Help me choose between a Unibody Macbook and a Macbook Air

Discussion in 'MacBook Air' started by rmessing, Apr 28, 2009.

  1. rmessing macrumors newbie

    Apr 28, 2009
    Rochester, NY

    I'm trying to decide between a Rev. B Macbook Air (HD not SSD), and a Macbook (2.4 ghz, 4 gigs of ram). I'll describe all the relevant background. I'm new here, and posting this in both the macbook and macbook air forums, particularly because I'm interested in the different responses I'll get from the users of different platforms. If this posting practice is unacceptable, I appologize profusely, and leave the moderators to either tell me what's what, or do what they have to do.

    So, I'm a senior computer science graduate student (5th year, graduating soon). I'm usually platform-agnostic, and I have extensive experience with macs (last 2 laptops were a g4 powerbook and 1st gen intel macbook). I'm writing this on a gorgeous Macbook pro that's going to be heading to another student. It's a dream machine, no doubt, but it's someone else's dream. It's too big, and too heavy, for my tastes, and given that it's also too powerful for my needs, I'm making a change.

    I do computer vision research, and at present, the models I describe in my thesis are so computationally heavy that inference involves a a few days on a giant cluster. This means I don't need any serious number-crunching power on the laptop (in theory, I might like to make an approximate version that ran in realtime, but that's probably impossible on current hardware). I write papers in LaTeX, do much of my work over ssh terminal windows and most of my coding in lightweight text editors. Aside from occasional youTube, hulu, and other movie-viewing (yes, including DVDs, but as a computer vision guy, I'm pretty competent with ripping a dvd, so that'd be no problem with the macbook air), my heaviest use comes from simultaneously browsing the web, viewing journal articles (sometimes with lots of big pictures, think 8 page pdfs at a size of around 3 or 4 megabytes), and making presentations (Keynote) or posters (powerpoint), all while also sshing into remote machines and editing text files (which has almost no overhead). Maybe also simultaneously watching an xvid-encoded movie. That's the ultimate hardcore-use scenario. Obviously, the macbook pro I'm on will do this without issues, and the macbook I'm considering will do about the same. I know I'll wish I had chosen the Air over the Macbook whenever I'm NOT using it - I'm not a wimp, but the extra pound-and-a-half really does mean something for comfort. I know because the Dell Mini 9 that I installed OS X on, which is NOT powerful enough to do more than one of the heavy-use tasks I listed (though aside from keyboard size and screen size, does the medium and light-use tasks perfectly) gets carried with me a lot more than the macbook pro, despite the latter's far-greater power and user experience. I want to know when I'll wish I had chosen the Macbook over the Air. Am I going to notice the lower processor speed? The heat / battery (remember, I'm only considering Rev B). I know I'll miss the hard drive space, but I'll deal - will I notice 4200 v.s. 5400 RPMs? I'd guess the biggest issue is 2 gigs of ram - that's why I haven't listed the other two heaviest things I do, which I haven't done much or relied on in some time (OS Virtualization - sometimes you've gotta have Windows, for any number of admittedly annoying reasons, and Matlab - my coworkers seem okay with it on an air, but my problems sometimes involve giant datasets, where 2gigs v.s. 4 gigs can mean the difference between swapping and not). What do you think? I travel sometimes, but the weight savings is mostly for my commute (foot, bike, bus). The current solution (macbook pro and dell mini 9) is probably going away - this thing would be my only portable. Assume I have access to powerful windows and linux servers at home and work, and please limit comparisons to these two machines (this is my way of saying that I know I could save a significant chunk of change on a refurbished macbook Air rev A, or do about as well with the 2.0 ghz macbook, but that for whatever reasons, I'm deciding between the Rev B non-ssd air and the fully spec'd macbook).

    Thanks for your input,
  2. nhaque macrumors member

    Feb 21, 2008
    Macbook Air.

    From what I know ( I don't own any of these) the Air rev B is quite close to the Macbook in performance, and yes, I also think the weight is very important. Besides telling you to check both of those out, I suggest the Air.
  3. zsnow macrumors regular

    Mar 15, 2009
    screen is the most important factor for me.
    so i go for air.
  4. mrrippey macrumors regular

    Apr 7, 2009
    a few threads on this but you are in the Air section so most (if not all) are going to say Air.

    Get a Rev B if you are going to get an Air and AppleCare. Get a Macbook if you are low on funds (since the Air will cost more)

    Good luck, both are great machines, I am picking up an Air hopefully this week. My debate is get a HDD now or wait and get a SSD (a couple more weeks)
  5. zedsdead macrumors 68040

    Jun 20, 2007
    While I would agree with you, most of the REV B Air's have the "Grey Horizontal Line" issues. They are pale, and not very noticeable unless you notice screen defects. It is causing me to switch for a Macbook Pro (because the Macbook Screen is inferior).

