2010 Apple MacBook Air – good for photographers?

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Finally, an Apple 11″ laptop, the 2010 MacBook Air redesign – something I have been waiting for many years to materialize.

What I always hoped for was an 11″ version of the 13″ MacBook or MacBook Pro (MBP) without an optical drive but with user accessible hard drive and RAM expansion. Looking at the 13″ design it was very obvious that a scaled down version would be possible, but it never happened.

Until now, sort of.

I guess my desired 11″ redesign of the basic MBP form wasn’t ambitious enough. Instead Apple did their logical thing and scaled down the essence of the previous MacBook Air (MBA), making it even smaller and lighter. Is this a bad thing? In my opinion, generally not. Apple obviously has a certain target market in mind for the MBA and there has been a fair amount of discussion in various user communities about the suitable applications of the MBA in relation to the MBP line. The question that often arises and is most relevant to my uses is whether the MBA is suitable for photographers. Now that’s a very wide spectrum of users because just as there are many niches in photography, there are many different types of users.

Let’s not gloss over that the MBA is a compromise of performance to fit a specific form factor. This is a given. It only has two USB 2 ports, display port, and headphone port. Photographers immediately chime in ‘where’s the Firewire or ExpressCard option?’ And rightly so because it’s painful to transfer a 16 or 32GB memory card at around 15MB/s (with a non-UDMA reader but with a USB UDMA reader it’s around 36MB/s). The available processors are not latest generation and on paper seem unimpressive. Therefore it’s easy to dismiss the MBA, especially the 11″ model as inadequate.

Then why even bother?

For me it was indeed because of the small size. The 11″ is physically smaller, about the length and width of an 8×12″ print and much thinner than my early 2008 13″ MacBook. It’s also about half the weight, which is very, very nice. But for me the smaller size was the main selling point. Naturally, I ordered one immediately and took the risk of becoming an early adopter beta tester…

But so far so good.

I’ll spare the fanboy unboxing photos, etc. and won’t bore you with a rehash of the spec list.

I opted for the 11″ model with the 1.4GHz base processor, 128GB drive and upgraded the RAM from 2 to 4GB. (Buy this configuration from B&H or search all MBA configurations at B&H) My opinion is that the roughly 15% faster 1.6GHz processor won’t make a huge difference if the computer is already relatively slow (more on that later) but 4GB of RAM will have a more positive effect on application performance, especially because I have the tendency to run multiple apps at one time (more too on that later).

My configuration choice was based on how I predominantly use a laptop. It’s a travel device for general web work and a ‘holding tank’ for photo projects until I’m back at my main system. It certainly needs to be able to handle photo processing when required (I already did an overnight 1000 image Canon DPP RAW batch with it while on the road), but it won’t ever be my primary photo system. I will watch video on it, but I don’t yet anticipate using the MBA for video editing.

So, how does the 11″ MBA perform in the field…?

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The physical size and proportions, in my opinion, are excellent. It feels very solid for how thin it is. There is no flex, the full-size keyboard is satisfactorily rigid without being hard on the fingers. The overall feel is high quality.

The 11″ display is crisp and seems to be evenly illuminated. The screen is smaller and has a higher resolution than the previous 13″ MacBook and MBP displays, which means there is actually more horizontal real-estate for windows and apps. While text is smaller and potentially more difficult to read, the feeling is that of having a bit more space than the 13″ displays. Having used the MBA now for a couple weeks and on occasion going back to the 13″ MacBook, it feels similar to becoming accustomed to a 1600×1200 display and then going back to 1024×768. While that might be a bit extreme, it just feels that the old 13″ display isn’t as crisp and is more cramped.

