A question that’s brought up quite frequently on forums is: “Should I buy the MacBook Air?”

I for one had the same dilemma. I owned a 2006 Black MacBook (“BlackBook”) and a 2006 Mac Mini that I used as a combination of media server and a desktop computer during college. Shortly after graduation I built my first desktop computer – I juggled the ‘BlackBook’, Mac Mini and Windows Desktop since.

I will be relocating to South Korea next year for work and recently realized that my Macs were aging (already 5 years!) and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to swap out my Macs for a MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro. I wouldn’t be taking my Desktop computer abroad so this replacement would have to be my ‘primary’ computer.

So the research began. Apple has an extensive yet simple lineup of computers that allows customers to choose the computer based on their needs in a relatively effortless manner. As far as MacBook lineups go, I’d say that MacBook Pro would be the go-to laptop for overall satisfaction. However after purchasing a 13″ MacBook Air 256GB 1.7GHz i5. Frankly, I should’ve waited until Black Friday but I got rolled up into an impulse-buy mode and bought one – I’ve been loving my laptop since and never looked back!

Overview

Coming from the “BlackBook” and a Mac Mini, both sporting a Core Duo processor, took care of most if not all tasks that I needed to do. One could always use a faster computer but these computer worked for what I did. Any upgrade, whether it be a MacBook Pro or a MacBook Air, would’ve been a huge upgrade for me. However, like any other new buyers, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t regret my purchase.

My choices were between a 13″ MacBook Pro and a 13″ MacBook Air.

Now let’s see if I could go through each of the categories and what made me go with the MacBook Air.


PERFORMANCE*

MacBook Air

 1.7 GHz i5

 4GB RAM

MacBook Pro

 2.8 GHz i7

4GB RAM (+4GB)

I would personally have added another 4GB to the MacBook Pro’s RAM after making the purchase from Corsair or another 3rd party simply because I can never justify the prices Apple adds to these upgrades.

The CPU numbers, as noted, seems to note that the MacBook Pro is a clear winner. However the i5 CPU that the MacBook Air has is a 2nd-gen i5 processor which reportedly is much faster than the 1st-gen CPUs installed with the previous version of MacBook Air. Looking at the technical specifics of the combinations, MacBook Air has come a long way since its last revision and its latest mid-2011 revision reportedly matches the performance of the MacBook Pro pretty closely.

The MacBook Air also comes with a 256GB (128GB) SSD installed, which improves the performance significantly over the standard 750GB 5400-rpm SATA drive the MacBook Pro has.

  Verdict: Tie

*Taking the CPU values of configurations readily available from retail stores (i.e. Best Buy)

DIMENSIONS

It goes without saying that MacBook Air wins hands down in this category. Weighing just under 3 lbs and with MacBook Pro at 4.5 lbs, the MacBook Air is the clear winner.

Considering that the iPad2 weighs 1.33 lbs and the MacBook Air at 2.96 lbs…well I’ll leave the rest to you.

If you find yourself traveling or using your computer on the move a lot, MacBook Air is simply the computer you want.

  Verdict: MacBook Air

SCREEN RESOLUTION

MacBook Air1440 x 900 MacBook Pro1280 x 800

Higher screen resolution is almost always welcome, unless your eyes aren’t what it used to be. MacBook Air certainly has the higher resolution but this also means that everything would look slightly smaller compared to the MacBook Pro. You have the advantage of a larger screen area but things will look a bit smaller than if it were on a MacBook Pro. However as a rule of thumb, I like higher resolutions so MacBook Air wins here in my books.

  Verdict: MacBook Air

HARD DRIVE

MacBook Air comes with either 128GB or 256GB SSD and MacBook Pro comes with 750GB 5400-rpm SATA drive, which can be upgraded with a 128GB (+$100), 256GB (+$500), or 512GB (+$1100). If you’re able to afford the SSD upgrade, go for it, but for an average Joe like myself, it’s ridiculous to spend $500 or $1100 extra just to enjoy the SSD. It certainly has its advantages but the price of the SSD just doesn’t justify it for me.

I would never consider a 128GB SSD simply because I’ll run out of space within a month and 256GB would be the bare minimum that I would get by. It’s been nearly a month since I’ve had my MacBook Air and I’ve used just over 50% of my 256GB. I’ve been using my external hard drive aggressively and my Windows computer as a media hub for the most part. I also plan on utilizing Dropbox and other cloud means to keep me from filling up my hard drive too much.