    If you go to the store and see nothing wrong, go for it because you likely will not notice them.

    If you can handle the viewing angles on the Macbook Screen, then go for the Macbook.

    I can only recommend the Air if you go for the SSD because of the slow HDD in the Air.

    The Macbook also will last you longer, especially with 4 gigs of Ram.

    I agree with you about the added weight, but beware that the Air line has had a lot of issues (and many still exist). The Air is really better as a companion computer in my opinion, not as a sole machine.
  6. silentsage macrumors member

    May 13, 2008
    I was faced with the same decision a few weeks ago. My needs are very similar to yours. I have a Mac Pro that I use for major computing tasks and was looking for something smaller for portable use. I went with the MacBook Air, and think in retrospect that I should instead have gone with the MacBook.

    While the clock speed difference between the high-end Mac Air and the low-end MacBook is small, the difference in maximum available memory makes a big difference. OS X needs more than 2 GB, and this starts to show whenever I start to do more than just browse the web or email. I can't fully explain it, but most people who have used any of the Macbooks with both 2 GB and 4 GB have commented on the apparent difference in speed. I find myself at times waiting for the Air to catch up to what I'm doing. I think it part it is due to the 4200 RPM disk in the Air - it's just kind of slow.

    I find too that the Air is just a bit too restricted in terms of it's ability exchange data. With the MacBook, anytime I needed to move sizeable files between machines, I just put the MacBook into target mode using Firewire. That can't be done with the Air (no Firewire). Also, if I need to use the Air in the field to move data between two machines or disks, the single USB port becomes an issue.

    The good things about the Air are its outstanding display and its portability. It so small and light you can take it anywhere. But when I take it in the fileld I'm concerned about the display hinge (Airs have problems with hinges).

    I've come to the conclusion that the Air is the best "netbook" on the market today. But once you start to go beyond browsing the internet and email, you start to run into limitation.

    Two additional memory slots (or making the existing memory expandable) and adding a second USB port would make a big difference for the Air.

    If I had it to do again, I'd have opted for the MacBook. More clunky, but it seems to have the minimum set of stuff that I use on a regular basis.
  7. mrrippey macrumors regular

    Apr 7, 2009
    This is the biggest thing right here, SSD is going to run 1700 minimum on ebay and you ca get a suped up macbook for less than that. Also an Air with HDD seems to not be the move although many people love it (and for $400-$500 difference, I may just do that).

    You probably wont go wrong with either one but if you already have another computer (like most) then the 'limitations' of the Air are less noticeable.
  8. jimboutilier macrumors 6502a

    Nov 10, 2008
    I have both a MBA and a current unibody MB.

    The MBA is a joy for a mobile owner to use all day long. Its screen and keyboard are excellent as is its build quality. It has a good solid processor and integrated video (revB) but neither is up to the MB's performance. Its memory is limited but OS X manages it pretty well so unless you do a lot of memory intensive applications at once or run a VM a lot, 2gb works pretty well. Its storage is its most limiting - a 1.8" 4200rom HD is a poor performer (even in the revB SATA flavor) and while the SSD has much higher read speeds it write speed is nothing to brag about and at least for the moment the SDD is expensive and space limited and its form factor will give you expensive limited space upgrades in the future. So while the MBA is a great machine you need to be sure you can live within its limitations. If you can you'll love it, and if not it will grate on your more and more over time.

    The MB is a good solid machine that does everything pretty well but nothing exceptionally. Its pretty well made, has enough ports, built in optical drive, a great processor and integrated video, excellent keyboard, fast easily expansion of memory and HD, fairly thin and light, and its only downside is a relatively poor screen whos narrow viewing angle and poor contrast ratio detract somewhat from an otherwise terrific machine.

    I find myself using my MBA the vast majority of the time even though I have the much less powerful revA HD model. That's because its performance and capacity are good enough and its portability is outstanding. A half inch and a pound and a half might not seem like much but it really is.

    The top of the line revB is a much closer performance match but still isn't quite up to a MB in real world performance (processor and video) and not even close in upgradability and capacity.

    So your choices are a MBA that excels in mobility at the price of some performance and capacity, or a MB thats a good solid high performance machine that does most things well for most people.
  9. Scottsdale macrumors 601


    Sep 19, 2008
    The big problem with the MB is its terribly inferior display. It really is horrible. It is worse than that. It is worse than my six year old Dell Inspiron laptop which has been in a box in the garage for at least four years and was recently taken out after my entire Mac collection (including uMB and MBA) was stolen.

