Using a MacBook Air for Web Development

Posted: July 12, 2011 Comments(39)

I’ve been meaning to write this article for the past eight months, but simply haven’t had the chance. With the imminent MacBook Air refresh I thought it timely to take a few minutes to document my MacBook Air experience thus far.

My Mac history

I’ve owned four Macs to date. The first was a Black MacBook circa 2006 and I loved it. Aside from the greasy hand and fingerprints the machine was a slick piece of work and I really enjoyed having it. The one downside for me was the chicklet keyboard, and that very element turned out to be the machine’s single downfall. Towards the end, I lost the N key completely, never to be found again.

That machine was traded in to a Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro, the last of the pre-unibody enclosures. It was awesome too. I wasn’t actively disappointed with the Black MacBook’s performance, but moving up to the Pro was a noticeable improvement. Plus: matte screen.

My next machine was an i7 unibody MacBook Pro with a standard hard drive and 4GB RAM. I outline these specs for comparison with the meat of this article. It was a great machine, my only negative comment revolves around the glossy screen. I’m a matte lifer.

Then came the Air. I picked up my (now current, soon to be ancient) MacBook Air nearly the day they became available; in hand by my first (or second) day at Iron to Iron. There were barely any in stock due to being so new so I maxed one out on the site and waited. Specs are a 2.13 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 4GB 1067 MHz DDR3 RAM, SSD (naturally).

Initial impression before purchase

I’m a skeptic. Reviewing a MacBook Air as a possibility for a primary machine was no exception. I refused to believe that this axe-blade of a computer could in any way compete with the beastly i7 I was working with. I checked it out in store and I was pleasantly surprised, though. The first generation MacBook Air left a bad taste in my mouth as I heard a number of times that people simply didn’t have the uninterrupted experience I had grown to love about using a Mac. Hard drive issues, fan issues, sleep issues, I can’t even remember the list that had me scared.

Apple made it clear though, that this version was reworked. The presentation of the new model (and the price point) had me super curious as to whether or not it’d be feasible for my workflow. The two biggest benefits that kept me interested was the compressed resolution and the SSD.

MacBook Air + Web development

My focus of this piece is to outline my experience using a MacBook Air for my professional workflow: client-oriented Web front and back end development in OS X. My workflow involves the use of many tools, some of which overlap with a strictly designer’s workflow, so perhaps my perception will be useful to designers (only) as well. I’m going to skip the general applications such as email, instant messaging, media, and the like simply because there are countless reviews outlining “average use” of a MacBook Air — in short, it’s awesome for that.

The kicker for me, though, is that my MacBook Air is the best Mac I’ve ever owned, hands down.


Photoshop Logo

My development process begins in Photoshop. I’ll receive final client-approved PSD comps from Kevin and work on static versions. Normal interaction with Photoshop is spot on with past machines if not a bit quicker, thanks to the SSD. Site asset generation from PSD to static files is overall surprisingly performant, and I expected it to be a bit more of a burden than it’s proven to be.

Photoshop is slow by nature, and I would put the Air’s handling of well designed site comps on par with the i7. I’ve heard from some other Air users that they do notice some slowdown when working in Photoshop, but it was likely due to the machine being the 1.8 GHz variety with 2GB RAM. Those specs are limiting for any machine running Photoshop.

Writing code

TextMate Icon, Sequel Pro Icon, MAMP Icon

I’ve been dabbling in tons of tools over the past year. Of course, without fail, I’ve stuck with TextMate for the foreseeable future, but consistently keep an eye on Sublime Text 2. Just a few more feature ports and I’ll be good to go there.

In addition to an editor, I’m running a local development environment via MAMP Pro and everything is lightning quick. I’ve got various SVN and git repos working at all times, and I’ve yet to see a bottleneck in the code space. I’ve also taken a step further in development by incorporating Xdebug into my workflow where appropriate and there’s not a shadow of performance degradation there either.

I’m also doing more and more work with MySQL directly via Sequel Pro and it’s marvelous. The code I write isn’t ever compiled so that’s not something I find myself doing too often (if at all) so I can’t directly comment on performance there, but logic tells me it’d conform to the other experience I’ve had with the Air.

Overall, writing code should be a really speedy exercise and the Air facilitates that. Not to say that the actual inspiration of the code should come quickly, but the physical interaction itself should be, and is.

Additional information

My overall reaction to the Air in comparison to my recent i7 MacBook Pro is that performance difference is negligible. SSDs make a big difference. I imagine that if my i7 had an SSD, my resolution would be a bit different. I feel though, that comparing a MacBook Air to an i7 speaks towards what the Air is, and what it’s to become.