The lack of hard drive space is annoying but simply due to the fact that having an SSD allows me to have sub-20s boot speed and nearly instant launching of applications, I’m sold on the potency of an SSD over SATA.

  Verdict: MacBook Air

SUPERDRIVE (Optical Drive)

  MacBook Air doesn’t have  an optical drive

I rarely use my optical drive ever these days. I get my video from Netflix streaming for the most part and when I need to rent a DVD, well I use my Windows PC to rip/convert it so I could stream to my MacBook Air or iPad2. Most of the applications now have the option to download the installation files from the web, so installing from a DVD isn’t an absolute necessity more so now than ever.

  Verdict: MacBook Pro (simply because MacBook Pro has one and MacBook Air doesn’t)

There are a few ways to work around the lack-of-optical-drive problem.

  1. USB Flash Drive. USB Flash drives are cheap today (well much cheaper than it has been for many years). I just purchased a 64GB drive for $49, and this wasn’t even the best price I’ve seen. The only inconvenient part would be that you’d need access to another computer to copy the contents to your USB drive, however…
  2. Cloud. I recently signed up for a free 50GB account with Box.net during their iOS promotion period. Box.net has a file size limit at 100MB but it’s usually enough to cover most installation files.
    * For files larger than 100MB, you could create a disc image using Disc Utility and split the image using Split & Concat app (Free). More on that later <LINK>
  3. Apple’s Remote Disc. You could configure another computer to share its optical drive with your MacBook Air. Apple’s made the process very simple and it ‘just works’.
  4. External Optical Drive. Apple MacBook Air SuperDrive ($79, Apple Store) could be a great choice if you want to stick to Apple. There are many USB external optical drives that you could purchase as well, although they wouldn’t be as good looking as the SuperDrive.

** The situation of not having an optical drive gets a bit trickier if/when you want to install Windows 7 on Bootcamp. The new version of Bootcamp comes with the support for the Windows 7 ISO installer, so that you could install Windows from the ISO image loaded onto your flash drive. Apple BootCamp FAQ

Support for the Windows 7 ISO installer
Install Windows with an installation disc you provide or, on Mac computers that do not have an optical drive, with a USB flash drive that contains a Windows 7 ISO image downloaded from Microsoft. The Boot Camp Assistant will offer to create this image on supported computers.

Or, you could try out
Install Windows on Macbook Air with no external drive as well.

BATTERY LIFE

Nearly the same really. It seems like both models range between 4-6 hours of battery use, but the length varies heavily on how you use the computer, obviously.

Verdict: Tie

PRICE

MacBook Air

$1599

MacBook Pro

$1499

The MacBook Air’s price is based on the 13″ 1.7GHz i5 model and MacBook Pro’s on 13″ 2.8GHz i7 model. The MacBook Pro has a $100 advantage here.

Verdict: MacBook Pro


SO WHAT NOW?

Well the decision’s up to you now! I chose the MacBook Air because I do decent amount of traveling and wanted to try out the SSD and…well experience the hype of the MacBook Air. I don’t play games on my Mac and only do relatively light tasks on my laptops so I was pretty sure MacBook Air would cover all my needs. This, however, doesn’t mean that MacBook Air can’t handle video editing or gaming. I’ve checked out some YouTube videos of game plays and Final Cut Pro on the MacBook Air and they didn’t look so bad. The MacBook Air isn’t built to handle 3D gaming or hardcore video editing but it’s certainly more than capable of handling both of them just fine.

I had the hardest time deciding between the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air – I had both computers in my hand at the counter at Best Buy actually. MacBook Pro’s edge with the -$100 pricing, better handling of graphics, larger HDD, more RAM among others prevented me from dropping the MacBook Pro completely out of consideration. I knew I wanted the MacBook Air but both models had their own unique set of advantages that made it so difficult to decide.

MacBook Pro certainly is a great and perhaps even ‘better’ all-around computer. It may be a bit heavier, bulkier and slightly slow granted that you got the 750GB SATA drive, but in terms of value-for-money, MacBook Pro could be the winner.

That said, MacBook Air gives you the flexibility required during travels like none other and the SSD really wins it for me. If you’re not planning on working on some hardcore video projects (professional level) or gaming (I guess professional level here too), I’d strongly recommend a MacBook Air. Apple and other retailers such as Amazon and Best Buy offer generous return policies so you could always check out the computer and return it if you don’t like it. However I highly doubt you’d end up returning your MacBook Air. It’s really something and I’m sure you’ll love it.