The display has a wide brightness range and at maximum is very bright (compared to my 2008 non LED backlit MacBook), which is better for use in bright environments and is also useful as a source of illumination for video chats in otherwise under-illuminated environments. It is a glossy display but that doesn’t bother me all that much, unlike some who insist on a matte finish. Apparently there might be a third party service that will convert it to a matte display…

It’s an excellent lap device and under normal use when not taxing the CPUs never gets uncomfortably hot. A benefit for men may be that it won’t be a medical risk to have on one’s lap for an extended period of time (long term fertility issues). There is a fan and in normal use one never hears the fan because ambient noise levels will be higher. For example right now I can hear traffic on a highway a few km from me through the closed window, but I cannot hear any noises from the MBA sitting on my lap as I type this. But, if stressing the CPU for a long period of time, such as running multiple demanding apps, the base will get pretty warm, though I have yet to experience scorchingly hot, and one can hear the fan. The fan port appears to be primarily at the back left of the base under the display hinge (when viewing the opened display) and if that is somehow blocked, such as by clothing while on one’s lap) the underside can get pretty warm due to insufficient airflow. In such cases the fan will become even louder. I noticed when running a number of apps along with Skype on video conference for a long period of time that the fan will constantly run at a medium-high speed and will be audible, but not annoyingly so, unless the vent is blocked. During this time Skype was using around 80-90% CPU (out of 200% due to the two cores).

It has no problem smoothly playing back full 1080P video (shot on the Canon 1D Mark IV), whereas my relatively old MacBook is very choppy. Of course, new MBPs will play back 1080P smoothly as well. Playback seems to use about 35% of the CPU (out of 200%).

Applications open quickly and are very responsive, even with the base processor option. Mail, Safari, Firefox, etc. are no problem and general web use is very pleasant.

Near instant sleep and wake. It’s fast. (See my tip about optimizing sleep near the bottom)

The MagSafe power adapter is a fair amount smaller than the MacBook or MBP adapters, though because it’s only 45W it’s primarily intended for use only with the MBA.

For in the field photo editing I primarily use Photo Mechanic (PM) for captioning and culling images and Canon’s Digital Photo Professional (DPP) for colour and tonality corrections of RAW files. Here the MBA also works quite well. Opening contact sheets in both programs is quick. Applying stationery pads for IPTC changes, renaming files, moving files, etc. in PM is very responsive. I think this is an aspect where the new solid state drive (SSD) technology is a significant benefit. Saving recipe changes in DPP is also extremely fast. Where there is some slow down related to the relatively slow processor and/or integrated graphics is when viewing images. For example in PM when checking focus at 100% magnification, it will take the computer about 1-2 seconds to fully render the full resolution JPEG image imbedded in a Canon 1D Mark IV (16MP) RAW file. Sometimes when working quickly and rapidly advancing through numerous images, one can get ahead of PM and it will take a few more seconds for the computer to render an image. In this respect the MBA could be better. In DPP it’s a similar story. Previewing an image goes through three stages. The first is a very rough, highly pixelated rendering that lasts about three seconds. The second stage is quite clearly rendered but does not show fine details and lasts about 10-12 seconds until the image is finally properly rendered for viewing at 100%. Compared to a quad core i7 iMac, which does this in a couple seconds, the MBA is extremely slow. But, at least for my purposes it does a ‘good enough’ job. It’s worth noting that rendering performance improves by quitting all unneeded applications to dedicate as much CPU as possible to the main app. While I wouldn’t want to work on hundreds of images that all require unique adjustments, a handful, or even a few dozen, is definitely tolerable. But this only refers to rendering preview images. Tonality adjustments in DPP, such as picture style, sharpening, tonal curve, etc. all work very smoothly in realtime without annoying delays. Unfortunately I can’t comment on Adobe’s Lightroom as I have not made a move to it… I’m considering it, but at the moment I’m content with DPP.

What about a popular imaging app such as Adobe Lightroom? Well, it so happens I recently started using that app and also installed it on the MBA. It works very well. All general functionality is quick and responsive. I didn’t ever feel I was waiting for the computer while making image adjustments. Processing RAW files was also faster than with Canon’s DPP by about half, meaning a file from the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV or the Leica M9 (Lightroom was included with the camera) processed in about 15 seconds with the 1.4GHz processor.