    The big problem with the MBA for the top ten percent of users is the lack of RAM. I think 90% of users never need more than 2 GB, but the other 10% need 4 GB.

    I think the next version of the MBA definitely has 4 GB on board or two RAM slots which would be even better (up to 8 GB would be amazing in the long run).

    The other problem with the MBA has an easy fix and that is the drive space. Fortunately, for most of us external drives or remote access to entertainment or media files eliminates the problem. But it would be nice to have a 256 GB SSD in the next MBA.

    I highly recommend the MBA unless you know you need more than 2 GB of RAM. However, the 1066 MHz RAM in the rev B MBA is definitely quick! To me it's an easy decision, MBA all the way. But I never need more than 2 GB of RAM.

    Good luck whichever route you go.
  10. simplenation macrumors member

    May 29, 2008
    I was actually just in a similar situation as yourself. Two weeks ago I opted for the HHD Rev B unit and yesterday two weeks later I decided to return the unit. For me the hard drive speed and the limited amount of memory was a huge factor. Under normal,internet,youtube videos, basic apps,etc.. I found the machine to perform just fine.. but once I had multiple apps open I found myself constantly approaching full utilization of 2gb of memory and at that point the hard drive really becomes a bottleneck. There was one situation where I wanted to watch a high quality online video and I was losing frames every few seconds which drove me nuts. In the end I decided that the HDD model made for the "ultimate" netbook.. but at $1700 bucks I wasn't feeling to happy about that. Bottom line, I think SSD is the only way to go with this machine.. if you plan to use it full time. I couldn't swallow the extra $500 price tag for ssd so at the moment i'm macbook-less :mad:
  11. mrrippey macrumors regular

    Apr 7, 2009

    I really would love to see a video of a Rev B HDD running Parallels because if it does not do that well then I will have to save more to get the SSD. I need Parallels to use it as my main machine.
  12. King t. macrumors regular

    Oct 31, 2007
    well i just swapped my unibody mb 2,4ghz for a MBA rev:B 1,6ghz with 120gb HD and haven't had any regrets so far :D

    the mba is just beautiful, it's so light and easy to carry around, the screen is awesome. performance wise yes the mba needs more time in booting up, but once the air is running there is no stopping it. :cool:
  13. Laguna macrumors newbie

    Apr 29, 2009
    all about the memory

    Since Nov. of '08, I have used a (then current) Unibody MB, MBA, & MacPro.
    I sold the MB.
    If I could only have one computer, it would be the MB or MBP.
    With two or three, I like the MBA a lot. (i have the 128MB SSD)
    I had a fan issue on the MBA, but apple replaced the whole computer.
    I have been surprised by how much the weight and size of the MBA makes a difference for me, but I travel *a lot*.
    I have 8GB on the MP and 4GB on the MB, so the 2GB on the MBA is a real compromise. It is *the* drawback for me, although I also regularly peg the MBA processor.
    I think that 2GB is really insufficient for the tools I use in academic research. As soon as a 4GB MBA comes out, I am getting it.
    I would also do the SSD again even though the size is also a compromise.
  14. rmessing thread starter macrumors newbie

    Apr 28, 2009
    Rochester, NY
    What are the tools you use? Are we talking very specific HPC stuff, statistical sampling stuff (BUGS et al.) or SAS? Or something else entirely? I ask in order to figure out whether your stuff will have the same profile in terms of ram, processor, and disk as mine.


  15. hellfire88 macrumors 6502

    Apr 28, 2008
    I was/am in a similar situation: deciding between the lower-end Rev. B MBA (1.6GHz/120GB 4200RPM HD) or High-end MB(unibody, 2.4GHz).

    Since you're used to using a Dell Mini 9, and based on the tasks you want to do on it. The lower-end MBA may not be a huge upgrade in performance? Same 1.6GHz CPU (yes, the Core 2 Duo is very much faster than an Atom but the 2.4GHz P8600 in the high-end Macbook would probably be a more noticable upgrade to the Dell Mini 9). And the 4200RPM 120GB hard drive in the MBA will probably slow things down quite a bit. Most reviews online for the Rev.B MBA (which say its a great machine) seem to be for the higher-end 1.86GHz/128GB SSD version so I wonder how using the 120GB 4200RPM hard drive would lower the performance of the MBA, since the 128GB SSD seems to be the main reason why the higher-end MBA seems so "snappy" in performance.

