huge difference in weight hanging on my shoulder.

When I received the Air, naturally the first thing I did was install Windows 7.  The new Air has full support for installing Windows via a USB drive.  Just copy the Windows 7 ISO file to the hard drive, plug in a large USB drive, click a few buttons in the OS X "BootCamp" utility, and in a few minutes, you'll be installing Windows 7.

There Air has full device and driver support in Windows 7, so the installation completed flawlessly.

Although I'm thrilled by the massive weight savings and the great form factor of the Air, there are a few significant caveats to transitioning to a MacBook running Windows.

First, the touch pad on the Air doesn't have physical buttons.  If you press anywhere on the surface of the touch pad, the pad will click, so the entire pad serves as a big button.  Also, the touch pad supports gestures, so you can use two, three, or even four fingers to perform certain actions, not all of which are supported in Windows.

There are a few downsides to this in Windows.  First, I'm so used to having two physical buttons below my laptop touch pad that it requires significant retraining for me to use the new Mac touch pad properly.  If I try and click with my thumb while my finger is on the touch pad, it often detects that as a two-finger click, which is a right-mouse click in Windows.  In theory, the touch pad should be able to detect a thumb click vs. a two finger click, but I'm still a bit clumsy with it.  And strangely, the touch pad surface is massive compared to other laptops that I've used--I'm not entirely sure why they did that.  The problem with this is that other fingers or part of my hand will touch the edges, causing it to think I'm using 2 or 3 or more fingers on the surface, or causing the mouse pointer to jump around.

Second, and more critical, is the keyboard.  Although I very much like the feel of the Air keyboard, and the keys are incredibly quiet, it is after all a Mac keyboard and not a Windows keyboard.  This is one thing I didn't consider.

I am a heavy keyboard user.  If there is a keyboard shortcut, I use it.  ALT+E+S+V in Excel, ALT+F+E+P in Word, Page Up/Down, Home, End, CTRL+Home, CTRL+End, CTRL+Shift+End, you name it.  If there is a shortcut I can remember, I'll try and use it since it's so much faster than using the mouse to navigate menus or position a cursor.

Well, let's just say that the Mac keyboard feels a bit 'disadvantaged'.  First, there are no page up, page down, home, or end keys.  Just browsing web pages drives me nuts without those.  And jumping to the beginning of a field, or the top or bottom of a sentence or document, or highlighting lines--all of those things require funky key combinations on the Air.  Page Up is Fn+Up Arrow.  Page Down is Fn+Down Arrow. Home and End are Fn+Left Arrow and Fn+Right Arrow, so those are all two keys vs. one on a typical Windows laptop.

And of course there is the "Command" key.  Fortunately this one is easy to relate to, since it equates to the Windows key on a PC.  But unfortunately it is next to the space bar, which is where the Alt key is located on my Dell, making it difficult to adjust--I'm constantly hitting Command+F or Command+S instead of Alt+F and Alt+S.

Although these are annoying at first, it's only been a few days, so I'm still adjusting, and am assuming I can eventually undo the 8+ years of Dell Latitude Keyboard Indoctrination that I've gone through.

But I think it will be worth it.  The feather light weight, the instant-on feature, the 4 hours of battery life, and the gorgeous display should more than make up for the touch pad and keyboard adjustments I'll have to make.

And before anyone posts comments about how there is an equivalent or better Dell or Thinkpad or some other brand of Windows notebook, I know that there are other options out there, but after shopping around, I was hard pressed to find a standard 13-14" notebook that had the same properties of performance, capacity, weight, and battery life as the Air.  It's a pretty amazing device.  With Microsoft Windows, of course.

Steve Endow is a Dynamics GP Certified Trainer and Dynamics GP Certified Professional in Los Angeles.  He is also the owner of Precipio Services, which provides Dynamics GP integrations, customizations, and automation solutions.


Andy Nifong said...

Nice article, Steve. I bought a 15" Macbook Pro a little over a year ago and I'm very tempted by the new 13" MB Air. Are you actually getting the 5-7 hours of battery life while running Windows? I'm only getting 2-3 hours while running Windows due to the graphics switching.

Steve Endow said...

Hi Andy,

I did a battery test last night to check. I put the display at 50% brightness, volume up to 50%, plugged in headphones, and let it play a 1 hour AVI movie on repeat.

It ran for 3 hours and 50 minutes before the 1% battery action had the machine hibernate.

Although the CPU was under 5% the whole time, I suspect that the video work drained the system more than my typical workload.

I'm going to try another test with Outlook open and Firefox automatically refreshing several web pages every few minutes. And I may decrease the display brightness. That should give me an idea of a longer time that I should expect.

I do all of my GP and development work on my servers, so the only other thing I have going would be a few RDP sessions, and perhaps Pandora.

But even if my battery lasts "only" 4-5 hours, that's a huge improvement over my Dell considering how much bulk and weight I'm saving.

And since it's so fast to sleep and wake, I don't really mind if it does it regularly, so that will further extend the perceived battery life.



Andy Nifong said...

Thanks for the all the info, that certainly seems worth it. If we could ever get some decent servers to run VMs of GP on, I think I'd be right there with you.

Steve Endow said...

I ran my activity timer today while using the Air, and I had about 4 hours and 15 minutes of run time doing actual work, with the laptop sleeping and resuming several times during the day.

I took the battery down to 7%, at which point Windows got nervous and started complaining.

This company makes an external battery, but for $400, I don't think I need it that bad.

Andy Nifong said...

Nice - 4 hours on a charge is workable, especially with that form factor. I'll be looking closely at that option for my next laptop purchase. Thanks Steve!

Steve Endow said...

Hi Andy,

A few caveats about the Air. If you are planning on doing anything with heavy CPU usage, I don't know if the Air would be as good as the Pro models.

I say that because under heavy load, the fan kicks in (yup, there is apparently a tiny fan in there!), and the thing heats up very quickly. It just sounds like it is suffering. For all other light tasks like e-mail, browsing, RDP, etc. it's perfect.

And I found that it is possible to remap keyboard keys in Windows.

I used an app called SharpKeys to swap the alt/option and command keys on the left side of the keyboard. With those keys swapped, it feels much more like my old Dell laptop and my desktop keyboard, making it much easier to use ALT+ combinations.

But I'm loving the form factor, portability, and responsiveness. I can sit down at Starbucks, open it up, and be working in seconds.


Andy Nifong said...

I guess that's to be expected. It seems like I spend most of my days in Outlook and Remote Desktop sessions, so shouldn't be too bad if I do it. I'll still have the MB Pro for CPU intensive operations. Thanks for the SharpKeys suggestion, I've pretty much gotten used to the Mac keyboard layout, but one thing that drove me nuts was the lack of a print screen key. I used it to remap the right command/windows key to print screen and I'm back in business.