It’s interesting to compare against my 2008 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook. Of course the MBA performs slowly compared to the iMac, but the ‘slow on paper’ 1.4GHz processor generally matches the MacBook, at least in terms of RAW processing in Canon’s DPP. Both convert Canon 1D Mark IV files in about 30 seconds. Again, not fast, but still tolerable. This was unexpected because the MBA’s clock speed is only about 66% of the MacBook’s. So there must be other efficiencies at play to allow the MBA to convert files as quickly as the MacBook. In terms of general web use, etc. the MBA, as noted, is quite snappy and my feeling is it is faster than my MacBook.

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USB 2 connectivity. USB 3 would have been very welcome but I guess it’s still too early as not even the new Mac Pro offerings include native USB 3. Offloading 16GB memory cards is pretty slow. I’m getting around 16MB/s with a non-UDMA USB reader. UPDATE: I received a Lexar CF/SD UDMA USB reader and am able to transfer Transcend 600x UDMA CF cards at 36MB/s to the MBA. I would imagine other UDMA cards will be similar since they’re all very fast and the bottleneck is the USB interface. My MacBook’s FireWire 400 port topped out at around 35MB/s so at least in this respect the MBA is not worse than what I was used to.

Transferring files to an external 500GB portable drive hits around 38MB/s, which is OK… But another problem with USB 2 is that the ethernet dongle only supports 10/100Base-T, meaning network data transfers top out at around 10-11MB/s. On my MacBook I was using gigabit ethernet to transfer projects at around 50-60MB/s and used this in place of portable Firewire drives. In this respect, I would have considered sacrificing one USB port for a gigabit ethernet port a satisfactory solution, though I can appreciate the benefit of two USB ports. But looking at the side of the MBA, the question would be if an ethernet port could even fit because the MBA’a bottom half is very thin, even at the thickest point. Too thin for ethernet I think.

Limited storage capacity. Don’t even consider the 64GB base configuration. It’s useless. 128GB is workable, but is not a lot when dealing with many 16MP RAW files, 1080P video, etc. Considering that my OS install uses 34GB, including mail, some photos, various documents, etc. it doesn’t leave all that much for projects. As a result I’ve slimmed down my system by not migrating a lot of non essential photo and video files from my MacBook’s 500GB drive. I’m now also more proactive about moving projects off the MBA as quickly as possible to free up space. While I generally always travel with an external portable drive with an OS clone and more storage space for longer trips, I think for the purposes of redundancy it will be necessary to travel with two such drives because of the need to maintain duplicate copies after the originals are deleted from the MBA. Therefore, it means a couple more things to carry along that offset the weight savings of the MBA, but I also always carried at least one external drive with the MacBook for back up purposes as well.

Display calibration. I was unable to get Eye-One Match, version 3.6.3, to build a proper display profile with my Eye-One puck. Each attempt was much too magenta. As a result I’ve left the display at the default Color LCD option. It’s acceptable, though it’s a cooler white balance than what I was accustomed to with the MacBook. For someone requiring accurate calibration, it will be necessary to explore a number of calibration options to find one that is ideal. At the moment I don’t have any additional suggestions.

Battery life is decent though not extraordinary. Compared to my MacBook it’s good, but I don’t believe it can realistically hit the “up to five hour” life claimed by Apple under normal use, especially photo use where there are more demands made of the CPU. My unscientific ‘real world’ finding is that general wifi web use can hit about four hours, give or take. I read an interesting point related to this called rush to idle. It’s the concept where a faster CPU will spend less time actively completing a task because it’s faster. As a result the system spends more time idle and therefore uses less power. A slower CPU chugs along at a higher average usage and in the long run wears down the battery faster. I can see an aspect of this by running the app Activity Monitor. In my general web configuration with a few apps running, and maybe up to as many as 6-10 ‘lightweight’ apps in addition to Safari, the CPU is at around 25-40% (out of 200% due to two cores) while idle. I think that’s a bit on the high side. As soon as Skype is running with video conferencing, it alone requires about 80-90% (out of 200%). In this respect the faster CPU options in the 13″ MBA are probably worthwhile both for single heavyweight apps, but also for effective multitasking. But I wanted the 11″ form factor, therefore the faster CPUs were not an option. Because I have not had personal experience with the new 13″ MBA I can’t say for certain, but have read anecdotal accounts that the faster CPUs, when stressed, will raise the underside temperature considerably and result in higher, more audible fan speeds. Of interest to anyone using Skype, I found that for approximately every one minute of video conferencing with the display at maximum brightness (to light me in a dark room), the battery life dropped one percent. If this holds true then one would get less then two hours out of the battery.