    Just thinking aloud here, would be interested in some feedback from some 1.6GHz/120GB 4200RPM HDD Rev.B MBA users in terms of performance :).
  16. John Jacob macrumors 6502a

    John Jacob

    Feb 11, 2003
    Columbia, MD
    I'm also a computer science student and graduating soon. For me, the Macbook was a no-brainer. The Macbook has a faster hard drive with more capacity, more RAM capability, an optical drive, a full complement of ports and a better price. The Macbook Air has better portability and a better screen. I'm ok with the Macbook's portability and I'm a software developer, not a graphic designer, so the Macbook's screen is fine with me. Compared my previous machine (a 12" Powerbook), the Macbook's LED screen is gorgeous - bright and glossy with vivid colours and better resolution.

    You might want to consider the Air if it is not your only computer. But as a primary machine, I believe the Air has just too many compromises.
  17. ibosie macrumors 6502


    Jul 12, 2008
    Macbook Air SSD would be my first recommendation but without SSD i'd go for a Macbook despite the screen.

    Away from home I run Logic Studio on my Rev B Macbook Air 1.8Ghz SSD. I'm currently working on a project with several virtual instrument tracks each using at least 4 effects including Space Designer on each. I still have around 1GB free RAM (during real time playback) and 40% processor - quite amazing for a machine this size but having SSD really does help response times and will help to ensure a smoother operation.
  18. stoconnell macrumors 6502

    Mar 22, 2009
    Rockville (Despite REM's plea.)
    I use my macbook air as a portable email, IM, coding (vi over ssh :) ), web browsing, etc machine (and my primary machine). It works very nicely, and I really love the weight difference versus the first gen MacBook Pro that I have from work. When I was shopping for a laptop, I only considered the higher end MacBook and the MacBook Air. You can see the direction that I went. I have a feeling that I would be pretty happy with the MacBook as well, but there is just something about the Air's design (cue the sheep noises, etc). I ended up picking up the USB->ethernet as a wired connection is pretty much required at work -- I really wish they'd come up with a way to include a gigE nic in the design (a second flip down port hatch .. magic .. whatever). I know that my choice of the SSD unit (I was leery of the slow I/O) is not among your options, so I can only give my rationale for my particular choice. The 2GB limitation has not bitten me (yet) as I don't use virtualization, but it was one of the reasons I was strongly considering the MacBook to have the option to upgrade if my memory needs increased (having bought other very portable machines in the past with limited memory expansion while thinking the amount installed would be sufficient, and it became more annoying than the slow processor speed the longer into the machine's life).

    I don't think you can go too wrong with either. If you do go with the MacBook Air, there are a certain set of design choices which make it less suited (ill-suited) for certain use cases; however, if the Air fits into your usage patterns, it's quite nice.
  19. Bye Bye Baby macrumors 65816

    Bye Bye Baby

    Sep 15, 2004
    i(am in the)cloud
    Is the Air really worth it? I love the form factor, but the expense and the lack of performance is just such a buzz kill.
  20. Insulin Junkie macrumors 65816

    Insulin Junkie

    May 5, 2008
    Mainland Europe
    The air is a machine which makes me wish I used my computer like my some users do.... 1 application at a time, very moderate internet and e-mail use only. If I was that kind of user I'd get the Air in a second. Sadly I multi-task and image edit quite a lot, so I opted for the macbook.
    I'm waiting until the air has at least a 200GB HD, allows 4GB of ram and has a 2.0ghz processor at least. Maybe in a couple of years :)

    I agree what someone else said about the macbook screen. It's a shame really, it truly is of almost inferior quality. (Maybe I have high standards because my secondary machine has a HD 17 inch screen, but I like to think I'm objective enough on the matter).
  21. dubhe macrumors 65816


    May 1, 2007
    Norwich, UK
    When I run XP in VMFusion on my Rev.B HDD it runs...really...slow...
    Luckily I only need to use it here and there to access a database that is windows only, if I had to do any more than that it would really annoy me.
  22. dubhe macrumors 65816


    May 1, 2007
    Norwich, UK
    Fully concur with this post, thanks silentsage, saves me typing it! The only other option I would consider though is the MacBook Pro, it is a similar price point, has a great screen, and for the extra weight you get a larger display.
  23. mrrippey macrumors regular

    Apr 7, 2009
    Thanks for the input. I have heard if you use TinyXp and Parallels that it runs alot faster. I am actually going to put TinyXP on a USB stick, goto an Apple store and see how Parallels runs on a HDD. I do not run alot of Windows software but enough if it is a dog, then I will wait to save for a SSD.
  24. GeekGirl* macrumors 65816


    Feb 26, 2009
    Buffalo, NY

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