As I mentioned, one of the largest draws to the Air for me was the compressed resolution. My 13″ Air has the same resolution my 15″ MacBook Pro (1440×900) and I loved that. I’ve always loved the 13″ form factor, but the smaller resolution always felt cramped. This seemed like an ideal solution.

My desk at Iron to Iron

While the boost in resolution is awesome as expected, it took some getting used to. Not in that the pixel density was hard to grasp, but I use an external monitor, and seeing a design on one monitor versus the other plays tricks on your eye. I’ll have Photoshop open on the Air’s display, working on the comp, and my browser on the external monitor. I’m constantly shifting from one to the other, and it absolutely took some time to get used to the difference. For the first few days I was repeatedly checking font sizes and image dimensions to make sure they were accurate. That tendency has since subdued and I’m more used to the difference now, but it’s something to be aware of. Additionally, there are times when moving windows around the secondary display shows the onboard graphics. Things get a little jittery should you move windows around quite a bit, but it’s really quite temporary and nothing to earn a demerit.

On an average day I’ll simultaneously be running a number of applications, a common group of which include:

  • Chrome
  • TextMate (or Sublime Text 2)
  • iTunes
  • Mail
  • OmniFocus
  • Photoshop
  • Twitter
  • Transmit
  • Versions
  • Adium

I’ve yet to notice any lag, especially when comparing performance to my i7 MacBook Pro.

An unexpected benefit for me was portability. I don’t travel too much but I’ve gone on a number of trips since November where the Air’s shine was glowing. I’ve been a laptop guy for the past 6 years or so, but never really enjoyed a lasting battery. Finally, with the Air, I was able to get a staggering amount of work done before realizing that I wasn’t plugged in to a wall. In addition to the battery life, the form factor is just the right boost of awesome. Laptops haven’t been “large” in many years, but I’m now completely spoiled by the dimensions of this computer. It would be disappointing to have to move back to a 15″ machine after getting used to the Air.

MacBook Air + the rest

In addition to my professional work, I also use my Air for a number of other things you may be interesting in comparing. I try to shoot photos with a Canon 7D, an 18 megapixel DSLR that generates ~30MB RAW files and I process these photos in Aperture 3. I tested Aperture in store and noticed that the sample photos were of a large size, but I was convinced (and not blaming that) Apple had used optimized assets in an effort to ‘wow’.

After working with 18MP RAW images in Aperture 3 (and Lightroom) for nearly the past year, I can say that the SSD helps bigtime. The MacBook Air is able to edit photos on par, if not a bit quicker than my Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro (non unibody) could. The one reportable outcome is that the fans work hard when processing assets that large, and that always makes me nervous as heat and electronics don’t mix with a positive outcome. I tend to do my post-processing of photos using a ‘scratch’ library I’ve set up on the SSD itself, and once that work is done, I’ll import that library into my main library stored on an external hard drive. This process has worked well, but dedicated graphics would be great in the future.

What I miss

With all of the good, there are a few niceties that I’d love to see in the possible MacBook Air refresh due this week. First and foremost: I miss the backlit keyboard. This is not something I expected as I came to take it for granted, but for those nights where I feel like doing some work from the living room couch without full room lighting, I’d love the benefit of a backlit keyboard. This update seems likely as of some recent news, so that’s awesome.

The other major hardware change I’d love to see is an option with dedicated graphics, even if that meant a bit thicker of a form factor. It’s not something integral to my professional workflow, but for those times when I’m processing photos or transcoding the occasional video, the boost in performance would be welcomed. I do my fair share of screencasts so not having the processor cranking and fans whirring for extended amounts of time would be great.

So there you have it; using a MacBook Air for Web development. Again, it’s the best Mac I’ve ever owned, for both professional and personal use, and I will look forward to upgrading to a new Air when the time comes. It’s that blend between a professional notebook and a portable netbook we’ve all been waiting for. The new Air’s are going to sell like crazy.

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  1. Every review of the Air makes me want to purchase one now. I’ll definitely be getting one by the end of this year. I was curious about heat when processing photos, watching videos or even running flash (which I hate). Have you gone the entire time without having to install flash? Does it ever get so hot that you can burn your legs?

    My current laptop, 13″ Macbook (unibody before they went pro) has been getting really hot. Part of the reason I’m looking to upgrade this year.

  2. The flat surface (upper right) gets a bit warm when doing extended, high-CPU operations, but not ‘hot’ per se, but definitely warm. Never so hot as to burn my lap. I do have Flash installed simply because there are many client projects which have Flash assets that are unavoidable. Heat is always bad news as far as I’m concerned, and although the Air’s fans get cranking pretty loud from time to time, they do a good job of keeping things cool for me.