Physical security. There is no way to lockdown the MBA with a standard laptop cable lock. This is a problem when working in busy places such as press boxes or other media facilities (or even for a student at the library) where one might want to leave equipment unattended for some time in order to stakeout a workspace. I suppose the compromise is that the MBA is relatively small and can be taken along if necessary.

Lack of optical drive? Honestly, I’m not sure about this one as I hardly use the optical drive in my MacBook. I’m not sure I could get by with never having that option so I bought the external Superdrive. It works but again adds more stuff to bring along. My suggestion, if you watch a lot of DVDs while traveling, is either rip them to an external hard drive or compress them with an app such as Handbrake to save even more space. Of course, you should only do this with DVDs you own…

This is my first aluminum Apple portable and have heard the finish can mar/scratch easily. This seems to be true because the underside already has significant scratches and I have no idea how that occurred. Unlike my MacBook that was always transported unprotected, and is scratched up, the MBA is wrapped in a protective cover.

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Due to the relatively small capacity of the internal SSD, one will probably look for options to free up additional space. Obvious targets are unwanted preinstalled apps and support files. Another favourite target used to be the several GB worth of printer drivers, but as of OS X Snow Leopard, printer drivers are no longer preinstalled. The apps also don’t seem to be as offensively bulky as in the past. One fruitful area to target is the Library>Application Support folder (this is the systemwide library, as opposed to the one in each user’s home folder). The GarageBand folder is 1.27GB. There are other possible target folders in there as well, such as for iPhoto (400+MB), etc.

Over the last couple years Apple has changed the sleep function of its laptops to include what is called safe sleep mode. Safe sleep consumes the same amount of disk storage as system RAM. Therefore if the computer has 4GB RAM, a ‘sleepimage’ file will be created on the drive that is also 4GB. This is done automatically and is in a hidden folder that can’t simply be dragged to the trash. There is a way to reclaim this disk space…

First some background information:

The original sleep feature of Mac OS X works in the following manner: When entering sleep, every subsystem of the computer is shut down, except the main memory, which is still powered. This process preserves the contents of the memory, and allows the computer to wake up quickly. However, a sleeping computer still consumes a small amount of power. Should there be a total loss of power because the battery dies, is removed or the power is unplugged, all contents stored in RAM will be lost.

Apple introduced what is called safe sleep in Mac OS X 10.4.3 for the Powerbook line of laptops. This feature is a variation of the original sleep behavior and is now the default for the MacBook line. The main memory is still powered during sleep to facilitate a quick wake, but the contents of the memory are also saved to the disk. The saved file will only be used if the laptop runs out of battery power while sleeping in order to restore the original state of the computer.

When the computer goes into sleeping mode, its behavior depends on a power management variable called hibernate mode. The hibernate mode can be set to different values:

• 0 (quick): Original sleep behavior for Apple computers. RAM is still powered on while sleeping. Wake up is fast. Safe sleep is disabled.
• 1 (deep): Hibernation behavior. System is totally shut down while sleeping. RAM contents are dumped to disk. Wake up is slow.
• 3 (safe): Default behavior on MacBook line of computers. RAM is still powered on while sleeping. Wake up is fast. Safe sleep is enabled, so RAM contents are also dumped to disk before going to sleep.
• 5 (deep): Same as mode 1 for systems with encrypted virtual memory.
• 7 (safe): Same as mode 3 for systems with encrypted virtual memory.