  3. I’m definitely super interested to benchmark the new Air w/ my hot rodded MBP. I was real real close to going with the maxed out Air this winter, but ultimately decided that with the MBP I would have ways to upgrade it instead of replace it later on, whereas the Air would be flat out from the get go. I think I would have been in love with either purchase though. The real envy will kick in with the next gen Pro, I’m sure 😉

  4. Truth be told I bet the benchmarks would reflect higher performance from a Pro, no doubt. I think just the fact that you can compare an Air to a Pro on any level speaks to how far the Air has come since the first version. You’re totally right in that no matter what you go with, you’ll definitely be happy with a Pro or an Air.

  5. Nice roundup – and ya, I whole heartedly agree. It is the best Mac I have owned and as a web developer its plenty good, performance wise, and almost “fun” to own. Unfortunately I’ve undertaken some video-based projects that use a ton of disk space and I am selling my 11″ Air. I got a 13″ MBP to replace it and certainly miss the SSD but have the space I need. If anyone is interested in my Air please let me know: I’d be willing to ship it if you pay the shipping.

  6. As someone who currently has both an i7 2.2 with a 240 GB Crucial 6G SSD, and a wife with a 13″ MacBook Air (of course, with SSD), I can say that you would see a MAJOR speed difference if you compare both with SSD drives.

    Photoshop on her MacBook Air is fast, of course, but when handling 50+ megabyte files, I couldn’t go back to her laptop for most of my work. Also, in Aperture, flipping through pictures (50+ MB RAW files) is a quick affair on the Pro, taking about 2-3 seconds to load the picture from the drive. It takes about 6 seconds on the air. When going through 200+ photos at a photoshoot, the pro is invaluable.

    However, if I were to only need the laptop for coding and development, I would’ve gone with the Air. Both laptops can export a 50-100 MB MySQL database to disk in about a second, and both can fly through PHP faster than my web server at Linode, even without APC or any other caching…

  7. Been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for the new ones. I am 100% pulling the trigger when they come out. I would like 8GB of RAM, but from your experience and other reviews I’ve read, it makes me feel even better than before. Not to mention, I received an offer for deferred interest on my credit card for Apple products for a year 😉

    Thanks for the write-up Jon!

  8. Great to hear confirmation that it’s really the SSD responsible for the overall (noticeable) speed enhancements. My i7 was a standard hard drive and my Air is the first SSD-based machine I’ve owned, so I was supremely impressed with the performance coming out of the form factor. You’re totally right, Aperture is a bit sluggish at first, but definitely doesn’t prevent you from working in it. Dedicated graphics will help a bunch there. If I were more than a hobbyist photographer I’d likely land a Pro with an SSD for just that reason. Thanks for the feedback!

  9. Spot on! The MacBook Air (3,2) has been, hands down, the most exciting and satisfying notebook purchase I’ve ever made. And like you, I have had two Macbook Pro’s in the past. The SSD makes it all work, in my opinion. It’s the perfect balance between portability and power, and with a 7 hour battery life to boot.

    Similar to your experience, I find it becoming my primary machine. But even then, my desktop machine is a 2011 Mac Mini hooked up to a 24″ LED Cinema Display… and it does everything I need (except play games!). There are few rare occasions where I think, “It sure would be nice to have a maxed out Mac Pro to get through this faster”. (Though the Mac Pro is past due for an update)

    Also, I’ve switched to Sublime Text 2 and love it! The character spacing on a Mac is my only complaint about it so far.

  10. I went for an SSD in my new gen 15″ Pro and it’s just silly fast:

    Still though, the Air rules in many ways and if I had to carry my laptop anywhere beyond my couch and dining room table I’d probably swap mine for one. I can’t wait to see the new ones!

  11. You don’t mention the glossy vs matte screen problem at all for the Air. What is your opinion on that, especially after switching?

  12. I apologize for not swinging back on that — I’m still not a fan of the glossy screen, but that’s not limited to the Air. I simply don’t like it in the least and much prefer matte. If they bring matte back I’d be head over heels happy, but unfortunately I doubt they will at this point.

  13. Wow, great question! I can’t believe I forgot to cover that in the article. I’m currently using VMWare Fusion and a series of virtual machines and it runs great! Windows by nature is a bit slow for me, especially over time, but VMWare Fusion runs without issue and comparable to using it on my i7. Thanks for asking!

  14. Really great review, Jonathan. I sure appreciate how you’ve focused on your specific workflow. I’ve read plenty of generic reviews, but your review really helps me see how the system works on a day-to-day basis…

    One thing you mentioned at the end was that you do screencasts… I do a ton of screencasts and I’m wondering if you could quickly compare the MacBook Air experience to the experience with previous systems when working on screencasts or exporting the video. I’m thinking of replacing my i5 MBP (with an SSD) with a new Air (largely for the weight difference since I bike all around town with this thing!) but I’m a little nervous about how it can handle a big and complex screencast… Thank you!

  15. Great write-up. I’ve just been waiting for the Sandy Bridge update, as I figured that would bring the Air up to par (or very close to it) with the rest of the MB family in terms of raw processing power. Sounds like I have even less to worry about than I thought.

    On the graphics card issue, you have the one with the nVidia 320m graphics, no? I guess those are still integrated and not a discrete card. That’s the only drawback I see of the upcoming Air– it’s expected to have Intel’s integrated graphics, which don’t stack up terribly great against the previous generation’s nVidia solution.

    I’m totally with you, though, on hoping for some type of discrete graphics solution. Sony has demonstrated an ability to add discrete graphics via light peak / thunderbolt tech, so here’s hoping Apple devises a way to use that port to really beef up the Air when occasion calls for it. (I can imagine a new 27″ thunderbolt equipped cinema display with a discrete gfx card in it, but I’m not sure if that’s a route Apple would go).

    Thanks again for the write up– can’t wait for the new ones!

  16. Nice post. Can you share the temperature of your Macbook, when those all apps are running?

  17. Good write up. I own a 2010 Macbook Pro and 2011 Macbook Air, both 13″. You’re pretty much spot on all except one major point, the screen.

    The screen quality on the Pro is far better, apart from the obvious lower resolution. When I say quality, I mean colours, depth etc. The Air lacks the punchiness of the Pro’s colours and vibrancy. However for most people this will be made up by the higher resolution. I survived fine with the Pro’s resolution, in fact it made for easier reading, but that’s personal choice.

    Other than the screen, the Air is awesome. Fast, very portable and powerful.

  18. Judging from the Dell display size, it must be 1920×1200. Is the Air able to handle that screen resolution? How’s the performance when external display is made primary? Great setup!

    Definitely great info on the Air, especially for a new guy in the design world! I’ll probably cry out my eyes while swiping my credit card at Apple Store.

  19. I am torn between an i7 11 inch MBA and a 13 inch i5. As a web developer that works primarily with Python, what would you recommend?


  20. Hey,

    I’ve i5 4gb model, and I do same things as you… web development that starts from PSD. I’ve no problems with speed of this laptop. But while working on photoshop files with allot of layers and good amount of images, I do notice slight GUI lag – for example, when I click hide layer / display, appearance isn’t instant, it used to be so on my 5 years old HP. Also increasing size of photoshop window, dragging from corner, is quite sluggish. Zoom in and out also performs significantly slower than my core duo laptop.

    Have you also noticed this?

  21. awesome read, at least now I’m sure ‘Air’ can handle web development easily without any issue, anyone tried to run XCode on it for iOS Development?

    reason is why I’m asking, planning to buy a MBP or MBA next month so far I’m into web development but wanted to get my hands dirty with iOS development.. any recommendation ?

  22. Writing native apps is by far more intense than Web apps. I haven’t done much so I can’t really attest to the Air being a good machine for that. One thing I do know however, is that many app developers prefer a beastly machine to minimize compile times.

  23. Hey, I am in search for a new laptop this summer coming up and I am torn between the Macbook Air 13″ and the new ultrabooks around. Currently I like Lenovo U300s but around summer more will come even better than this.

    To be precise I am a CS student and I ‘d like to know if you had any experience with other ultrabooks apart from Air and how did you see it compared to them.
    Also what’s the battery life you have with Windows instead of the OSX ?

    Thank you

  24. No, I haven’t used any other ultrabooks for actual work, and I don’t run Windows on this machine aside from it being in a virtual machine for browser testing so battery life wouldn’t be too accurate. Sorry I don’t have more information for you.

  25. Hi! I’m going to buy the 2011 mba 13″ thanks to your post, in fact I’m a web developer and I need a light mac to use at work.

    After reading your post and others on the web I’m pretty convinced to buy the mba, for the final decision could I know if I can connect the air to a external display as an extended desktop and use them at the same time? (I mean, I would like to connect the mba to a 27″ with 1920×1080 resolution and use them at the same moment, is this possibile or the monitor of the air will be disabled?)

    Thanks a lot for the answer and sorry for my bad english 🙂

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