Only a single mode can be activated at a time. In order to check which hibernate mode is currently active, the following command can be used in the Terminal application (found in the Utilities folder):

pmset -g | grep hibernatemode

Users with administrator privileges can choose the hibernate mode. In order to do so, the following command can be used:

sudo pmset -a hibernatemode X

with ‘X’ replaced by the value of the hibernate mode to set. If setting to mode 0 it will appear like this:

sudo pmset -a hibernatemode 0

Press Return, and youʼll be asked for your password. Provide it, and your sleep mode has been changed. If you ever wish to go back to your previous setting, just repeat the above command, but replace 0 with 3 (for the default setting).

The first step to clear the sleepimage file is to change the hibernate mode from 3 to 0 using the Terminal command line above. Once that has been done, the file needs to be deleted using the following Terminal command line:

sudo rm /var/vm/sleepimage

(it must be stated that it’s critical that the command line be copied exactly (you can copy and paste into Terminal) to avoid any ‘unpleasant’ deletions – be careful and do this at your own risk – I take no responsibility for any accidents)


I’m very pleased with the 11″ MBA so far. It’s a compromise device and has to be understood as such. It will do photo work. In this respect it won’t be the fastest computer, but it’s very snappy for everyday web use and will get the job done in a very compact, lightweight form factor. It’s definitely not a netbook with netbook compromises.

For some, especially those who need one portable to do everything as their primary machine, sheer performance will be a priority and the MBA will not be a good match, at least not yet. For those of us who desire form with good function as priority over all out performance, the MBA seems to find a reasonable balance. For me, the 11″ model is the answer because it’s physically smaller than the 13″ and can be packed into carrying options previously not possible with the 13″ design, such as a small sling bag or satchel. For others the 13″ model will offer more screen real-estate, faster CPU options and more storage to better match the photo editing performance of the current 13″ MBP. In this respect the 13″ MBA, other than price and fewer connectivity options, is a close match.

This being an Apple product there is naturally the question of price for performance compared to other computer brands. As usual, on paper the MBA carries a premium price yet appears to be outclassed by others. In some aspects it is, if sheer performance is the only factor. Again, it depends very much on what one’s priorities are. Some reviews have stated that the MBA is unsuitable for photo work. This is too broad a statement. It’s relative to the kind of photo work and also the patience of the user, offset by the physical conveniences of the design. The MBA can do pretty much anything – given enough time. But it’s not as bad as this sounds for average photo related work. As I’ve found for RAW conversions in Canon’s DPP, the 11″ MBA can match an older 2.2GHz MacBook.

Looking ahead it’s quite conceivable that the MBA design will become the norm for Apple laptops over the next few years as CPUs become physically smaller and use less power, as SSDs become standard fare and USB 3 is commonplace. As a main system workhorse the 2010 MBA is unfortunately premature, held back by current component compromises. But as a complementary system to a powerful desktop its compact form factor and reasonable performance offer a much friendlier travel experience.

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About the top photo:

Camera – Canon EOS-1D Mark IV (B&H)
Lens – Canon EF50mm f/1.2L (B&H)
Filter – B+W #106 neutral density (1.8 – six stops) (B&H)

The idea was to show off the thin form of the MBA and have it emerge from a blurry background. This was achieved by setting the lens to f/1.2 and working at near the minimum focusing distance. Light was of the ‘light painting’ style from a small Mini Maglite (B&H) flashlight. The camera was set to Bulb mode and f/1.2 at ISO 100. The six stop B+W filter was needed because the flashlight was too bright even at exposures of only a few seconds. By being able to extend the exposure time it was possible to light the MBA and the background at a more manageable and repeatable pace. I tried a variety of combinations at various distances and angles to the MBA and background and settled on this image.

If you’ve found the information on this page helpful and are considering purchasing any photographic equipment, clicking through using the links to B&H Photo Video in the article, using the search box below or the Amazon links would be greatly appreciated!

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Search all MacBook Air configurations at B&H

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